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Interview with Pier Luigi Nervi, Joseph Nicolletti

BROADCAST: 1962 | DURATION: 00:48:37


Interview with Pier Luigi Nervi and Joseph Nicolletti while Studs was in Italy.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel [Background noise and voices, dog?] There's a girl on in Rome who is known for a special brand of [intaglio? Italian?] said the other day, "With all the things wrong with me, if I weren't so healthy I'd have been dead long ago." And just a few moments ago she point out to a friend who had to go to the washroom she said, "That's the men's room; it's for women only." [Microphone bumped. Tape stops and restarts.] I think there's been talk, and not talk, there's been evidence too, and very concrete evidence and the word concrete can have a double meaning in this conversation. Dealing with the, what seems to be the renaissance of Italian architecture in this particular period and, everyone, critics and fellow architects, seem to ascribe it to a large extent to perhaps the greatest architectural figure of this century in Italy, Professor Pier Luigi Nervi. At this moment we're in the Roman studios of Professor Nervi, and with Professor Nervi is Joseph Nicoletti one of his assistants who will act as interpreter. And I thought, well first of all Professor Nervi, I'm honored to be here with you sir. So many of your colleagues have spoken of you and written of you and, on the way from the airport to the house where I'm staying along Via Flaminia, I saw this small sports palace and I was so taken with this place. Ordinarily we think of sports arenas as something cold and open and just utilitarian. Yet it was something of beauty and, the nature of the sports palace itself. Joseph Nicoletti perhaps you can interpret this.

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Joseph Nicoletti Well I try to summarize?

Studs Terkel Well you will do this with Carlo Baldi, we'll make this sort of an ensemble [cough], and interpretive [unintelligible].

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Carlo Baldi Professor Nervi says that it seems to him to be most natural that an architect, especially nowadays, that they can use some interesting material as as they have at their disposal. Should they try to overcome the strict cold schemes of of of utilitarism, utilitarian architecture, and try to to build something with grace and elegance. In this Palazzetto dello Sport, you can see the desire, the wish of architect Vitellozzi, Vitellozzi, and Professor Nervi who did the work together to, you can see their their love for for the material and then and their their wish to overcome these these strict cold schemes. He feels this is most natural.

Studs Terkel This matter of overcoming the cold schemes that are for use only, it occurs to me, perhaps this is my imagination or my romantic feeling about Rome at the moment being ever the first time, but doesn't Italian architect-- the very history of it make it so different say, from that of northern Europe in that this element of warmth is apparent where it might not be so apparent in other parts of the world.

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian. Voices in background.]

Carlo Baldi Professor Nervi says very rightly [cough] that it is not to us to say because we, we either have it, it's either true or not true. If, if we have it we we can get it from anywhere. If we if we don't have it and if we have it we can't forget it. If it is within ourselves in our nature, it's it's there. It's not, you see--

Joseph Nicoletti In other words, it's a kind of intuition, you see. It's proper to great artists.

Studs Terkel [Unintelligible].

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi He could say that he never, he never made any kind of of this kind of reasoning. [It would?] came natural to him to express himself.

Studs Terkel With being a creative man of course, Professor Nervy does not need to verbalize it, to say it.

Joseph Nicoletti Yeah.

Studs Terkel He does it, you see. But I thought of this because someone had spoken of Roman road builders as being the best in the world because the Italians had a feeling for the stone, they spoke of that. And I wonder why this does not apply itself 'cause Professor Nervi said something later about a love for the material.

Joseph Nicoletti Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel So I wonder if he has a comment to make about that. The feeling for--

Joseph Nicoletti Yeah.

Studs Terkel Materials.

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian] [Cough]

Carlo Baldi The professor says that maybe that if the some, some of the difference between this [his?] work and some, work of some of the others is that he also builds. He not only makes the product but they also builds, so there is a knowledge of the material and the love for the material. He is perfectly aware of the possibilities that the concrete offer him. The this, this there is a link, a [strict?] link between him, between the drawings, the design, and the material that hr is going to use to to implement the design. Therefore he says the the concrete gives enormous possibilities of which he is perfectly aware. He feels the material.

Joseph Nicoletti [Background conversation in Italian]--awareness of possibilities of the concrete and awareness also the problems of construction.

Studs Terkel The awareness of the possibilities of concrete and awareness of the problems of construction. I'm thinking of something else now. I hope I don't sound prejudiced, but there has been an awareness, it seems to me, that there's been this trend during the past decade or so toward pure design. I'm not referring now to Mies van der Rohe specifically but the cold, the monolithic slab-like buildings. Does Professor Nervi feel that there is a trend perhaps away from this, now? What are his feelings about [these works?].

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi Professor Nervi points out that it very much depends on the material you use. Of course if you use steel, you can't have the same effects as as concrete [cough] and and and reverse. Well, you can do with concrete things that you can't do with any other material. He's pointing out that the the --.

Studs Terkel We're looking at picture on the wall a photograph, on the wall.

Carlo Baldi The photograph on the wall, and say that [there's] a kind of work you couldn't do in anything but concrete. You couldn't do it with bricks, you couldn't do it with with wood or with with steel. And in order to do that that kind of work with concrete, you must be perfectly aware and you must have a very good knowledge of the construction problems connected with with concrete and with with a such such a kind of of construction. You must you must know you must have studied for for a long time and know perfectly well all the problems going with the construction. I would like to ask--

Studs Terkel Joseph Nicoletti.

Joseph Nicoletti Yes, yes, I think he translated perfectly what Professor said. It's, in other words, it's a clear demand of the material to to shape, to be shaped in this particular manner.

Studs Terkel I think there's something else Professor Nervi wanted to say, the second point.

Pier Luigi Nervi Second point?

Studs Terkel Yes.

Carlo Baldi Second point.

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi Very [cough] interesting point Professor Nervi made just now. He says once you have you have found out, you solve the construction problems, once you you you master you master the the the proceedings for the construction, you can apply them in different ways and there comes the choice the choice of the artist, the choice of the of of who drove the project to apply them in a particular design instead of another. And this is a completely natural a completely natural choice that is is he says sentimental sentimental reasons make you choose one instead of another. They require the same the same construction proceedings. And there he says if it's it's a natural choice, it comes out, you are unaware of the reasons why you have chosen one design instead of another, and he thinks that it's [cough] it's the better if it is the better, the more significant if it is less aware, if you don't reason about it, if it is natural, if it comes out--

Studs Terkel There was a subconscious outpouring of feeling.

Carlo Baldi Yes, yes. Unaware. Is not out of a logic proceeding but is a sentimental, emotional, it's it's--

Studs Terkel It's natural.

Joseph Nicoletti This is what Professor Nervi points out that this leaves it to design; your complete freedom of choice when setting, when designing first the shape of a of a structure, it's beauty.

Studs Terkel Yes. But this matter of the shape of structure, the beauty; there's several words, thoughts, Professor Nervi, that have come to me now and hit rather hard. That is, he spoke of a feeling.

Joseph Nicoletti Yeah.

Studs Terkel Subconscious feeling; used the word sentiment in a very good sense. So I'm wondering, in view of what he said, is there, the early question I asked, is there a trend away from what what might be described as a monolithic utilitarian cold aestheticism that has been pointed out as part of our structures today? Is there a trend perhaps toward Professor Nervi's approach, let's say? This is a difficult, a delicate question, I know.

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi Professor Nerve points out, it's a very interesting, very interesting question. He says that if it is true if what you say is true and he's he's unaware of it in the way you say it is because he knows his means because he has studied and he knows his means. The the possibilities give him by the means he uses. He says, If I had it to work in iron, of course as it sometimes does but not until the very small details, he feels less free. And here comes a very interesting theoretical scientifical argument, is that the difference is that there shouldn't be so much a gap between the technological knowledge and and the tech and the the the how do you say the--

Studs Terkel Human, humanistic.

Carlo Baldi And the, the--

Joseph Nicoletti

Studs Terkel Yes, thank you, that's it. Humanistic.

Carlo Baldi Yes the [rich? original?] knowledge. He means that in order to be free, to express freely yourself and in a valid way you must know very well technologically the means you are using. And this brings out the an interesting, an interesting I think position in in in theoretical discussion, you see, theories of methods and--

Studs Terkel Course this, Joseph Nicoletti, something you wanted to add to.

Joseph Nicoletti No I think that he translated--

Studs Terkel Yes, of course Professor Nervi then is pointing out one of the great problems of our day, is he not? I mean this, that he solves individually as a craftsman, an artist: this gap between our technological advances and yet we as human beings have not learned to grow with it. C.P. Snow's point too, to some extent.

Carlo Baldi You see because he pointed out before that he's a builder. He not only draws but he builds, you see.

Studs Terkel Well he's also--

Carlo Baldi So the whole process from his mind--

Studs Terkel Yeah, yeah.

Carlo Baldi To the already built.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Carlo Baldi Building--

Studs Terkel Of course.

Carlo Baldi Is all, is all [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel There is also, there is also there is also a poet involved here,

Carlo Baldi Yes.

Studs Terkel You see. So could you ask Professor Nervy, this feeling about this gap as you want to expand on this a bit.

Carlo Baldi He said before that if you say is a good pianist and he says thank you I don't know if I am or not, but I am a good pianist because I know how to play, I know my piano.

Studs Terkel No, no I asked--

Carlo Baldi If I could express myself well--

Studs Terkel Oh no I don't mean--

Joseph Nicoletti To to to.

Carlo Baldi No no.

Joseph Nicoletti Just as an example, you see?

Studs Terkel Yeah, yes.

Carlo Baldi If I didn't know my piano, didn't know how to play my piano I wouldn't be able to express myself completely, you see what I mean? I mean he has pointed out, he wanted to make it a point that he was able to express himself the way he did because he knows his material. He knows he's means. That is very important.

Studs Terkel The artist knowing his material.

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi He says that as we, as we said before he wants to make a point that [cough] he built. He is a builder; before he ever made any drawings, any projects, he built for years and years. He was a pure builder, just a builder. And he say, This is a lucky accident that I have this experience and and and now I can I can draw and build and follow the whole process, you see, and he wants to, he wants to make a point of this.

Studs Terkel I want to ask Professor Nervi this point. We are aware of his work in the building, of the designing, the engineering of hangars, of warehouses, of factories, of office buildings. Long ago in the earlier days industrial revolution John Ruskin and William Morris spoke of places where men work being things of beauty. I think we already had in our time, Professor Nervi's feeling about this this, interesting that it's places where men work that are so much a part of his creativity.

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian conversation]

Studs Terkel We have a little protocol involved here, [those with?] Italian courtesy.

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Studs Terkel [cough] Professor Nicoletti.

Joseph Nicoletti He said that all this, of course the, in the presence of the human being in this building is very important. And this feeling is widespread at the moment but the trend of architecture, industrial architecture is now is going to something objective really objective. As objective I mean from the static point of view, in other words the statics, the structural demands will state clearly what is the position of the designer facing a certain problem. Then comes the beauty and human feeling in architecture which is proper of the designer. Well this is in few words what Professor Nervi said.

Carlo Baldi It's very interesting that Professor Nervi say that he has a very positive view of the future because he says that he's happy that those in Italy, we feel now, nowadays the need for in good aesthetically valid industrial architecture because it has a educative value that people, people who work and live and work and spend so much part of their life in a place which is not only functional but also beautiful, have a tendency to conform to this beauty, to, to, there's an educative value on on them, and he says that this this, I I I brought up an ideal of beauty and he says this is so much so everywhere in the world because people feel feel this need for beauty. This is a very positive and optimistic view, a very positive view. He says that throughout the world there is this need end and and there will be, people will be better, you know. And the architecture now is dominated by problems. While in in in the decorative architecture was dominated by the taste, nowadays architecture is dominated by the problems. And there is there is some, the problems are the same everywhere. The objective problems are the same; one can solve them one way or another. But the objective problems are the same. Therefore there is some kind of a unity, you know, they come close.

Studs Terkel This leads to a question. Since their problems are the same everywhere and architects are concerned with problems rather than just something, aestheticism for aestheticism's sake, since problems are basically the same the world over, is there a trend, does he feel this? We know in the world of painting we speak of a trend toward an international style. Is there a trend toward an international style in architecture, and if so perils as well as benefits. Perhaps Professor Nervi would care to comment on that.

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Interjection by Baldi or Nicoletti]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Joseph Nicoletti Mmm hmm.

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian, other voices joining in]

Carlo Baldi Si, yeah [cough] While for what concerns painting one could have the suspect that an international style would mostly apply to a fashion. As far as great architecture is concerned, great air stations, skyscrapers, great stadiums and and so forth, the objective problems dominate the, they are they are conditioned by the objective problems that they have to solve; static construction and functional problems. Therefore he says the problems are the same; of course there is a base on which everybody is d'accord everybody agree. If Professor Nervi says I have to discuss with some Japanese some South American and British designers some of these problems, we are all we all agree. Therefore there is there is a trend to a unification of style, but you are always free to apply this style in different ways, in different manners, because in this case in this case, an international style would be would be positive thing, of course. There is a, he finds, there's a very good, a very good point in this.

Joseph Nicoletti [He say?] in other words he said that as the problems are the same everywhere, the structural problems particularly as far as I say that at terminals and railway station and so forth are concerned, Professor Nervi in his discussion with many designers of other countries he always found himself in full agreement with these people as the problems were the same and the ways to solve these problems were the same. What can be different is this just in small details, as to treat [I mean?] just hardware and small details in architecture.

Studs Terkel Yes, but this raises a point Professor Nervi, perhaps this is one. Maybe some people dwell on it too much. I for one as a layman, you know we worry so much about the shroud of conformity that covers the world of sameness. Will this trend [looking to?] a national style, beneficial though it obviously is, lose something too? Isn't there a certain uniqueness in the different lands that distinguish their styles?

Carlo Baldi Yes, but that's why--

Studs Terkel No, ask Pr--, ask Professor Nervi.

Carlo Baldi Professor Nervi, yes, but he has already made this point.

Studs Terkel Have him, ask it to him.

Carlo Baldi He, what he spoke, what he spoke of international style, unification style and the possibilities, the free--

Carlo Baldi Yeah.

Carlo Baldi Of free application of the style--

Carlo Baldi Yes.

Carlo Baldi Of free, to apply freely the style.

Studs Terkel I wish, I wish Carlo you would ask him once again a variation [background conversation] of the question: the danger of loss of uniqueness of national--

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi He brings out the point with [cough] say it is a typical example of how I feel towards the future. This, this, this conformity, this international stage given by planes. Nowadays the planes who fly at more than 900 kilometres an hour have the same styles, but you can recognize an American plane from an English plane or a French plane because in the design there are some differences. There are, the differences that make a plane recognizable for that type of plane from that type of of of of trend of designs and so forth. I want to translate--

Studs Terkel Please, translate this question again.

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi Professor [unintelligible] how there is this danger. The danger is where that style ends and fashion begins.

Studs Terkel Aaah.

Carlo Baldi If you have a multiplication a [unintelligible] multiplication of of of how people [draw?] projects and [unintelligible]. You don't have, many of them don't have the chance to be to be original to be to be themselves. If you if you when you are within the framework of style you can create valid and interesting works. When you are in the framework of ta-- of just taste, of fashion--

Studs Terkel Fashion.

Carlo Baldi Or fashion then now you you kill the the the the work and this is a problem which is more connected with man, it's more a philosophical problem that then a problem of circumstances. It's man, it's not, it's not, it's time, you know?

Studs Terkel The problem is a matter of fashion. Style being very legitimate, integral part; fashion being so-- a facade, something put on.

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi Style is an interpretation, while fashion is just a conformism.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Carlo Baldi A little while ago we were speaking of style and differing, different applications of style. Professor Nervi made example of Gothic, of French, German, Spanish, and Italian Gothic. A different interpretation of the same thing. Which is very very

Studs Terkel But there was style [unintelligible]. Joseph? [Italian in background].

Joseph Nicoletti Well, I--

Studs Terkel Yeah. Oh. The the the point, is there a danger? I've read now and then in architecture of Italy, other countries, the danger too of innovation for innovation's sake. It's true man always seeks to find something new. Is this also a recurring danger in architecture? Newness for newness' sake.

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi There is a, Professor Nervi speaks of of of of of a deadly danger. In all architectural schools of new for the new, of innovation, feel it-- and itself, for it's own sake. Innovation for innovation. It's a terrible danger.

Studs Terkel This is a danger he--

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi This is the the [outburst from Nervi] danger. This is the maximum, the maximum danger. You point out [cough] a very very very interesting point because is very dangerous. The innovation of innovation brings to a vast expense of money for no reasons very often, to to technical mistakes, and for and originality it's pseudo-originality in this case.

Studs Terkel What is--

Carlo Baldi There there aren't reasons. It's not justified by aesthetical or functional reasons.

Joseph Nicoletti And furthermore he say that building last for years, for centuries and this can be, if it's only fashion can be disgusting, really disgusting.

Studs Terkel So this can be--

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi Fashion is a transitory element. Therefore it is no-- it cannot be applied to anything which is meant to last.

Studs Terkel Yes but this point that Joseph pointed out, the point that Professor Nervi made to in the discussion, that even though there's something that is innova-- innovation's sake, fashion, can be a burden if buildings last so long, can be a burden upon generations to come.

Carlo Baldi Yeah.

Studs Terkel Too, this terrible mistake.

Carlo Baldi Yes.

Studs Terkel Professor Nervi, in view of these dangers and of course the great possibilities, you're speaking let us say to a young engineer, to young architects. What-- And they ask you, Which way do I go. This is a general thing. What do you say to them?

[Italian conversation]

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Studs Terkel Joseph Nicoletti, young architect.

Joseph Nicoletti Well he's saying, point one, first [cough] you have to be perfectly aware of what are the technical demands of the construction in statics, structure and all the techniques connect--

Carlo Baldi [Italian] function.

Joseph Nicoletti function--

Studs Terkel Function.

Joseph Nicoletti and the role it's connected with the construction. And secondly you you have to [background voices in Italian]--

Studs Terkel The second [one?].

Carlo Baldi It's the first point is to study all the all the problems that occur. Construction problem, functionality, and the statics and so forth [background voices in Italian]. Second point, not, do not want to be original, to be original.

Studs Terkel Ah ha!

Carlo Baldi To be original at all costs,

Joseph Nicoletti Innovation [unintelligible]

Carlo Baldi at all costs.

Joseph Nicoletti Innovation [unintelligible]

Carlo Baldi But to be honest. Try to be honest, to do something that has, has, has a value, that is connected with the problem; that solves the problems it is meant to solve. And if you don't-- Don't pretend to be an artist. Do not do not do not try to to be what you are you are not if you are not. If you are, if you are an artist this will come out by itself. Do not do not try to bring out something that there might be or there might be not. If there is it comes out by itself. By doing this out of a thousand project you have, you'll have ninety, nine hundred ninety-nine honest honest things and one masterpiece.

Studs Terkel One, one masterpiece.

Carlo Baldi And this is enough.

Studs Terkel Yes [yes?].

Carlo Baldi This is a good result. But he he says work in serenity. Without, without wanting to create great things but honest things you know, technically good and and and solving the problems they are meant to solve.

Studs Terkel This phrase work and serenity perhaps may be the key too to the--

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi He says in his opinion it is not through mere will that you can force nature to give more products of arts that then then then, it's [possible?]--

Studs Terkel Nature itself is ready to give.

Carlo Baldi Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel This question of not forcing nature,

Joseph Nicoletti Yeah, that's right.

Studs Terkel recognizing what nat- nature's richness but not overtaxing it.

Joseph Nicoletti Yeah,

Studs Terkel Is that it?

Joseph Nicoletti that is exactly what Professor Nervi says.

Studs Terkel Professor Nervi, well since we speak of nature perhaps a couple of more ques-. You've been very gracious with your time. I know you're fantastically busy, you and Joseph Nicoletti. Concrete, reinforced concrete. Do you see new materials of this twentieth century

Pier Luigi Nervi [Unintelligible]

Studs Terkel that would become key factors in architecture?

Pier Luigi Nervi [Unintelligible]

Carlo Baldi Can you, can you repeat the

Studs Terkel question? Will there be new materials, does he see? Art, will, [does he?] see new materials that at this moment are not being used. you know? Or does he see the increased usage of a new kind of material?

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Studs Terkel What he hear there's a plastic [agent?]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi Aah.

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi Aah.

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi There will be many plastics and special aluminium aluminium--

Joseph Nicoletti Alloys, alloys.

Carlo Baldi Alloys?

Studs Terkel Alloys.

Carlo Baldi Alloys and so forth. But none will be so revolutionary as concrete has been.

Studs Terkel Concrete has been.

Pier Luigi Nervi Concrete [Italian].

Joseph Nicoletti Reinforced.

Studs Terkel Reinforced concrete. Professor Nervi, I think again we think of the roof, the dome, of the Sports Palace. You know as a sports fan, there are many sports fans all over the world and when it rains there is no baseball game or whatever, boxing. Does he see huge stadiums some day covered by roofs too?

Joseph Nicoletti Yes, of course. [Italian] we all know him from a known or supportive

Studs Terkel I'll ask this is a leading question [laughter].

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian, background voices]

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian] Professor Nervi says no doubt--

Pier Luigi Nervi [Italian, background conversations]

Carlo Baldi No doubt about it [cough]. As a matter of fact he has been asked to study this problem for Boston for a stadium for 60,000, sessantamilia--

Pier Luigi Nervi Sessantamilia

Carlo Baldi Sixty-thousand people in Boston. He doesn't know if he'll make it or not but he has studied the problem and is perfectly prepared to cope with it and solve it. He has already studied and solve the problem and he says of course the would be covered, roofed stadiums.

Joseph Nicoletti [Italian]

Carlo Baldi [Italian]

Studs Terkel [Unintelligible]