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Pierluigi Nervi: The genius ambivalent engineer of the 20th century


Pierluigi Nervi: The genius ambivalent engineer of the 20th century


Pierluigi Nervi, engineer from Sondrio had a long design life, so much so, that some authors claim he lived numerous lives. In all these lives, he had a different approach to construction. Throughout the 20th century, he was the star of construction and reconstruction and of the Italian economic boom, relying on the use of a material that was introduced in those years and that had great success. Nervi became a master of the use of reinforced concrete and, later, of ferrocement structures. His works, located on several continents, led to a world-wide reputation.

The first examples of Nervi’s skills in the use of reinforced concrete, which he moulds to create new structures, can be observed in the Florence town stadium. Here, the engineer built a grandstand covered canopy that seems to be supported by air in a prominent ledge, as never seen before. He also created a crossed spiral staircase, a source of wonder and fascination for younger architects.

In the second period of his life, Nervi developed his passion for building materials, experimenting with ferrocement. Using this material, he managed to realise a system, which later led to the patent of the “Nervi System”. The innovative system consisted in breaking down in single elements, smaller than the main design by one unit, for example. The unitary elements were then built on the ground and mounted in a large frame, as we would say today. With this method and thanks to the craftsmen of carpenters and workers who started what would later be called “the Italian know-how”, Nervi produced works, which would be featured in the major architectural covers of the time. The sports hall in Rome, the Air Force hangars, the Nervi Hall in the Vatican State. Some of Nervi’s trademarks are the aesthetic sense linked to the use of cement and ferrocement, which he often left uncovered, rather than opting for decorative coverings, the bold architectural shapes, which create a wonderful balance and finally the technical and scientific engineering rigour. These aspects are bound together in functional works in the architectural sense and in an engineering sense as well. This is the reason why the commission of the International Prize for Architecture of the Lincei Academy awarded him a prize and, as claimed by the commission: “He can now be defined as an engineer in the ambivalent sense, which is the same title used in ancient documents to speak of great architects such as Antonio di Vincenzo, Francesco di Giorgio, and Leonardo da Vinci himself”.

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