Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with quick, interesting facts. Our October entry tells the story of Pier Luigi Nervi, an Italian engineer who turned his talents toward architecture, completing athletic complexes, high-rises, and churches using concrete.
Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi was born in Sondrio, Italy in 1891, and graduated from University of Bologna in 1913, where he studied Civil Engineering and fostered his talent for design. Combining creativity and structure, he became one of Italy’s boldest Modernist designers.
After graduation, Nervi served in the Corps of Engineering of the Italian Army, and soon after, worked at a construction company for a few years in Florence. Deciding to turn his architectural visions into reality, Nervi founded a design firm, Nervi and Nebbiosi. The firm’s first project was finished in 1931: Stadio Artemio Franchi, a football stadium with winding exterior staircases and a dramatic, cantilevered roof.
In the 1930s and 40s, Nervi and his firm were tasked with the design of the Italian Royal Air Force’s airplane hangars, which have since been destroyed. The hangars were made almost entirely of concrete, with geometric patterns in the roof, allowing air and light through. These projects were early evidence of Nervi’s desire to bring artistic elements to his work, even when not required.
Torino Esposizioni, a convention center in Turin, was completed by Nervi in the 1940s. It was made of glass and “ferrocemento,” a construction method of plaster covering metal wire armatures. For the 2006 Olympics in Italy, the center was converted into an ice rink for Winter sport use.
As an internationally-recognized architect by the 1950s, Nervi began to design spaces abroad. In Paris, he designed the UNESCO Headquarters for the United Nations in partnership with fellow global architects, including Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Saarinen among others.
In the mid-1950s, major tire producer Pirelli commissioned a skyscraper, named Pirelli Tower, to be designed as their new headquarters in Milan. Assisting famed Italian Modernist Gio Ponti, Nervi contributed to the structural design of the high-rise, which was a testament to the economic revival of Italy post-World War II.
During New York’s period of urban renewal In the 1960s, Nervi traveled to America to design the George Washington Bridge Bus Station in Harlem. While the station allows for thousands of people to commute in and out of the city and features his recognizable concrete and steel building method, the structure is said to block views of the George Washington Bridge and has been widely criticized.
The Palazzetto dello Sport (“Small Sport Palace”) in Rome, on which Nervi worked as a structural engineer, was another sprawling athletic complex and another opportunity for Nervi to showcase his large-scale structural abilities.
Two of Nervi’s later projects, The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco and Paul VI Audience Hall in Rome were completed in 1971, and reference the modern technology and structural knowledge he developed earlier in his career.
Including a one year lecturing role at Harvard University, over twenty five major buildings around the world, and an AIA Gold Medal, Pier Luigi Nervi’s lasting mark on the worlds of architecture and engineering are clear. Although Nervi passed away in 1979, his concrete, well-structured work lives on.
“Spotlight: Pier Luigi Nervi,” ArchDaily; “Pier Luigi Nervi,” Architectuul; “Pier Luigi Nervi,” Brittanica; “Pier Luigi Nervi,” Wikipedia;