Putting the finishing touches on a paper that will help celebrate the launch of Aesthetics and Technology in Building: The Twenty-First Century Edition later this summer. Part of our job is to show how Nervi’s work was embedded in the culture of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular that his buildings were part of the global fascination with the design products of the “Italian Miracle,” the surging economy that was based in part on the country’s reputation for artisanal production, translated into industrial scale. Think Pininfarina car design or Olivetti’s typewriters.
Nervi’s work was published widely–Time and the New Yorker both ran laudatory profile pieces around the 1960 Olympics, when his arenas served as the backdrop for the worldwide broadcast of the Games. But that was only one medium. Nervi’s buildings also served as backdrops for scenes in some of Italy’s best-known films of the decades, too. The Palazzo dello Sport, for instance, was practically a character in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1962), where it served as an elegant backdrop for Monica Vitti’s foray into suburban alienation (and the hunt for a lost black poodle).
Antonioni also used Nervi and Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower in Milan in a similar way–as a backdrop establishing the scene for another emotionally taut drama in La Notte. Pirelli is in the very first shot (above), and the opening credits roll while the camera descends in its window-washing machine, reflecting the rest of Milan in its glassy curtain wall. The contrast with the 19th century fabric around it is obvious and intentional–Antonioni’s films always dealt with the cultural and social changes brought by the ‘Miracle,’ and Nervi’s sleek buildings are easy to interpret as architectural metaphors.
You’d think that the greatest of these films–Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) would have been all over Nervi. Despite multiple viewings and a constant effort, though, I’ve never noticed even a bit role for him. The opening scene, with a prefabricated sculpture of Jesus being carried by helicopter over the ancient monuments and new housing blocks of Rome, would have been perfect–the Palazzo from above would have been a great target. But no such luck.
Fellini did use Nervi as a backdrop in an earlier film, though. The Kursaal Ostia pavilion is the backdrop for the opening scene of I Vitelloni, a 1953 film about a group of ragazzi bored with their lives in suburban Ostia, but seemingly incapable of moving on. The long eyebrow of the pavilion is mostly just eye candy in this one, I think, but pretty good eye candy at that. And it would have been brand new–a rare bit of urbane design in a seaside resort town known more for its beach culture than its architectural sophistication.
And, lest anyone think that Nervi’s celebrity was confined to film, here’s another find–a fashion spread from Vogue in April, 1964, set among the piers and curtain wall of the Palazzo dello Sport. Nervi’s tastes ran more to conservative suits than to anything that would show up in Vogue, but there’s definitely something to the elegant proportions of his forms that made this spread work…