Nervi’s Stadio Franchi in Florence—preservation emergency and petition

Please consider signing this petition to the Mayor and City of Florence supporting preservation of Pier Luigi Nervi’s Stadio Artemio Franchi.

While there is good news on the Nervi preservation front with the scheduled public announcement of a preservation plan for the 1960 Olympics’ Stadio Flaminio in Rome scheduled for Tuesday, 27 October, there is another battle to save an equally important example of his athletics work brewing in Florence.

The Torre Maratona and the 1932 East Grandstand

In 2017, while doing some research for an introductory essay to the Flaminio plan, I had a tour of Nervi’s Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence, home of the city’s famed football club, Fiorentina.  I was there to photograph details of the 1931/32 structure that had been a key experimental ground for Nervi and his two constructing collaborators—Nervi changed partners between the projects for the club’s east and west stands, and in the process began what I think of as the most important collaboration of his career, working with Giovanni Bartoli to develop the stadium’s famed helical staircases.  This was the first of Nervi’s most imaginative, most integrative work, combining structural improvisation with a deep understanding of how things were to be built—with economy and efficiency—on site.

During my visit, my guide, a Fiorentina executive, excitedly showed me a model for a brand new stadium in the city’s suburbs, part of a planned commercial development that would give the club all of the requisite luxury boxes, stadium-related retail, and paid parking that today’s multi-million-dollar sports organizations see as vital to their operations.  What, I asked, concerned, would happen to the Nervi structure that I was there to document once the team abandoned the central-city grounds it had occupied since for nearly 90 years?  There was some uncomfortable shuffling and no clear answer, but earlier this year that plan—like so much else in 2020—fell through and the club focused on renovating and expanding Stadio Franchi.

The famed cantilevers of the 1931 West Grandstand have been concealed under a metal roof, but remain extant and capable of full restoration


While that would seem to be good news, there’s evidence that their plans for the revitalization are not well-intended in preservation terms.  After the city of Florence approved the project in early August, two political parties quickly pushed through so-called “Stadium Unblocking” legislation that would exempt sports facilities from the country’s sturdy conservation and heritage laws.  According to the trade journal The Stadium Business:

Three key amendments are said to have been made, chiefly the allowance to redevelop a stadium with a view to its “best usability”, even in the face of perceived architectural or cultural value.

Historic venues are now set to be permitted to adapt to international standards, such as bringing stands closer to the pitch. Meanwhile, while the “symbolic value” of a stadium will still be recognised, this will take a back seat to the “need to guarantee the functionality of the stadium” and the “economic-financial sustainability of the stadium”

Fiorentina has no official connection to the legislation, but Matteo Renzi, former Italian Prime Minister and former mayor of Florence, has lent his vocal support to the proposed amendments and from the timing it’s clear that the changes are intended to directly impact the team’s plans for Nervi’s stadium

The stripped-classical “wrapper” around Nervi’s engineering shows the tensions between his expressive intent and the Fascist government’s official style

This is a worrying development, for three reasons:

First, Stadio Franchi is more than a collection of valuable ‘symbols’—its importance to Italian architecture and engineering, to the history of football in the country, and to Italian history in general lies exactly in its integration of engineering and contracting ingenuity and the architectural ‘wrappers’ that surround it.  In 1931, Fiorentina was owned by Luigi Ridolfi Vay da Verrazzano, a WWI hero and outspoken supporter of Mussolini and Fascism; his new stadium was located on the city’s military grounds and originally named for Giovanni Berta, a Fascist martyr.  Nervi’s original, west grandstand was covered in a façade designed in the stripped classicism that was de rigueur for the day—an architectural show of strength that formalized Nervi and Nebbiosi’s more graceful, statically-derived concrete work within.  While the stand’s soaring roof was praised by Pietro Maria Bardi in neo-futurist terms that suggested it, too, could convey great power and strength, the contrast between the government-approved “typhoid classicism” and Nervi’s soaring roof stands today as a wordless commentary on the inherent contrast between the two schools of architectural thought.  The second grandstand, with its helical stairs and its tall Torre Maratona, shows that Nervi’s expressive style—nascent here with the latitude allowed him by a truly collaborative partner in Bertoli—could negotiate between the dictates of the Fascist regime and the structural ‘truths’ that he saw as fundamental to any large-scale structures.  Italy has, more than any other European country, taken pains to preserve and to frame the architecture of its darkest moments—Fascist monuments still form important elements of the Roman fabric and their continued vitality and provocation is a key part of that city’s rich urban experience.  Nowhere in Florence are the difficult contrasts of the 1930s so evident as here.  The stadium is also, of course, a vital piece of the Nervi oeuvre, the first structure to gain him truly international acclaim and the blueprint for his later stadium work at the Flaminio, Novara, Taormina, and for unbuilt projects elsewhere, including Rome and suburban London.

Second, the leverage that the proposed legislation gives team owners to demolish historic stadia anywhere in Italy sets a terrible precedent.  Sports have provided vital, important moments in culture throughout Europe and worldwide, and while Olympic venues have seen much of the best-known historic overlap between athletics and society at large, the day-to-day presence of these venues in cities offers important evidence of their weaving into everyday life.  In America, the wholesale erasure of urban ballparks from the 1960s through the 1990s has left us with only one truly integral example of how important the type was to daily life.  Fenway Park in Boston (I’m biased, to be sure) is the sole surviving example of this now that Chicago’s Wrigley Field has been wrecked by a tissue of suburban development that has sterilized and commodified its formerly gritty, neighborhood scale atmosphere.  The regret that has caused cities that have, over the last thirty years, desperately built imitation ‘old-style’ ballparks in an effort to rebuild that vital link is palpable, but the difficulties in re-establishing the link between urban fabric and ballparks that carry only ‘symbolic value’ can be seen by the fact that two of these retreads from the 1990s, in Atlanta and Texas, have themselves already been demolished and replaced.  Stadio Franchi has hosted World Cup games, international football matches, and Six Nations rugby, in addition to numerous concerts (my first visit there was nixed because of a Madonna show in 2012).  But it’s also held nearly 50,000 spectators for countless weekly matches—nearly four generations of fans have seen the team play in more or less the same surroundings.

Finally, the assumption that financially well-off clubs deserve breaks like this is one further step in the commercialization of sport and the stripping of these experiences from everyday fans.  There’s no doubt that any plans to ‘revitalize’ the Franchi will include luxury boxes and high-end retail and will be unlikely to prioritize the cheap seats which the average Florentine could afford.  Redevelopments that are claimed for the “economic-financial sustainability of the stadium” have a funny way of taking great public monuments and privatizing them even further.  American cities can show countless examples of this—tax breaks for new stadiums that end up having no effect on the local economy but that give owners the excuse to raise prices beyond the realm of the average fan.

Interestingly, in 1950 Nervi and his sons produced a plan to expand the Florence stadium with a second deck over the east stands, complete with dramatic, forked cantilever structures that would have sheltered the famous helical staircases and competed with the remnant Torre Maratona.  While the extension proposal only exists in a handful of sketches, it’s clear that the urgent need was for more seats—not luxury boxes or the department-store like retail arcades that disguise much modern stadium construction.  To some, that will suggest the ultimate obsolescence of a classic sports facility, but given the longing many of us have for the atmosphere and aura of a truly classic ballpark, it may also point the way toward maintaining a unique and (in the reductionist parlance of the day), ‘brand-able’ experience for Fiorentina.

1950 proposal for additional tier of seats on the West Grandstand. From Rogers, The Works of Pier Luigi Nervi (New York: Praeger, 1957).

While the legislation is a done deal, allowing teams to demolish any stadium in Italy if it suits their financial ambitions—whether the structure is listed or not—there is a campaign, led by the Pier Luigi Nervi Project Association, to petition the EU to block the Italian legislation on the grounds that it violates their conservation and monuments directives.  More to come on that.

In the meantime, pressure on the city of Florence seems the most likely route to influence the stadium’s preservation. After speaking with the Nervi Project Association, I’ve started a Change.org international petition addressed to Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence, here. If you’re as concerned about the effects of the Sbloccastadi legislation’s effect on Nervi’s historic structures there and want to make your voice heard, please consider adding your name to it.

The main interior staircase, by Nervi, mediating the structural expression of the grandstands with the exterior’s aesthetics.

spandrel walls and the 1950 Chicago code

I’ve been sitting on this one for just a bit, but having shown off the latest in archival crate-digging to South Dakota State students earlier this week, I think I can roll this out now. (Shout-out to Jessica Garcia-Fritz and Federico Garcia-Lammers, who invited me to speak to their class. They’ve been studying the role of less-celebrated documents–specifications in particular–in the design and construction process–a brilliant piece of pedagogy and a research agenda that’s already paid dividends in terms of understanding how firms like the Guastavino Family actually did business…)

Two years ago I gave a short paper on the difficult passage of Chicago’s 1950 building code, one of the first ‘performance codes’ in the country. It replaced a traditional ‘prescriptive’ code that specified exactly what materials and configuration had to be deployed to meet various fireproofing requirements–so, instead of simply requiring a ‘one-hour’ wall, which modern codes do today, older codes would tell architects and builders to provide, say, a four-inch thick plaster-on-lath wall, or a single-wyth brick wall, etc., etc. Developers of single-family homes and skyscrapers both lobbied for the new approach, since the older code philosophy made it difficult to keep up with innovation–any new material had to pass not only technical advisors, but the entire city council, and many in Chicago (and Washington, which after WWII was working feverishly to address a growing crisis in housing) worked hard to pass more progressive codes that put the burden of approval on independent labs and manufacturers, rather than on political bodies like city councils.

The story of gypsum drywall in all this has been the most illustrative–and I’m happy to say that story (which involves aldermanic corruption and a fistfight on the floor of Chicago’s City Council) will be presented at an upcoming Construction History Congress (fingers crossed). But another aspect of the code change sheds important light on the development of the glass curtain wall in the city, and is of interest for the timing of its implementation–and the construction of one of Chicago’s most iconic high-rises.

Above are excerpts from the 1941 edition of the Chicago Building Code–the final major publication before the change that was approved in 1950. These passages refer to commercial buildings in the central business district, and you can see that they’re textbook ‘prescriptive’ provisions–you have to build the frame out of metal, concrete, or masonry, for instance, and you have a pretty limited palette of materials and configurations that you’re allowed to use where certain fire resistances are required. It’s that last passage, though, that I’m interested in–the requirement for a ‘spandrel wall’ of two-hour fire-resistive construction extending for three feet or more from window to window in any ‘non-combustible’ wall. Two hours is a serious level of fire resistance, met only with brick or concrete. The purpose was to prevent fire from spreading, floor-to-floor, through windows, a legitimate concern but one that was proving less and less valid as a growing body of knowledge about fire spread and suppression led to better and better sprinkler and alarm systems and exiting strategies.

Field Building, Chicago. Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, 1934.

If you were designing a solid-skinned curtain wall like, say, the Palmolive (1929) or Field Building (1934), this provision made perfect sense–above each floor, you’d simply build a short brick wall that matched the sill height, which you were probably going to do anyway since the formula for building skins at the time was, typically, solid panels with intermittent windows–the code, like many codes, simply followed general practice.

Lever House, NYC. Gordon Bunshaft/SOM, 1951. Digital reconstruction by Saranya Panchaseelan, Paolo Orlando, Shawn Barron, and Nate McKewon

This provision was one that an ace team of grad students and I noticed when we put together the “Deep Plan, Thin Skin” article that appeared in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians a couple of years ago–you can see it most clearly, perhaps, in the ‘fictitious’ glass skin of Lever House. Here, dark green spandrels cover a three-foot upstand and a three-foot downstand spandrel wall of brick, which met a similar code requirement in New York’s prescriptive code at the time.

Chicago’s new code, passed in late 1949 and taking effect on Jan. 1, 1950, was authored by a committee led by John Merrill, of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill fame, and while most of his efforts went toward liberalizing the code for homebuilding (including the contentious provision for drywall that set off the city’s Plasterers’ union…), the new code did include a much more relaxed approach to exterior walls, referring designers to charts with requirements that now allowed exterior, non-bearing walls to be of just one-hour fire resistance if they faced a ‘street or public way’:

Chicago Building Code, 1951 Revision

Crucially, elsewhere in the provisions, one-hour construction could be relaxed further through the provision of windows of unlimited size–again, if the wall faced a public way or street. Quietly, Merrill’s committee had not only eliminated the requirement for the spandrel wall, it had made the floor-to-ceiling glass curtain wall entirely legal as well.

Reporting on the floor-to-ceiling glass of Mies’ largely unheralded 2933 Sheridan Road block, the Tribune noted that it was the “second” tall building to take advantage of this provision, the first being, of course, Mies’ 860-880 Lake Shore Drive. I’ve made that point before, but with some new archival information I think I can suggest that Mies and his office knew about the code provisions (as would most architects in the city at the time).

Building Permit Record Card, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago. UIC Libraries/Microfilm.

The code went into effect on Jan. 1, 1950. Above is the building permit card for 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, first filed on Jan. 20, 1950. In other words, nineteen days after the code took effect. That first filing was for a basement permit only–probably about right for three weeks of engineering and drafting. The permit for the actual superstructure came in August–again, matching an eight-month design and documentation period. In other words, once the code was passed and took effect, Mies’ office seems to have rushed out as succinct and compact a set of drawings as they could to get a permit and get work on the site started, and then settling in to design the remainder of the building.

Promontory Apartments (MvdR, 1949) and 860-880 Lake Shore Drive (MvdR, 1952)

The difference this made architecturally was profound, of course. 860-880 was only built three years after Promontory, and it was the change from spandrel to glass wall that made the biggest difference in terms of appearance. Historians often talk about the switch from concrete to steel in the structure, but in reality 860-880 has so much concrete poured around the frame for fireproofing that this made (I think) far less of a difference than the elimination of that upstand brick wall.

Construction Views, Promontory Apts. (L) and 860-880 Lake Shore Drive (R). Architectural Forum.

But to developers–Herbert Greenwald in the case of the Mies buildings, but others throughout Chicago–would have been just as interested in the different construction methods the new code allowed. “Dry” aluminum installation, of factory-assembled units replaced the time- and labor-intensive “wet” brickwork, saving time, weight, man-hours (union man-hours, not to put too fine a point on it) and cleanup.

Jessica and Federico’s class makes the point that hidden documents like specifications or building codes offer all sorts of alternative histories that connect architecture and building to rich networks of industrial, economic, and labor history, among others. There’s lots more to dig into in both the code story and the building permit archives (note, for example, that the permit was applied for by PACE Architects, not Mies…), but this tidbit seems worth getting out there as a small, index-card sized document that reveals far more than its modest size might suggest…

860-880 Lake Shore Drive. Construction Image. Chicago History Museum. Image forms part of the Hedrich Blessing Collection, 1991.0505. All Rights Reserved. Scan from 8×10 BW negative