Exhibiting the work of Pier Luigi Nervi

The setting of the exhibition at the MAXXI in Rome, photo Jacopo Pergameno courtesy Fondazione MAXXI
Photo Jacopo Pergameno courtesy Fondazione MAXXI

BY PAOLA GARBUGLIO AND ALESSANDRO COLOMBO, designers of the exhibition’s setting

Communication has been one of the cornerstones of the major cultural project behind this exhibition, aimed at deeper awareness and study of Pier Luigi Nervi’s work ever since its conception.

Exhibitions are the most important method through which the work of scholars can be presented and the master builder’s projects and achievements fully appreciated by the public on a worldwide scale. In accordance with an approach as uncommon as it is commendable and indeed generally desirable, the exhibition design was conceived at the same time as the research project and devised as a system capable of displaying the scholarly findings, original materials, models and images in museums inside and outside Europe without forgetting that the items for display are to expand and alter at the subsequent stages of the tour.

The design was thus an integral part of the scholarly structure and constitutes its visible expression.

Given the existence and availability of the MAXXI and CSAC archives, the starting point was the decision to take advantage of this opportunity to exhibit the original drawings produced over the years for the different projects. The availability of this extraordinary material – graphic works of great fascination and unquestionable beauty in their own right in addition to their historical and critical importance – made it possible to devise the heart of the exhibition design.

The setting is a drawing office that, while unquestionably imaginary, seeks to conjure up the atmosphere and flavor of the space in which Pier Luigi Nervi loved to work with his sons and associates, discreet, simple and absolutely exceptional in its normality. Here the drawings are exhibited on tilted planes, authentic drawing boards frozen as in a snapshot, as though the drawings had just been completed and were now presented to the attentive spectator for examination.

The archives in Parma and Rome offer a wealth of sketches, working plans, annotated copies and perspective views, all of the elements developed in professional life for each of the projects undertaken. The exceptional nature of this collection makes it possible to exhibit the “sources”, the original materials produced at the time and constituting the basis of scholarly research, now presented to the general public as a whole for the very first time.

The drawing board is therefore a tool for the display and perfect preservation of the graphic items as well as a design solution capable of adapting to all the spaces that will host the exhibition, ensuring the utmost appreciation of the drawings by being as unobtrusive as possible. The world of architectural drawings is, however, a two-dimensional sphere in which the techniques of representation constitute a language for the initiated that is not readily accessible to all.

Three-dimensional structural design was impossible in Nervi’s day and the use of experimental models for structural testing constitutes a specific chapter for separate in-depth examination in the cycle of exhibitions. It was therefore decided to construct new models capable of illustrating the structural design and at the same time of capturing the architectural complexity of creations that are very often hard to represent and understand in two dimensions. These models are necessarily placed alongside the drawings and constitute their logical complement.

As a result, each individual project is presented by means of a group of elements together with large-sized images and models of particularly significant details. This world of elements of exceptional figurative power gives an astonishing emotional quality to the exhibition and affords fundamental insight into the exceptional mastery of space expressed by Pier Luigi Nervi in works that transcend the sphere of structural engineering by virtue of their architectural and artistic power to constitute authentic icons of the history of the twentieth century.

Another key element of the exhibition design is the iconography accompanying the work of this master builder from Sondrio, whose great care in documenting his creations led him to accumulate thousands of photographs of buildings and construction sites over the years. Selected and interpreted, this material is presented in multimedia form on screens placed alongside the projects to give them a diachronic and documentary dimension.

The last but by no means least of the problematic aspects addressed in exhibiting Pier Luigi Nervi’s work is the present-day reality of the buildings located in numerous cities in Italy and the rest of the world. The need for a contemporary vision of the architectural works was thus identified as an important objective of the project and the exhibition design, and Mario Carrieri, a photographer highly sensitive to the play of light and shadow on buildings, was called in to capture the image of the major creations as seen through modern eyes in a series of iconic pictures that has enabled us to design an exhibition capable of exploring history from a viewpoint firmly rooted in the present.


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