Manifattura Tabacchi a Bologna in print

Honored to be a part of this publication–faculty and graduate students at the Università di Bologna have just published the first critical collection of essays on Nervi’s 1949/1957 Tobacco warehouse there (Brava, Micaela and Annalisa!). The overall project to document and bring attention to the Manufatura was the basis for my month-long fellowship there in 2017 and an extraordinary (and, to be honest, only semi-legal) day exploring what is fast becoming another ruin in Nervi’s built catalogue.

The collection features essays by some of Italy’s leading scholars in architectural and construction history on the story of the factory and its detailed design and development. My own contribution is a minor–but I think important–note on how the cost and operation of scaffolding and formwork influenced Nervi’s designs here and elsewhere. In this case, a “building machine” (noun/verb confusion intentional) enabled him to set up a multi-story assembly line that produced the gracefully detailed two-way slabs that structure the warehouse’s main floors. There are (I think, anyway) links to a long Italian tradition of taking scaffolding and centering seriously here. Vasari describes Brunelleschi’s achievement in the Florentine Duomo as one of construction as much as structure, and he cites specifically the clever self-centering and self-scaffolding qualities of the process.

Nervi’s achievement (here, anyway) is far more modest, but still worth noting; like so much of his work, his fluency in the languages of structure and construction enabled him to find opportunities for architectural expression and economy that others never noticed. Ferrocemento formwork allowed him to form the gently curving corners of what would otherwise be a banal waffle slab, offering a hint of the shear performance of the joists to those with some static literacy, and simply a visually satisfying detail to anyone else. That these details were seen by only a few workers (and tons of tobacco) in their lifetime has, to me, a truly poetic quality.

Hoping that this book, like similar projects to gain attention for the Stadio Flaminio in Rome and the Torino Esposizione, both supported by the Getty “Keeping it Modern” program, will help make the case for a much-needed rehabilitation and re-use program…

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