Architect and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi explored reinforced concrete in a variety of inventive structural projects during the 20th century.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirelli_Tower
The Brain of an Engineer with the Heart of an Architect
Pier Luigi Nervi was born in 1981 in Sondrio, Italy. He studied Civil Engineering at the University of Bologna, immediately showing an incredible artistic sensibility. Despite this natural talent, he never studied architecture at a university. Yet, his lack of formal education did not hinder his design prowess. After graduation, Nervi co-founded the building firm Nervi and Nebbiosi, which later became Nervi and Bartoli. Additionally, he became popular thanks to his ability to keep the cost down in creating ground-breaking designs using reinforced concrete.
The engineer garnered major public attention with the project for the Stadio Artemio Franchi, in Florence, sporting its unmistakable cantilevered roof and winding stairs. Also, he built a series of airplane hangars for the Italian Royal Air Force, which have since been destroyed. These works established his reputation as a master of architecture and engineering. Other of his masterpieces include the Torino Esposizioni, the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, the Pirelli Tower, the Palazzetto Dello Sport.
Usability and Innovation
Pier Luigi Nervi based his approach to design on intuitiveness, without ever losing sight of the functionality of the structure. His sensibility for the balance between structure and shape led him to bold designs, realized through affordable materials, such as reinforced concrete. This model had a great influence and inspired other architects all across Europe. Further, he was driven by the desire for expressing the beauty and the ingenious implementation of this material in his works. Often, he made large use of prefabricated materials, such as his introduction of Ferrocement, a construction system that used reinforced mortar or plaster, applied over a metal “armature” and closely spaced thin steel rods, such as rebar. This method was a response to international trade sanctions, the invasion of Ethiopia, and the subsequent need to adapt.
A True Master of Parametric Design
Nowadays, parametric design is based on computer-aided technology, yet Nervi was a master of this craft and experimenting with biomimetic architecture for his time. He built beautiful, functional structures. For example, the former zoology lecture hall at the University of Freiburg gained inspiration by the internal geometry of bone tissue, optimized to resist external forces by creating a porous bone structure that efficiently maximizes its strength to weight ratio. Similarly, Nervi maximized the complexity of his design by transforming and revolving simple forms. Moreover, the sophistication of his geometry was not limited to the constructability of the structure. Instead, he understood the relationship between design and construction and utilized this knowledge to drive his works.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PalaLottomatica
Palazzetto Dello Sport
This visionary project spread all around the world, and the dome architecture. Palazzetto Dello Sport is a mid-way between a rigorous formal taste and an enveloping aesthetic. Pier Luigi Nervi and Annibale Vitellozzi desgined it in the 1950s as a prototype of a sporting palace built with economical materials. Fuerther, the dome is prefabricated ferrocement, characterized by a smooth exterior and an embroidered inside. Moreover, it was one of the first applications of the so-called “Nervi System,” or the typical approach of Pier Luigi Nervi to keep down costs. Additionally, the structure became a symbol of the rebirth of an area formerly abandoned, proposing a new way of conceiving architecture.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palazzetto_dello_Sport