cathedrals of a sort + poetics

(Warning: somewhat hifalutin’.)

Subtly different vibe this week. In London for a pair of lectures, one organized by the good folks at Foster + Partners, my old stomping grounds, and the other the James Sutherland Lecture to the Institution of Structural Engineers, the latter an event that honors a truly great historian of engineering with an annual talk on an historic subject.

Both talks were on the Nervi book, with slightly varying takes. Nervi was, of course a name that floated around the studios at Foster’s often, and the links between fabrication, structural performance, and assembly certainly live on in that firm’s work. There’s a natural interest in the constraints faced by him as a builder, and also in the geometries that proved to be a link between the structural forms his engineering demanded and the largely unskilled labor force that his contracting firm had at its disposal. Break the problem down into a long series of repetitive, manageable tasks, and you can build for less than your competitors.

In my talk to the ISE, I expanded on this a bit. Nervi was always described as a “poet in concrete,” and I’ve gotten a fair bit of mileage out of showing how, far from the airy niceties of poetry, Nervi’s career was based in the muddy realities of job sites and fabrication yards. But the results are, of course, uncannily ‘poetic,’ and being mildly interested in such things I tried to show that, rather than that description making us think differently about Nervi, it might make us think differently about poetry. We often use the term as a shorthand for anything that strikes us emotionally, but even a short delve into debates over what poetry really is takes you to discussions about form, meter, rhythm, and rules. Common definitions talk about emotional content being distilled into rigorously developed forms–sonnets, e.g.–that require the poet not only to express an emotion or sensibility, but to do so within an intentionally limiting set of constraints.

Well, now.

Nervi’s best work does exactly that. His structural shapes, like those of many of his contemporaries, are breathtaking leaps, but they’re inevitably achieved within a tight set of restrictions–economic ones, of course, but also material, labor, schedule, etc.–that refined those shapes into patterns and rhythms that relate to a very different set of rules than the pure structural ones with which he’s most commonly associated. Constraint creates design, as the Eames’ said. It’s to be embraced, not bemoaned. Working this up into a larger paper for the ISE’s Journal, but this seems to me what separates Nervi’s shells from other contemporaries–their realization is filtered through the limited means Nervi had, and this dialogue between structural ambition and the difficult circumstances of the job site is imprinted in the roof forms themselves–patterns that Nervi recognized as visually important and worth celebrating.

What poet, after all, complains about the number of syllables in a haiku?

As you can see, I managed to get out for a day or two as well. London cooperated with a gorgeous Sunday, and I took the opportunity to see Richard Turner’s Palm House at Kew, a wrought-iron and glass cathedral that is a foundational text of sorts. Cluttered up with plants, of course, but still compelling almost 170 years after it was built. The trick of a single radius throughout is another example of how functional ambitions–structural and solar, in this case–get filtered through the constraints of, in this case, bending metal to consistent shapes. Build one jig and use it to bend every single framing member and every piece of glass in the entire structure, and you’ve saved a considerable amount on fabrication–in addition to which you’ve broken down the process of making the building into repetitive, relatively simple tasks that remove the expensive, skilled labor (building the jig) from the bulk of the work (heating up the iron members and bending them around said jig). The result, if not wholly poetic, is nevertheless compelling, especially on a sunny February afternoon.

As is this one, which is another story about structure and fabrication altogether:

Thanks to all, esp. ace ISU alum Kristi, for the invites and logistical help.