Pier Luigi Nervi at the MAXXI, Rome – More on the exhibition, more on the man

The recently opened exhibition “Pier Luigi Nervi: Architetture per lo sport” (MAXXI in Rome (05/02 – 02/10 2016) focuses on the sport infrastructure designed by Pier Luigi Nervi.

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Nervi’s career flourished during a time of great experimentation in new building materials, particularly reinforced concrete. Nervi’s ability to experiment with radically new concrete forms is evident in the design of the Berta and Flaminio stadiums. The lack of knowledge about the exact nature and behavior of reinforced concrete encouraged trial and error processes that allowed designers to attempt daring designs. At the time, all reinforced concrete design would have classified by necessity as daring because little was known about its long-term behavior. Nervi’s personal knowledge of the material behavior of reinforced concrete was gained primarily through what he witnessed over time in his own projects, and this learning process is evident in his writings.

Over the course of Nervi’s career this experimental phase slowly came to a halt as more empirical knowledge concerning the behavior of reinforced concrete became available and more restrictive building codes were developed. It is difficult to find any mention of code limits for deflections, for example, in any of Nervi’s early writings, whereas the specifications for the Kuwait dome contain numerous references to code factors and limits. Nervi required rigid control over his projects in order to accomplish his visions in addition to general flexibility within his work environment for experimentation. In Italy, socioeconomic constraints during the time of Nervi’s early career drove the need for creative and inexpensive solutions, yet the building atmosphere at the time was still experimental and flexible enough to nurture Nervi’s creative, risky, and unprecedented design process.

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Nervi’s design for the Kuwait stadium: elevation view of aluminum transparent dome connected to reinforced concrete buttresses

Later in Nervi’s career, international constraints hindered Nervi’s design process by giving flexibility where he had become accustomed to rigidity and by being inflexible in ways that were relatively free when Nervi worked in Italy. Domestic building and economic constraints, set by the social-political context of inter and post bellum Italy, forced Nervi’s creativity to blossom, and these types of material and economic constraints did not seem as pressing in international design settings (notably missing in the context of the Kuwait Stadium design). A strange paradox is evident in the success Nervi experienced as a result of material and economic constraints domestically that did not exist in international contexts and these factors cannot be overlooked.

The proliferation of material technologies and the increase in mathematical theories available to predict the behavior of new materials in Nervi’s late career indicated a wider process of transformation in the industry of civil engineering. The nature of the industry today has rendered the concept of a master builder infeasible. The end of Nervi’s career demonstrates the need for a new approach to contemporary engineering methods. The nature of the design industry has undergone great changes that continue to accelerate with material and technological innovations and increasingly require specialized knowledge. A better framework for collaboration is needed if the aesthetic quality and structural truth, for which Nervi is so highly praised, is to be preserved in contemporary large-scale structures.

Authors: Sigrid Adriaenssens and Mariam Wahed

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