A minor but entertaining find today in the archives. Nervi was hired in 1963 as a local consultant for Sir Basil Spence’s British Embassy, near the Porta Pia in Rome. The design engineer whom Nervi was to support? Ove Arup, leading a newly-reformed office and busy with the Sydney Opera House, among other projects. That year, Arup finished a small, structurally expressive footbridge in Durham, and Nervi wrote in the spring of 1964 to express his admiration. That personal note isn’t in the archives, but Arup’s reply is:
“My Dear Nervi,
“It gave me great pleasure to receive your kind and generaous note about the Durham Bridge, and I thank you for it.
“I am almost ashamed, when I consider that I have never written to congratulate you on your much greater achievements–my excuse must be that these are by now taken for granted, and that I could ill aford the time for such heavy correspondence!”
The two were roughly contemporaries, though Arup’s turn as a star engineer was just beginning, and Nervi’s was in full swing. Nervi was also impressed by Spence, writing after a visit to Coventry that the 1962 Cathedral there was “…the only beautiful Church of modern times I have ever seen.” Given that St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, designed by Marcel Breuer with Nervi as engineer, had just been completed in 1961, that was singular praise indeed.
The Embassy project, delayed several times due to budget cuts in London, was finally completed in 1971. Nervi’s role was entirely advisory, lending his opinion on contractors and suppliers and (perhaps most critically) on Italian tax code. But he also weighed in on several technical matters, including seismic codes and locally available concrete. Just before Nervi’s note on the bridge, Arup’s trusted associate Ted Happold wrote to Nervi to introduce a young engineer who was to visit Rome to gather infomration on Italian steel and aggregates. That young engineer? Robert Silman, who after a year at Arups in London went to work for Amman and Whitney in New York and then, in 1966, to open his own practice, now one of New York’s blue chip preservation engineering firms. Silman has also taught structures to architects at City College, Yale, and Columbia for years, and the list of his illustrious alumni includes your humble narrator.
Only connect, as they say.