ERC Advanced Grant 2011


The SIXXI Research has been funded by an ERC (European Research Council) Advanced Grant 2011 (Project ID: 295550; EU contribution: EUR 987.270).

The general goal of the research is to give a major contribution to the international history of the role of engineering in architecture.
The research project focuses on the works and protagonists of twentieth century structural engineering in Italy.
Beyond the confines of its national focus, the proposal aims to bring out the fundamental role played by Italian structural engineering in the history of modern architecture, to date largely ignored.
The contributions of major figures such as Pier Luigi Nervi, Riccardo Morandi, but also Silvano Zorzi, Sergio Musmeci, Giulio Krall, Gino Covre and others have been overlooked up to now.
The relationship between architecture and engineering have focused largely on developments in other countries: France, Switzerland, England and US.
The research project aims to fill the missing and significant Italian contribution in the international panorama.
The project has various objectives:
- Substantially improve knowledge on this issue by focusing research on individual engineers and their works;
- Introduce/strengthen the History of Civil Engineering in University Engineering and Architecture Departments (to date in Italy this subject has been completely overlooked) as a fundamental area concerning the history of construction;
- Train young researchers in this sector and organize a knowledge network available to experts and administrations;
- Promote the exploitation and protection of these works by the authorities.
This ambitious project aims to identify the major contribution of Italian Engineering to the European and international twentieth century architecture; and to contextualize the outstanding Italian engineering success, particularly during the economic boom, in the international panorama. It passionately delves into the research area that Eugenio Battisti defined as “a new frontier of historiography”.
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Brief introduction of the research proposal
The historiography of modern structural engineering needs to make significant progress. There has been an initial organization of the main works in the overall context of the modern movement, together with architectural styles. Indeed, the importance of certain works has been recognized. However, these are “external” interpretations. The true issue concerns, particularly in Italy, the need for a specialist history that will address structures on the basis of the intrinsic characteristics of individual works and analyse the project decisions that were made in terms of mechanical developments. Fundamentally, such an investigation would reconstruct the genesis of an engineering work based, not only on its architectural nature, but also – and especially - on the basis of the project’s scientific characteristics.
This activity requires a cross-examination of the history of science and that of architecture. Who could accomplish this? This task requires the development of a new figure: the engineering historian, an engineer with a profound knowledge of structural mechanics, but who can also overcome any physiological idiosyncrasy for history.
This “historiographic hiatus” is clearly evidenced by the absurd dearth of information that is available on the most dynamic period of Italian engineering: the transition from the post-war reconstruction effort to the so-called “economic miracle” that lead to the creation of original Italian-style structures. All of this still awaits an adequate historical reconstruction. What role did the great works of Italian engineering play in the process that ushered Italy from the post-war reconstruction effort into the “economic boom”? What characteristics determined their unique quality? Where did they originate? Why was that extraordinary period followed by a total eclipse of such structural works in Italy?
What role did the great works of Italian engineering play in the more general contemporary European and International development of reinforced concrete structures? What are the interrelationships between Nervi and Eduardo Torroja (same trust in scale model laboratory)? And between Morandi and Eugene Freyssinet (so similar jack for prestressing reinforced concrete)? And between Krall and Franz Dischinger with Ulrich Finsterwalder? And the influence of Maillart in the postwar Neapolitan engineering school? What role did Franco Levi’s exile in France after racial laws play? And that one of Gustavo Colonnetti in Switzerland after armistice, before his CNR president appointment?
The brief parabola that brought Italian structural engineering to the centre of international attention lasted from 1949 to 1964. In 1949, Nervi designed the Salone B of Torino Esposizioni using for the first time ferrocemento and “structural pre-fabrication”, employed some years later to erect the marvellous structures designed for the 1960 Rome Olympics. The Autostrada del Sole, the motorway from Milan to Naple included 400 bridges, was built between 1956 and 1964. In 1960, Morandi designed the Polcevera Viaduct based on the same scheme tested on the long bridge spanning the Maracaibo lagoon. The following year, the celebrations for Torino ’61 lead to the construction of the Palazzo del Lavoro by Nervi and the Vela by Franco Levi. The School of Italian Engineering was rightfully recognized at the “Twentieth Century Engineering” exhibition held in 1964 at the MOMA in New York.
The extraordinary feats of Italian engineering were not, however, the result of a “miracle”. They were the direct consequence of the double continuity with the previous decades and, in particular, with the saddest phase of Italian history, that of Fascist autarchy. They were the result of a concept that began at the beginning of the century and which drew in both the scientific and technical environs of structural mechanics.

A meticulous reconstruction of the events and a careful interpretation of the works will shed light on this paradox. How did structural engineering develop such an advanced experimental phase in a country with such a significant technological deficit? Moreover, this will also help shed light on the subsequent rapid decline of structural production and provide an explanation to the current debate on the extinction (at least in Italy) of structural designers.

State of the Art
At present, however, there are no detailed studies on this period that can explain this unforeseeable success of Italian engineering and his subsequent rapid decline, but some preliminary soundings clearly indicate that there is ample scope for further investigation.
Similarly, there are very few studies on the engineers who were the protagonists of this experience. Most of this work has been compiled to celebrate anniversaries. It is not serious research work; it presents gaps and does not include the necessary historical perspective. For example, there is no study on the complete works of Pier Luigi Nervi (while, instead, there are hundreds of monographs – in various languages – on Santiago Calatrava who repeatedly underlined the influence of Nervi on his work).


Actions that will be implemented to reach the various research objectives:

A. Increasing Knowledge (pa: identifying and collecting engineering primary sources)
B. Creating the Research Network (pa: SIXXI Web Portal)
C. Training Young Researchers (pa: “Pier Luigi Nervi” Scholarship)
D. Awaking Istitution (pa: Exploitation, Protection and Conservation)

A. Increasing Knowledge
The research project entails studies and investigations on the activities of Italian engineering before, during and following the economic boom years, comparing the Italian production with the more significant contemporary international engineering works.
This task requires the identification and study of the work of the main protagonists of this period (engineers, designers and contractors). Not only world-renowned engineers, such as Pier Luigi Nervi and Riccardo Morandi, but also of all those who influenced the history of Italian structural construction. The project will also address the construction venture involving more actors in these period (Autostrada del Sole, Autostrada del Sud, call for the bridge over the Straits of Messina, ecc). Moreover, studies will also be conducted on individual structural works that are considered particularly significant. Analytical studies will be conducted on the original project documents, the construction yard documentation and the photographic documentation made during the construction process. The analysis will reconstruct the original characteristics of the work; document the present state of deterioration and the transformations undergone by the works and set guidelines for their conservation.
According to historical accounts and to conducted analysis, specific studies will be oriented to characterize and to interpret the peculiar identity and originality of Italian engineering works.
This interpretation activity will be manage comparing the different structural solutions adopted by Italian engineers with contemporary strategic lines followed by reinforced concrete European and US structural engineers (Maillart, Torroja, Freyssinet, Dischinger, Arup, etc.): with the aim of making clear the interrelationship between the Italian engineers and the others chief protagonists of modern engineering.
Particular attention will be paid to the interrelationships between engineering experimentation and the debate on Modern Architecture at both national and international level. The results of the research activity will be submit to peer-reviewed scientific journals and present to peer-reviewed internationally established conferences. The most interesting results will be publish in research monographs.
Research activities will entail a series of concrete activities that are indispensable to ensure the success of the research project. The principal action is: Collection and Analysis of Original Engineering Primary sources.
The first step for all research activities will be to identify the archives of individual designers (which, in some cases, may still be conserved by their heirs), construction companies operating during that period, public and private consignors and local administrations (municipal archives, prefectures, state archives, etc.) that hold documentation on twentieth-century engineering works.

B. Creating the Research Network (SIXXI Web Portal)
All research activity will supported by the creation of a dynamic database to conserve all the catalogued material (respecting all existing copyrights) as well as the final research results (publications, references, sources). This database will be accessible to researchers via an ad hoc web portal: the SIXXI Web portal.
The SIXXI Web Portal will help to catalyse research in the sector of engineering construction. In particular, the portal will promote research, contribute to the circulation of information and international research contacts and promote the development of similar research initiatives.

C. Training Young Researchers
Activities concerning the training of young researchers will be developed along various lines with projects addressing both graduate and undergraduate training. The objective of these activities is to train researchers capable of extending beyond the normal confines of Italian disciplinary scientific sectors (SSDs) that do not entail the History of Construction and Engineering. Moreover, these activities will promote sector research by creating four Postdoctoral Research Fellow Positions and 1 Doctoral Scholarship called “Pier Luigi Nervi”.

D. Awaking Istitution (Exploitation, Protection and Conservation)
A series of activities will serve to diffuse research results, raise awareness on these issues amongst young researchers and promote this line of research in general. These activities will also be fundamental in order to exploit the works of Italian engineering and promote the recognition of their value at the local, national and international level amongst the institutions responsible for their protection.