I’ve been surrounded by colleagues making beautiful things these last few weeks, so I’ve taken a break from the Italian-English dictionary and concentrated on pulling together some pilot illustrations for the Nervi project. Drawing has always been a good chance to learn the buildings I’m studying, and there’s a crying need for new explanatory diagrams and images of Nervi’s work; while there are fantastic contemporary accounts that are well-illustrated, we’ve got much better tools now to graphically explain how they work and how they were put together. So one of the goals–much like the Chicago project–is to update the canon of images with some ultra-clear visuals to supplement the text.
Here’s the problem, though. Nervi’s work is fairly easy to understand, but it’s a bear to actually draw. The Palazetto dello Sport (section up top, there) was, as I’ve argued, the result of a country-simple building process–make eight versions of the same basic diamond-shaped pan, reproduce these 108 times each, lay them out on a spherical surface, and connect them with a topping slab and you’re pretty much there. That process is simple, but the resulting form is not, and I think this touches on just how different Nervi’s process was from most of his contemporaries.
The archives have tons of what I’d call component drawings–working out the sizes and configurations of the actual pans, for instance, that went into the Palazetto‘s ceiling. There are also a lot of laying-out drawings, showing the overall geometry of his roofs, almost always in plan, and scaffolding drawings, usually in section. All of these were used to work out the elements, and the construction process. There aren’t all that many architectural drawings, showing what the finished structure will look like, and this is evidence of what you might call an empirical, bottoms-up design method. In other words, Nervi usually approached these projects as problem-solving exercises–how do we span a basketball court and seating, for instance, or how do we get a bridge from A to B given supports at C and D. That’s very different from the more traditional, top-down methodology of, say, the Beaux-Arts, which was interested in the construction details and problem solving only after the architecture–spaces, forms, proportions, etc.–had been decided upon in an esquisse. Nervi’s generative concepts emerged as much from construction as they did from abstract ideas about space and form, and the drawings in his archives show this. The sections and perspectives showing what it would be like to be in the spaces themselves usually came dead last, whenever a client needed to be convinced or a press release needed a compelling image. That’s not to say that Nervi didn’t care about the resulting architectural effects, just that the overall guiding concept often emerged from the constructive processes involved. And he spent plenty of time and energy massaging these processes, their components, and their patterns to tell a better visual story–his version of ornament.
I’ve found that the only real way to get these traditional architectural drawings–sections, reflected ceiling plans, isometrics–done is to base them on cuts of actual digital models. That means building components and assembling them on the laptop in an process analogous to the construction itself, and then taking slices of the finished object to start the 2-d work. Again not a bad way to learn the building and the way it came to be.
The architects we use to teach drawing–Corbusier, Palladio, Wright, and (yes) Kahn–all began with drawing; “the plan is the generator.” Details, methods, ornament were then all subsequent and subservient to this beginning. For Nervi, the component was the generator, and the empirical, building-up process he pursued is, I think, what has made his buildings difficult to draw and such a healthy challenge to the compositional tradition.