Last Monday, June 21st, would have marked the 123rd birthday of the great Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. Nervi is famous for how he was able to design structures that were beautiful yet also structurally pure and functional. Today, his works can be found throughout Italy and the USA.
Nervi was born in 1891 in Sondrio, Italy and studied at the University of Bologna. He graduated in 1913 and began working as a civil engineer. This was a time of great change in the disciplines of structural and civil engineering, as reinforced concrete had been pioneered a mere twenty years ago by Francois Hennebique. Some architects, including Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, were beginning to make use of reinforced concrete structurally (Sullivan used it to build some of the first skyscrapers). Auguste Perret saw the aesthetic value of concrete, and his structures, such as Notre-Dame-du-Raincy, use large expanses of glass and concrete to create dramatic interiors. Nervi, however, was arguably the first to combine the structural and aesthetic values of concrete. He was able to see the beauty in the effective, efficient concrete structures he created, and turned them into key parts of his buildings’ appearances.
One of Nervi’s first projects was his design for Florence’s municipal stadium. The stadium is famed for its awning over the main stand, supported by graceful cantilevers, and its double-helix staircases. The design was featured in several architectural texts and made Nervi famous. Nervi’s next famous projects were a series of aircraft hangars for the Italian Air Force. From an engineering point of view, these are Nervi’s most revolutionary works. They made use of catenaries (the perfect shape for arches), efficient yet elegant diagrid structures, and the use of prefabrication of a massive scale. The hangars were nothing short of perfect- structurally honest and incredibly graceful (especially considering that they were pieces of military infrastructure). The beautiful structures were also extremely strong, withstanding bombing raids during World War II. Unfortunately, they were destroyed by German troops as they retreated from Italy.
Nervi never moved away from his style of exposed structures. In Italy, he designed the Exhibition Hall B and Palace of Labour in Turin, and the Vatican Audience Hall and Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome. All of these buildings could have had bland, industrial, warehouse-esque designs. Nervi’s designs were just as cheap- but they were also works of art. In fact, some of Nervi’s smaller scale designs were warehouses and factories, but Nervi gave them cheap, fluid, and elegant structures. While most of Nervi’s designs in Italy could be classed as infrastructure, outside of his home nation he designed more mainstream buildings, including skyscrapers, the UN headquarters in Paris, the extremely graceful St Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, and the Italian Embassy in Brazil. None of these structure would have been possible without the versatility and strength of reinforced concrete, and its ability to be cheaply prefabricated off site.
Nervi’s legacy is perhaps slightly tainted by the fact that his designs had a heavy influence on Brutalism. Brutalism is almost certainly the most reviled architectural style of all, and its bare concrete masses have not aged well in the fifty years of so since the style was most popular. However, if the modern eye looks past Nervi’s large-scale use of concrete (the material has not been done justice by such buildings as Boston’s City Hall), it will see that Nervi had an uncanny talent of turning the exceedingly ordinary into the extraordinary. Nervi put large amounts of work and craftsmanship into designs that are today churned out like cars. When he designed the Vatican Audience Hall, the pope himself praised Nervi’s “skill and virtue”. Today, a keen eyed observer might be pleasantly surprised to find one of his unorthodox designs in a New York bus depot or a Rome parking garage.
One of Nervi’s hangars (Photo from structurae.net)
The Palazzetto dello Sport (Photo from arbitare.it)
St. Mary’s Cathedral (Photo from Pier Luigi Nervi Project)
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