fiu bridge collapse–what happened? [Updated]

March 16, 2018 § 17 Comments

collapse getty

Getty Images

One consequence of having taught structures for years using failures as examples is that whenever something big comes down my twitter feed and email erupt.  Yesterday’s news that a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University collapsed brought a bunch of links and questions, so with the usual caveats (I don’t know anything about its design or construction process, not a licensed engineer, investigations will need to be done thoroughly, etc.), here are some thoughts…


Florida International University

Only a few media outlets reported at first that the bridge was, in fact, under construction when it collapsed–the fatalities appear to have been people in cars underneath it, and workers on it.  What was there was only part of a cable-stayed bridge, and that’s the first clue.  The picture above is from an FIU press release when the design was first announced, and you can see that–when finished–the structure would be a fairly traditional cable-stayed one, with a compression mast and tension cables connected to raking diagonals below.  These have been popular since WWII, when cable-stayed designs were used to quickly replace bridges in central Europe that had been destroyed by bombing raids–Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway bridge and the Millau Viaduct in France are two archetypal cable-stayed designs.

These work by translating the load of the bridge deck into diagonal tension members.  This has a couple of consequences.  First, the ‘pull’ required in each of these cables isn’t just vertical–it’s also horizontal, meaning that the bridge deck has to be designed to withstand huge compression loads along its length.  Second, unlike suspension bridges, there’s no good way to build a cable-stayed span piecemeal.  Large sections of the deck have to be brought in at once so that each of the cables has something to pull back against.

construction fiu

Florida International University

And that is exactly what occurred over the weekend, when one whole span of the FIU bridge was brought to the site in one piece and raised into place.  Seeing this, a couple of things make sense.  First, the shape of the deck itself was probably designed for two conditions: one when the cables were all in place and working with the tower and the deck, and second, when the deck was in place before the tower and cables could be erected to hold it up.  That explains the cross section of the bridge, which includes a heavy concrete roof.  This, I suspect, was designed to work as one of two flanges in a rough I-beam shape.  The floor of the bridge deck would have worked as the other flange, and the raking diagonals that would eventually have continued the lines of the cables were supplemented by more vertical members to create a truss-like web.  In other words, the deck appears to have been designed as a giant beam that could self-support until the tower and cables were in place.

This is also a common feature of cable-stayed design–decks that can support themselves before cables are connected.  Why put in the cables at all?  The decks can be designed to just barely hold themselves up, but often with enormous deflections that would make the bridge unserviceable, and margins of safety that are less than would be required for a fully occupied bridge.


Millau is a great example of this–in this famous shot you can see the deck sagging before the cables were tightened.  They’re self-supporting, but you wouldn’t want to drive on such a bridge…yet.

There are a couple of clues in the images above that suggest possible reasons for the FIU collapse.  First, you can see that the collapse seems to have happened at joints in the web truss–in other words, the two end triangles seem to be intact, albeit rotated, while the other panels of the truss are smashed.  This is evidence for a failure in bending.  In some recent collapses, we’ve seen evidence that the cross section twisted or bent in ways that reduced the bridge’s section modulus (the 2004 I-70 collapse in Colorado is the paradigm of this).  But here it looks like the top flange fell directly on center and didn’t ‘twist’ out of the way.  Failure in bending, as SCI-TECH alums will recall, results when one of the flanges actually fails–either in tension along the bottom edge or in compression along the top edge.

If you look at the image of the deck being placed, you can see that the end of the bottom ‘flange’ has a line of small gray cylinders sticking out of it.  These are ducts for post-tensioning cables, ‘super-reinforcing’ that, once tightened, would take the huge tensile force in a bridge deck acting, temporarily, as a beam across its span.  These may have been tightened before the deck was put in place, or the bridge may have been waiting for the tower and backspan to be installed, so that cables could be run through the entire length of the bridge and tightened at once, holding all of the pieces together.  If that’s the case, then the deck would have been particularly vulnerable to failure along its bottom, tensile flange.  Another possibility is that the top flange could have failed in compression.  From the images of the collapse, there appears to have been buckling there, but it’s hard to tell whether this occurred before or after the deck impacted the ground.

Collapses like this are always shocking, but invariably contain some lessons within them.  Very often they highlight not only structural principles, but also problems of actually constructing such large spans, and this may well be an important example of how the two phases of bridge structures–under construction and in service–present very different static issues.

Update, 17 Mar 2018:  Two updates in this morning’s news:  1) There are reports that an engineer saw cracks in the span soon after it was put into place.  Depending on where these cracks were (haven’t been able to find more details), this would be consistent with greater-than-anticipated deflection in the lower (tensile) deck.  2) More interesting are reports that the deck was being ‘stress-tested’ when the collapse occurred, and that ‘cables were being tightened.’  Here, I think there’s some confusion–much of what I’ve read assumes that the ‘cables’ mentioned were the stays attached to the tower, but it’s clear that the tower hadn’t been erected yet.  More likely they were the post-tensioning cables mentioned above.  At least one report mentions a loud ‘pop’ a few minutes prior to the collapse, which would be consistent with a cable (or its anchorage) breaking while being tensioned.


option studio–dsm courthouse+

January 27, 2018 § Leave a comment


Des Moines Register

This semester’s studio is sticking close to home–we have 20 architects, landscape architects, and interior designers taking on one of the bigger urban and architectural questions facing Des Moines today.

Ordinarily, demolishing a 60-year old landmark of postwar modernism would be controversial enough–the city tore down the Wetherell and Harrison designed structure in October, 2015.  But a recent tussle involving the location of a new federal courthouse has added to the (still Iowa-polite) discussion ever since.  The GSA and the courts would like to build a replacement for their outdated 1928 building on the site.  It’s generous, it’s visible, and it relates well to Des Moines’ City Hall across the river, and to the Civic Center, diagonally to the southwest.  The city–equally understandably–wants commercial and residential development on the site, since it’s squarely between two very lively districts that have been crucial to the city’s renaissance.  The city has won so far, and the GSA is looking at a site about four blocks south, across the river in a formerly industrial area that is ripe for redevelopment but fairly far off the beaten path.  But even that’s not a final decision, at least not yet.


Last fall I found myself talking about the controversy with a prominent DSM architect (admittedly at a social event with an open bar) and wondering what would happen if you mashed-up the expectations that the city and the feds had–in other words, if you wedged a courthouse in between commercial and residential programs.  You’d have a pretty solid Integrated Studio program that presented some serious circulation and structural issues on an important civic site.  I’ve constantly looked for situations like this for our ARCH 403/603 studio, and it seemed worth trying out for an option studio this semester.


Van Ly, Nate McKewon

We’re three weeks in, now, and we’ve done a site visit, toured the existing courthouse with the help of their project architect and the Deputy U.S. Marshal for Des Moines, and heard from architects at Neumann Monson, the firm that will serve as the local architect for the new courthouse along with Atlanta firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam about the precedents they’ve looked at, and the issues they’re facing in the new design.  Security is, as you’d guess, the biggest worry, and it’s the reason that the current generation of courts buildings have a reputation for fortress-like, anti-urban appearances.

“So,” one student asked after our courthouse tour, “the program is basically impossible, isn’t it?”  Yes and no.  It’s difficult, for sure, but even in this early stage we’re finding that there may be really interesting synergies between the urban programs of commercial and residential space, and the civic programs of the courts themselves.  Teams have settled into a couple of basic approaches–either wrapping the courthouse, geode-like, in a security blanket of apartments and shops that, we think, would present a less desirable target; or pulling the whole program in from the surrounding streets and building up instead of out.


Jen Hakala, Shawn Barron, and Kyla Peterson

I’m always impressed and slightly humbled at how diligently and seriously students take public projects like this, and yesterday’s pinup had plenty of animated discussion about not only the mechanics of getting judges, juries, defendants, and the public around safely and securely, but also what it means to build on so prominent a site, what the Des Moines River and the accompanying River Walk have done for downtown, and how best to relate to a collection of neighboring buildings ranging in scale and style from Beaux-Arts city beautiful structures (the old Public Library to the south, now the World Food Prize headquarters, or the aforementioned City Hall) to what I think of as the warm brutalism of Chick Herbert’s Civic Center, to two blocks of frankly suburban scale townhouses across the street.  We may, in fact, find that there are good reasons to segregate urban and civic programs, but I’m guessing that as teams get more and more fluent with their programming and circulation planning we’ll see some genuinely provocative schemes emerge.  And, we hope, some of this will leak out, and maybe help to influence the final decision about where to put the courthouse, and how to articulate it to the rest of the city…


jumbo architecture

January 22, 2018 § Leave a comment

spacious ageMy contribution to the new Histories of Postwar Architecture issue involves a longstanding interest in how technology gets expressed–usually inadvertently–in spaces relating to aviation.  “Jumbo Architecture” argues that designs for aviation have always been influenced by the scale and character of the aircraft themselves, and by the ways in which technology–building or aeronautical–conditions the experiences of flying, inside and out.  This applies to terminal design, sure, but also the interiors of aircraft themselves and the protoplasm of freeways, cleared landscapes under glide slopes, and tarmacs that turn airport themselves into urban precincts.  It’s a topic at the other end of building technology from where I usually sit, but one that’s provided tons of provocative examples since I started reading up for my grad thesis project back in the early 90s.

There was a particularly interesting moment in the late 1960s when the 747 first came into service, and the sheer size of the new planes themselves–and the number of passengers they discharged into terminals and cities designed for much smaller 707s and DC-8s–stressed airports almost to the point of breaking.  JFK in New York suffered agonizing traffic jams airside and landslide throughout the early 1970s because the scale of  the Jumbo Jets produced exponentially more complicated handling, and the numbers led to qualitative differences in how passengers had to be processed.  No longer could travelers simply drive up to the terminals and walk on–systems of passenger and baggage handling grew to massive proportions, and wedging these into existing sites led to architectural and vehicular contortions that proved to be utterly disorienting.

WorldportThe most striking example of this was the transformation of the glassy, parasoled canopy of JFK’s Pan Am Terminal into the “Worldport” in 1970–possibly the century’s most confusing and alienating piece of terminal architecture.  Pulling the guts of passenger, baggage, and automotive circulation out into the tarmac led to logic-defying twists of waiting areas, corridors, and elevators.  It was possible to deplane, circulate fully one lap of the terminal via elevator cores, immigration, and baggage claim, and find oneself hailing a taxi directly underneath the plane one had just disembarked.

pan am time selectorBut Worldport was just one piece of a continuum of spatial and temporal experiences that, for the first time, got beyond easy human comprehension.  The asensory nature of the aircraft cabins themselves, helped along by generous doses of sedating alcohol and movies, insulated passengers from any visceral sense that they were actually flying.  And the trans-oceanic nature of Jumbo travel meant that time itself was no longer a fixed, comprehensible element of the flying experience.  Pan Am’s “Time Selector” attests to the confusion involved in crossing so many time zones in one jump, and to the desire to somehow transcend the jet-lagged fogginess that came on arrival.

DFWAt the other end of the spectrum, building for the Jumbo Jets changed previously accepted truths about urbanism.  What to make, for example, of the Manhattan-sized Dallas-Fort Worth airport, designed not around monumental terminals, but instead around a looping, counterintuitive set of freeway offramps and thin, membrane like terminals?  Or terminals like Tampa’s, where monorails took the place of promenades?  The 747 eviscerated not only conventional architectural norms, it also quickly made the jet-age elegance of terminals like the original Pan Am building at JFK obsolete.

A380Poignant stuff, I think, especially with the news this week that Delta is retiring the last 747 to see commercial passenger service in the U.S.  The trend has been to smaller, twin-engined planes that are more agile and fuel efficient, thought the ultra-jumbo Airbus A380 has taken the place of the 747 on long haul flights.  And, needless to say, the disorienting and disquieting effects of air travel have hardly diminished as a result.

Glad to have HPA as a new venue for architectural publishing, and to have this diversion into the experiences of technology in the inaugural issue…

crate and barrel

January 20, 2018 § 2 Comments

Crate and BarrelPassing of an icon, sort of.

The Tribune reports today on the last days of Crate and Barrel’s flagship store on Michigan Avenue.  The 1990 building by Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz is going to be converted into the world’s largest Starbucks, which means that the building’s crisp, white presence on the Magnificent Mile will be maintained, albeit accompanied by hundreds of gallons of Pike’s Place roast.

Like a lot of architecture graduates in 1992, I spent much of the summer under-employed, and when a city planning internship ran out (there’s a Home Depot in Tallahassee, Florida with an awesome parking lot, let’s just say), I had a few months to kill while waiting to hear about what turned out to be a job in London.   I needed a short-term gig, and I signed on in C&B’s barware and silverware department.  It wasn’t an ideal match–customer service ended up not being one of my strong suits–but the store was kind of a great place for a novice designer to hang out, full of Scandinavian-influenced housewares, pretty tastefully done retail displays, and permanent staff who knew a lot about what they were selling.  To this day I’m a flatware and barware snob, and I’ll complain about restaurants using stamped versus forged silverware if the occasion calls for it.  The building, too, was a particularly comfortable place to be even for hours at a time.  It definitely reflected the C&B ethos–functional, clean, elegant, and without a lot of wasted effort.  The rotunda at the corner even nodded, a bit, to Sullivan’s Carson’s store, and you could tell that shoppers from out of town genuinely enjoyed the escalator ride through it up to the furniture departments.

I lasted exactly one holiday season, which included helping a former (and so far un-indicted) state governor select candle holders, and then the London job came through. I handed in my sales apron without too much regret, but have bought plenty of C&B stuff ever since and felt pretty good about it.  And, knowing where the rest rooms in the building are with complete certainty, I’ll admit to marching a couple of toddlers in there during winter trips downtown more than once in the distant past.

Starbucks is kind of an ideal tenant for the building–apparently their CEO had approached Crate and Barrel years ago about opening up a counter in the store, and the vibe of both places is kind of similar–nothing outrageous or too fancy, but mostly tasteful product that gets the job done, stays out of its way, and offers a bit of style in the process (ignoring, for the moment, something like a pumpkin-spice latte).  I’m kind of looking forward to my first coffee overlooking Michigan Ave. from vaguely familiar haunts, and I’m assuming that the renovation won’t move the plumbing core, so that bit of important city knowledge will live on.  Kind of a refreshing change to see a nearly 30-year old building dodge obsolescence and get new life.

histories of postwar architecture

January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

Delighted to report that the first issue (OK, the second issue, but vol. 1, no. 1…you’ll see why when you follow the link) of Histories of Postwar Architecture is online with a theme issue on “Histories of the Future.”  It features a paper of mine on aviation architecture in the 60s and 70s alongside a study of Japanese urbanism by the TU Delft’s Carola Hein, one on nuclear aesthetics by Stefano Setti, and a featured piece by French scholar Alain Musset on sociology, science fiction, and American urbanism in the era.

The journal nicely straddles online and print, as the papers are in .pdf format and can be read online or downloaded.  It’s beautifully designed and worth a look.  More on aviation architecture and my contribution over the weekend, but for now the entire issue would make for a good Friday lunchtime read…

duck sex, beauty, and architectural evolution

December 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

9780385537216The reading list on this trip has been Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us.  It’s made a host of year-end top ten lists, and I’ll chime in by saying it’s engaging and convincing—if you can stand a few raunchy bits and a truly terrifying account or two of sexual behavior in wildfowl.


As someone who uses Origin of Species and (more to the point) D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form to model how innovation occurs in construction and design, I also think that Prum’s argument has some consequences for how we think about architecture, and in particular the way we talk about structural or functional ‘honesty.’  Darwin is often interpreted, Prum explains, in strictly adaptationist terms.  In other words, for any physiological or behavioral feature, we should be able to find a demonstrable benefit that enables an organism to better fit its environment than it would if that feature were lacking.  This works fine for finches’ beaks, opposable thumbs, and bird songs, but it always runs up against, say, the peacock’s tail—which Darwin himself admitted gave him fits.

peacockPrum notes that there are several adaptationist theories that go some way toward explaining that tail.  It’s often been explained as a signal that the male in question is so fit for his environment that he can afford the material expense, and the implications for running speed and (lack of) flight that comes with it.  Alfred Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary and interpreter, picked up this theory and, according to Prum, it’s been evolutionary biology dogma ever since.  But Darwin himself suggested that, in fact, there may be no good adaptationist explanation for that tail, or for the elaborate mating rituals of bowerbirds, for instance, which spend enormous amounts of time and energy building structures that are used only for courting females.  It may be, instead, that female choice and male physiology are both involved in a self-reinforcing spiral.  Females that, for whatever reason, happen to prefer big tails will select males with bigger tales, thus passing on those genes to their offspring, who will, in turn, attract more females who prefer bigger tales.  There’s no tangible benefit, necessarily, to a big tail—it just happens because there’s—wait for it—an aesthetic preference that ends up being instantiated in actual physiology.

nautilus-e1332253871149There are interesting consequences here for a model of technical and stylistic development in architecture.  “Strict adaptationist” theories of architectural expression—especially structural expression— are best illustrated by Louis Sullivan, whose “form follows function” is the adaptationist gospel distilled into a pithy aphorism.  D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form blows this up slightly, pointing out that the functional benefits of a physiological feature (or, let’s assume, a behavioral one) have to be balanced with the investment of material and energy it takes to grow that feature—thus his emphasis on efficient forms like the radiolarian’s microscopic geodesic skeletons, or the statically-tuned arm bones of vertebrates everywhere.  Thompson also emphasized that the amount of information it took for an organism to create such a structure had to be efficiently stored and recalled as well, meaning that algorithms and patterns are critical in physiology.  The Nautilus shell is his most jaw-dropping example, but he also explains the spiral patterns of sunflowers and pine cones by showing how individual seeds emerge and compete for space according to mathematical rhythms.  It’s not miraculous that such patterns emerge—it’s inevitable.

All of that makes for a pretty compelling argument that engineers and architects follow, more or less.  We favor similar processes of functional, fabricational, and algorithmic efficiency when we can.  And in addition to being sufficient to the task desired (structural or otherwise), and efficient in getting that task accomplished, we know that there’s a process of signaling that fitness to purpose and to means that is often a key element in mate selection in the natural world, and in architectural expression in the human world.  In nature, this might be a physiological sign of strength, or fecundity.  In design, it’s more a promise of functionality or durability, what Donald Norman calls “affordances.”  We select, for instance, one branch or another when climbing a tree based on how robust it appears as a structure, or we select a shelter based on whether it looks like it will resist an oncoming storm.  This translates even to less survivalist instincts—we’ll more quickly choose an implement that more apparently fits the hand, or that looks less likely to break under use.

Prum’s argument, though, offers a powerful parallel process of selection that rings true in the design world, as well.  Aesthetic selection means that some instincts end up becoming engrained even though they offer no additional benefit or purchase on the world out there.  “Beauty happens,” is his distillation of this effect into a Sullivanesque aphorism.  And, sometimes, this comes at the expense of actual function or efficiency in the natural world, though more often it’s something of an adjunct.  It’s difficult to imagine this beauty instinct overwhelming common sense mate selection—the peacock’s tail is about as far as the natural world goes in producing beautiful though maladaptive physiology.  But it certainly explains any number of adaptations that don’t have an immediately apparent functional or efficient cause.

For a while now, I’ve taught basically a strict adaptationist version of construction history.  We look at ‘adaptations’ such as groin vaults, or curtain walls, or iron framing, as developments that have some basis in experimental iteration, that get deployed in a competitive (usually economic) milieu, and that prove themselves against a range of existing, proven techniques—at least until a development comes along that better fits the same environment, or until that environment (financial, social, political, sometimes) itself changes.  The “beauty happens” argument rings true, though, in that this story only covers so much—it can only suggest some origins, for instance, of the classical language, and even then what it comes up with is pretty speculative (see, e.g., Viollet-le-Duc’s skewering of the supposed “origin” of the Doric column).  A Prum-ian theory of architectural development would suggest, instead, that a lot of what we see through construction history—groin vaults and their ilk—do follow a strictly adaptationist model.  But there’s also plenty that simply occurs because of initial tastes or preferences or even modest successes that, because of their popularity, evolve on a more or less separate, purely aesthetic path.

So, we have three models now:  the Alfred Wallace argument, which states that every form has and is adapted to a purpose; the D’Arcy Thompson argument, which states that every form has and is adapted to an efficient method of growth or assembly; and what Prum argues was Darwin’s original argument, which states that sometimes forms are the result of purely aesthetic preferences, and that these evolve according to their own logic.  To which the obvious response is “no kidding,” but this adds some evolutionary weight to the influence of style—fashion, even—in design.

Sobering for an architectural ‘pure adaptationist?’  A bit.  But I think there are good reasons to stick to one’s guns.

First, there’s an interesting parallel here with a problem that any good A.I. fanatic in the field will cop to.  When using a genetic algorithm program like Galapagos, which develops solutions to parametric problems and then interbreeds these to develop new and, one assumes, more efficient solutions, the software will often fool itself into thinking that it’s found the best possible solution, when in fact it’s been sidetracked into a solution that is locally best, but that might not be as good as other, untried solutions elsewhere in the design space.  (Think of this as a table surface with several funnel-shaped depressions of different depths.  That’s the design space.  Throw a bunch of marbles onto the table, which represent attempts at solving the problem. Some of them will find the deepest funnel, but some will also settle into shallower funnels and, from their perspective, their job will seem like it’s done).  In other words, the distinction that Prum makes between adaptive solutions and aesthetic solutions may be a very blurry one, and the presence of localized, aesthetic solutions doesn’t preclude either the logic or attractiveness of much more convincing or attractive solutions elsewhere in the design space, whether that space involves organisms, bridges, can openers, or buildings.

marcellus 1Second, if we re-read a bit of architectural theory, we already know that this is the case.  We call some things beautiful that are, as Alberti suggests, “proper and innate and diffused throughout the whole,” as opposed to “something added and fastened on.”  [De re Aedeficatoria, Book VI].  This is echoed by Viollet-le-Duc, who saw this as the explicit difference between Greek and Roman architecture (“Greek architecture may be best compared to a man stripped of his clothes, the external parts of whose body are but the consequence of his organic structure…. Roman Architecture may be compared to a man clothed…. the dress may be good or bad…but it forms no part  of the body.” [Discourses, III].  And, of course, it recalls Sullivan’s organic philosophy.

30c525bc1836b1f4bf36ef69ae3d4626--this-little-piggy-barnyard-animalsBut there have been plenty of theorists who’ve argued precisely for Prum’s aesthetic selection—that is, for beauty in architecture that has nothing to do with fitness or even signaling of fitness.  Both Edmund Burke and John Ruskin refuted the notion that fitness to purpose and beauty were necessarily linked.  Burke, famously, pointed out that the snout of a pig is perfectly suited for “digging and rooting,” yet hardly (by the day’s standards, anyway) ‘beautiful.’  “’High art,” thought Ruskin, “differs from low art in possessing an excess of beauty in addition to its truth,” suggesting that Ruskin, too, thought beauty was something added to the fitness of a painting to its model, or (extrapolating here) a building to its function or materials.  Neither writer was able to come up with what, exactly, this was, but that’s sort of Prum’s point—there’s no accounting for taste, we either feel something is beautiful or not, independent of any objective standards, and the feeling, the pleasurable and pretty well inexplicable firing off of satisfied neurons, is closely linked to how we and many other species end up selecting our mates.

Prum speculates on evolution in art (if not architecture, per se) in his final chapter.  Spoiler alert: there are intriguing parallels between what he identifies as the “desire/display” feedback loop in sexual selection, especially in birds, and the dialogue of artistic production and criticism that forms what philosopher Arthur Danto called the “artworld.”  Prum uses Mozart as an example, noting that he “transformed his audiences’ capacity to imagine what music could be and do.”  These transformative experiences among those who experienced such innovation “then fed back upon future composers and performers to advance the classical style.”  Expectations are changed or raised by one innovative artwork, and then future artists not only have slightly larger creative reservoirs from which to draw, they also have those raised expectations to meet, or further challenge.  I think this applies to technology, too, though the ‘audience’ for innovations like metal framing or plate glass windows has been composed not just of culturally interested specimens, but of financially interested ones, which can only make the process more intense and more critical.

calatravaNot sure where this is all heading, but it’s a nice kick in the head and a great read.  I think it still leaves open the ethical critique of projects that stray far from adaptationism—we may regard Calatrava’s PATH station as a remarkable, sensational, and even beautiful space, but the resources that went into it could have been spent toward more purposeful ends, e.g.   Prum nicely encompasses all kinds of discussion about beauty in the human world—whether it is an inherent quality that ornament draws out (Alberti), or whether ornament alone can achieve it, an idea that starts rumbling in the Baroque and emerges full-blown in Rococo architecture.  Worth adding to the holiday reading list…

stadio flaminio

December 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

IMG_8646A chilly, grey morning in Rome yesterday where, thanks to the persistence of the team leading the Getty Foundation-funded project on the preservation of Nervi’s Stadio Flaminio, I got to see this smaller Olympic stadium first hand, without having to jump a single fence.  There’s a lot of work to be done if the stadium is to be salvaged, but there’s promising news in among the abandoned spaces and spalling, waterlogged concrete.


The stadium was built from 1957-59 within the footprint of an existing 1911 structure.  Nervi was constrained not only by the physical space available to him, but also by the pending Rome games in 1960.  The stadium seating consists of an ingenious matching of poured-in-place frames, each with a similar central portion and cantilevered arms, and pairs of precast spanning beams.  One of the beams in each case was cast to form a seating bench, the other to fit underneath and channel water to drainpipes along each of the main frames.  The most spectacular element, though, was the flying cantilever roof over the grandstand.  To save weight and time, Nervi fabricated this roof out of ferrocemento elements that taper from a deep eve-shape at their root, to a thin edge at their ends.  Steel pipes filled with concrete provide sloping struts toward the back of the roof, minimizing the number of obstructed view seats while adding a structural grace note to the whole composition.  Circular porthole windows allow daylight to filter down to the pricey seats below, but they also eliminate a considerable amount of dead weight around each vee-shaped element’s neutral axis, a classic Nervi integration of structure, construction, fabrication, and architectural effect.

IMG_8620Underneath the seats is a world of small gymnasia that slide between the main spans of the poured-in-place framing elements.  The most famous of these is the piscine, or swimming pool, that is the best preserved of these.  For years after the Olympics it served as a neighborhood leisure center, a rare example of a purpose-built stadium for the Games that actually went into community service.  But it, too, is now abandoned, though only recently.  Here, again, Nervi was clever enough to mediate the pure structural form of the sloping frames with an architectural touch, angling the perimeter walls to more gracefully meet the seats above, and then filling these walls with glass panels to maximize the amount of daylight the space received.  (Among other uses, one of these undercroft gymnasia served as a warmup gym for boxers, who fought preliminary rounds in the neighboring Palazetto dello Sport.  One of those boxers was a young Kentuckian named Cassius Clay…)


The stadium was last used by Italy’s national Rugby team, though this relationship ended when plans to expand capacity beyond its current 32,000 seats were nixed.  While the stadium served as home for the team, it was renovated to meet code and league standards, which required each ticket holder to have an actual seat.  Plastic seats were bolted into Nervi’s elegantly profiled precast benches, and–unconscionably–the drainage system was sealed off, allowing water to stand on the surfaces of the upper precast.  Meanwhile, the thousands of bolt holes drilled into the benches have allowed water to infiltrate into the now-sealed space below, leading to percolation throughout the spanning structure that’s evidenced by efflorescence and surface moisture and discoloration throughout.

IMG_8704The good news, such as it is, is that the structure is at least intact.  Expansion plans would have violated the graceful curves Nervi was able to achieve that maximize seating between the end zones.  What use the stadium might be put to is a good question–rugby’s popularity has died off in Italy since 2010, and the team now plays in a much smaller stadium near EUR.  Serie A football demands larger seating capacities–Flaminio’s would max out at its originally intended 55,000.  Minor league football is an option, but the best argument for preservation might be the gymnasia on the lower level, which could all serve the growing, gentrifying neighborhood around it.


Whatever uses may be out there, the urgency right now is to document the structure’s health problems, and to convince the municipality of Rome that there’s a useful, historic building that’s worthy of its investment here.  Elisabetta Margiotta Nervi, of the PLN Project, and Francesco Romeo, from the Università di Roma, are leading the Getty-funded project, and have asked me to contribute a history of the stadium and its relationship to sporting culture and stadium architecture of the 20th century, as a way of showing that the innovations on display here were culturally and socially important, in addition to their architectural and engineering legacies.  It’s a beautiful, though now slightly haunting, place, and after years of trying it’s both thrilling and humbling to poke around its ruins, imagining what it once was, and what Rome might be able to do with it.