Pier Luigi Nervi
Pier Luigi Nervi, (born June 21, 1891, Sondrio,
Italy—died Jan. 9, 1979, Rome), Italian engineer and
architect, internationally renowned for his technical
ingenuity and dramatic sense of design, especially as
applied to large-span structures built of reinforced
concrete. His important works include a prefabricated
309-foot-span arch for the Turin Exhibition (1949–50) and
the first skyscraper in Italy, the Pirelli Building (1955)
in Milan, a collaborative design.
Nervi graduated from the University of Bologna in 1913.
During World War I he served as a lieutenant in the Corps of
Engineers of the Italian army, and after the war he worked
as an engineer in Bologna and Florence. In 1926–27 he
designed his first significant work, a cinema in Naples, and
followed it with the municipal stadium (Berta Stadium) in
Florence, built in 1930–32.
In 1932 Nervi and a cousin in Rome formed the contracting
firm of Nervi and Bartoli, with which he would remain
through the rest of his career. In 1935 the Italian air
force held a competition for a series of hangars to be built
throughout Italy. Nervi conceived them as concrete vaults,
with huge spans, that could be constructed at low cost, and
he was commissioned for the project. Between 1935 and 1941
he built hangars in Obertello, Orvieto, and Torre del Lago.
All of these structures were destroyed during World War II.
Each of these early structures showed the growth of
conceptual design that resulted from Nervi’s ceaseless
search for new solutions to structural problems. His
creativity was not confined to the design of buildings;
during World War II, he attempted to construct vessels made
of concrete for the Italian navy, but the project was not
completed. After the war, he did succeed in building a
165-ton, motor-powered, concrete sailboat, with a hull 1.4
inches (3.6 cm) thick. Subsequently he built a 38-foot
(11.6-metre) ketch, the Nennele, with a hull only a half
inch thick. For both of these vessels, he used ferrocemento,
a material of his own invention, composed of dense concrete,
heavily reinforced with evenly distributed steel mesh that
gives it both lightness and strength.
This material was vital in Nervi’s design for a complex
he built for the Turin Exhibition in 1949–50—a prefabricated
structure in the form of a corrugated cylindrical arch,
spanning 309 feet (93 m), based on modular components of
glass and ferrocemento. Without the structural properties of
this material, the entire conception would have been
A close relationship between Nervi’s work and his austere
life was evident. His solutions to building problems were
always direct, transmitting to the ground by the shortest
path the stresses developed within the structures. His works
were relatively unaffected by the changes in taste that
accompanied the advent of new forms in architecture. As a
professor at the University of Rome from 1947, Nervi taught
that a designer can develop truthful solutions in three
ways: by understanding the pure harmony of the laws of the
physical world that regulate the equilibrium of forces and
the resistance of materials; by honestly interpreting the
essential factors of each problem; and by rejecting the
limitations of the solutions of the past.
In 1950, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided to build its new
headquarters in Paris, Nervi was one of the architects
selected to design it. Marcel Breuer, one of his
collaborators, described Nervi’s participation in the
project as “a continuous search for a system: a system of
geometric rhythm,” and later he said of him: “If there is a
notion that arrogance and reckless irresponsibility are the
very attributes of genius, a notion that to be a genius
means not to be quite human, there is Nervi to disprove this
In 1955, in association with a group of architects, Nervi
helped design the first skyscraper in Italy, the Pirelli
Building; it was the first office building to use a
long-span structure—80 feet (25 m). Although architects and
engineers in the United States had long experience in the
design and construction of skyscrapers, they had invariably
designed them around frameworks consisting of series of
smaller spans. For the Pirelli Building, Nervi used
experimental models—as he often had—which he tested in the
laboratory at Bergamo. His second skyscraper was built in
Montreal, again in collaboration, and his third was
Australia Square (1962–69; Sydney), a cylindrical tower of
50 stories. At the time, this was the tallest concrete
structure in the world. In 1957 and 1958–59, for the 1960
Rome Olympic Games, Nervi designed two sport palaces.
His first building in the United States was commissioned
by the Port of New York Authority: the George Washington
Bridge Bus Terminal, in Manhattan, built in 1961–62.
Subsequently he designed a precast, vaulted field house for
Dartmouth College in New Hampshire (1961–62) and, in
collaboration with Pietro Belluschi, the Cathedral of San
Francisco, four vertical-warped surfaces dramatically
enclosing the vertical space of the main nave. In 1961
Harvard University appointed Nervi to the Charles Eliot
Norton Chair of Poetry and in 1963 awarded him an honorary
degree; he later received the Gold Medal from the American
Institute of Architects in recognition of his work.
After years of intense practice in Italy and abroad,
Nervi reduced his activities as a builder in the late 1960s.
Assisted by two of his sons, Antonio, a structural engineer,
and Mario, an architect, he began to confine his activities
largely to designs. An increasing number of his projects now
were done in association with foreign architects.
Although Nervi’s primary concern was never aesthetic,
many of his works, nonetheless, reached the realm of poetry.
His buildings achieved remarkable expressive force, as in
the geometry of the slabs in the Gatti wool factory (1953),
in Rome, and the mezzanine of the Palace of Labour, in
Turin. Through his use of interpenetrating planes, of folded
and bent plates, and of warping surfaces, Nervi introduced a
new three-dimensional vocabulary into architectural design.
He reminded architects that “materials, statics, the
technology of construction, economic efficiency and
functional needs are the vocabulary of the architectural
Nervi’s contribution has been compared to that of another
builder whose work revolutionized architecture—Joseph
Paxton, who built the Crystal Palace for the Great
Exhibition of 1851 in London. In both instances, highly
rational and innovative structures resulted from a
continuous process of devoted search and development, with
an emphasis on modular construction, prefabrication, and
extreme physical and visual lightness.
Eduardo F. Catalano, Jr.