A Master Builder

Aesthetics and Technology in Building

by Pier Luigi Nervi
Harvard, 208, 196 illustrations pp., $9.95

Pier Luigi Nervi
Pier Luigi Nervi; drawing by David Levine

Nervi is one of my few pin-ups. I have met him a number of times and always found him wise, kind, and equitable. He is a man who believes in the ethics of his profession, as strongly as does Gropius, another of my pin-ups. Le Corbusier had neither wisdom nor equitableness nor was he guided by ethics, but he was a genius—a greater architectural creator than Gropius, though a lesser man. Nervi’s problem is more complex. He combines wisdom with genius, but can he be called an architectural creator at all? Until 1961-2, when he gave the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, one could give one’s own answer to this question, but it was an answer unconfirmed by Nervi himself.

I was once discussing with him in connection with the initial stages of a large architectural exhibition the problem of new structure and new forms, and Nervi said without hesitation that all correct construction results in good form. Ten minutes later he mentioned an American building in which the structure is specially interesting and added: “A pity it is so ugly.” When I took him up on that and added that it could then conversely be said that he was a great architect, his only answer was, with his gentle smile: “Lei scherza.” And when, on another occasion, I praised him rather shamelessly for the beauty of one of his buildings then just going up, he commented in only four words: “E poi, costa poco.” That is Nervi all over—proud of economy, convinced of the prime necessity of “costruire correttamente“—the title of one of the two only books he has published—and shy of aesthetics.

For Nervi is not a writer, let alone a publicist. He was trained in Civil Engineering at Bologna and took his degree when he was twenty-two, in 1913. Then the war came, and after the war he had still to wait a number of years before he could establish himself. From his very first work, a cinema in Naples, begun in 1936, concrete was his element. He knows all that can be known about this most characteristic of twentieth-century building materials; for he combines the job of professor of engineering in the University of Rome with that of running a firm of concrete construction. So he is a teacher and an entrepreneur, and is proud of the combination. But is he an architect? He likes to deny it.

IN FUTURE, however, he won’t be able to do that any longer; he chose as his theme for the Eliot Norton Lectures the relation of aesthetics to technology. The book of the lectures is a short book—only about twenty or twenty-five thousand words, i.e., a quarter of what, thanks to ample and informative illustrations, it looks like. It consists of a historical chapter on the sources of twentieth-century architecture; a second chapter on his own buildings…

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