Architectural Designs by Pier Luigi Nervi
Born in the Alpine town of Sondria in June of 1891, Pier Luigi Nervi was an Italian engineer and architect known for his innovative use of concrete and thin-shelled structures. In 1913, he earned his degree in engineering from Bologna’s Civil Engineering School, and upon graduation, joined the Society for Concrete Construction. Nervi considered building construction to be both an art and a science, and as such, dedicated his career to the innovative use of reinforced concrete.
During World War I, Nervi served from 1915 to 1918 as a lieutenant in the Italian Army’s Corps of Engineering. After the war, he worked, beginning in 1923, as a civil engineer in both Bologna and Florence. Nervi’s first significant work was the Augusteo Cinema Theater on the Vomero hill in Naples, which was completed in 1927. This work was followed by Florence’s Stadio Artemio Franchi, originally named Studio Giovanni Berta. Built between 1930 and 1932, its boldly cantilevered roof and helical staircases won critical acclaim and popular attention throughout Italy.
In 1932, Pier Luigi Nervi formed a contracting firm, called Società Ingg. Nervi e Bartoli, with his cousin, engineer Giovanni Bartoli, with whom he would work for the remainder of his career. In 1935, Nervi won a competition held by the Italian Air Force for the construction of a series of hangers to be built throughout Italy. His conception of the hangers as concrete vaults with huge spans of reinforced concrete, constructed at low cost, were built between 1935 and 1941. After finishing the first hanger in Orvieto, he improved the design of the hangers in Obertello and Torre del Lago by using precast ribs, a lighter roof, and a modular construction method.
Nervi’s conceptual designs continued to grow through his search for new solutions to structural problems. Through his research, he developed a material of his own invention, a dense concrete called ferrocemento, which was heavily reinforced with evenly distributed steel mesh that gave both lightness and strength. This material played a vital role in Nervi’s design for the Palace of Labor, a collaborative project with his son Antonio Nervi for an exhibition space at the 1951 Turin Exhibition. A prefabricated structure in the form of a corrugated cylindrical arch, the Palace of Labor contained eighty-five thousand feet of exhibition space under a roof divided in sixteen structurally separated squares edged by continuous skylights. Sixty-five foot concrete columns were fixed in the center of each square and held these squares through small arched ribs. The use of arched ribs became a characteristic of Nervi’s oeuvre.
Pier Luigi Nervi’s solutions to construction problems was always direct; he transmitted the stresses developed within his structures to the ground by the shortest path. He used insights from his study of geometry to develop a new form of shell construction, one which generated three-dimensional lattices from concrete ribs. Nervi’s innovative use of pre-made concrete modules was cost-effective and resulted in both functional and ornamentally-geometric structures. Although his primary concern was never aesthetic, his works achieved a forceful expression to a great degree. Nervi introduced a creative three-dimensional quality into architectural design by his use of warping surfaces, folded plates, and intersecting planes. He emphasized functional needs, the technology of construction, knowledge of materials and statistics, and efficiency in building as the mainstays of an architect’s career.
Nervi was awarded Gold Medals by the United Kingdom’s Institution of Structural Engineers, the American Institute of Architects, and the Royal Institute of British Architects. in 1961 Harvard University appointed Nervi to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry. Towards the end of his career, Nervi, assisted by his two sons, the engineer Antonio and the architect Mario, confined his activities to design work in association with other architects. He died in January of 1979, at the age of eighty-seven, in Rome, Italy.
Nervi’s works include the UNESCO headquarters in Paris; Milan’s Pirelli Tower which was the first skyscraper in Italy; the Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome; the Sacro Cuore Bell Tower in Florence; the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco,;the cylindrical Australian Square tower, at the time the tallest concrete structure in the world; Vatican City’s Paul VI Audience Hall; and the Australian Embassy in Paris.