This essay analyses Pier Luigi Nervi’s New Norcia Cathedral and Monastery scheme (1957-1961), an unrealized project near Perth, Western Australia. This particular scheme directed Australian attention to the Italian’s work, later leading to Nervi’s involvement with the design of Australia’s first reinforced concrete skyscraper, Australia Square Tower (1967) in Sydney, designed in collaboration with Australian architect Harry Seidler. It argues that Nervi’s work introduced Italian modernism to Australia – mediated by his experiences in Latin America.

 

In the nineteen thirties, Italy and the Americas in particular became loci for strong cultural exchanges. Mass migration of architects and engineers from Italy (and elsewhere) to the Unites States and Latin America gave rise to a new fervour for inspirational forms. Italian architects, such as Marcello Piacentini, Pier Luigi Nervi and Lina Bo Bardi, would work in or visit this Latin America, merging their ideas with the indigenous forms they encountered there. Others, such as Italian-American-Australian architect Romaldo Giurgola vicariously gained inspiration from their exploratory travels.1

 

Around 1937, Pier Luigi Nervi secured a position in working with Italian Rationalist Marcello Piacentini on the E 42 project, specifically the Palazzo dell’acqua e delle luce, Exhibition Halls A and B with Pietro Maria Bardi. After this experience, Nervi next developed the construction method for a Monumental Arch designed by Adalberto Libera, resembling an aircraft hangar.2 In effect, Piacentini noted that, “Rationalism coincided not with Fascism but with Internationalism.”3 In the nineteen thirties, the Brazilian government invited Piacentini to Brazil as a consultant by the Rio de Janeiro government to consult on their project to construct a Cuidade Universita (unrealized). Italian Rationalism would now mingle with Internationalism. By 1933 Internationalism was already part of Pietro Maria Bardi’s larger agenda. Bardi departed Italy in the late nineteen forties temporarily to establish a Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nervi’s success in Brazil (and earlier in Argentina) led to commissions in Venezuela, the United States and as far south as Australia.

 

Latin American architects took the 1939 New York’s World Fair as an important opportunity to expose their intercontinental designs. Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa’s Brazil Pavilion (1939-40) spell-bounded visitors with its fluid spaces, pool, and Roberto Burle Marx’s tropical garden in its internal court. The Brazilian Pavilion impacted the way architects from foreign countries might import Internationalist trends by embodying elements, such as the fluid spaces and elevated platforms, into their designs. Interestingly, “Australia and Brazil converged at the 1939 World’s Fair,”4 with their pavilions nearby one another. This is the first time we see the ingress of modern Brazilian designs in Australia.

 

Meanwhile, a decade after the initiation of Bardi’s Brazilian museum project, he and his wife left post-war Italy and settled in Rio de Janeiro. In 1951, the Bardis were living in Sao Paulo and they invited Nervi to “spend a few weeks” with them to lecture on his concrete structures at the São Paolo Art Museum (MASP), designed by Lina Bo Bardi.5 There, Nervi and his son Antonio collaborated with Bo Bardi on the Taba Guaianazes complex (1954).6 Although the multi-storey project was unrealized, it provided Nervi with the opportunity to observe other Latin American structures then under construction (which presumably later inspired the Pirelli Tower design in Milan). Castro Mello’s Covered Swimming Pool (1948-52) at São Paolo, for instance, with its parabolic arches is one obvious structure. Parabolic arches would soon become a kind of trademark throughout central and southern Latin America. Earlier in Mexico, for instance, Enrique de la Mora’s Purisima Church (1939-1943) and Felix Candela’s Cosmic Ray Pavilion (1951-52) offered inspiration. Presumably Castro Mello’s Brazilian pool was of importance to Nervi’s career as far as a Latin American source is concerned – his Italian works were informed by his Brazilian experience.7 This experience, in turn, impacted his skyscraper designs with Harry Seidler in Sydney in 1967. More importantly shell structures such as Nervi’s were popular in the nineteen forties and fifties, especially in Europe and Latin America.

 

Such Latin American links would surely increase Nervi’s aspiration to further disseminate ideas of reinforced concrete parabolas to Australia. Nervi’s work prospects veered off in a different direction in the nineteen fifties – to build taller reinforced concrete structures in Australia. Previously, he had spent at least thirty years of his career as a sought-after engineer, then as an architect. MORE


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