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Thomas Leslie Pursues His Long-Standing Interest in Architect Pier Luigi Nervi’s Work

January 10, 2014
Thomas Leslie. Photo: Dick Elbert, Iowa State University
Palazzetto dello Sport, Rome. Pier Luigi Nervi and Annibale Vitellozzi, 1956-57.
Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Turin. Nervi & Bartoli, 1947-49.
Italian Air Force Hangars, Orbetello (foreground) and Orvieto (background). Nervi & Bartoli, 1935, 1939-42.
Salone Nervi, Terme di Chianciano. Pier Luigi Nervi, Mario Loreti, and Mario Marchi, 1952.
Paul VI Papal Audience Hall, Vatican City. Pier Luigi Nervi, 1963-71.
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Thomas Leslie is the winner of the Booth Family Rome Prize in Historic Preservation and Conservation and the Pickard Chilton Professor in Architecture in the Department of Architecture at Iowa State University.

What part of the United States did you come from?  

Ames, Iowa, where I teach architecture at Iowa State University.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

I taught in Iowa State’s Rome program in 2008, and got to know several of the fellows that year.  The work they were doing and the way they described the community at the Academy was genuinely exciting, and as my last research project—on Chicago Skyscrapers—reached its conclusion I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to pursue my long-standing interest in Nervi’s work.  Much of his built work is here, in the city or within a day’s train ride, so Rome is convenient for that.  But as an architect, any time spent in this city is incredibly valuable, and the chance to really settle in and to live here for an extended time was a huge attraction.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

Choosing just one is hard, but having a private visit to Nervi’s Papal Audience Hall in the Vatican with a few other Fellows was incredible.  The Hall holds about 7,000 people, and the architecture is all designed to be awe-inspiring and to make the audience feel like a community all at the same time.  The opportunity to see it empty was useful for the project, but it’s also an absolutely sublime space where you feel a real continuity between its spiritual nature and the engineering it took to build something so immense.  On the other end of the spectrum, on our Fellows’ trip to Puglia we spent the night in Matera, a town carved into the sides of limestone cliffs.  It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

The basic project—to look at the influence of construction methods on Nervi’s architecture—has remained pretty much consistent.  But of course there have been lots of surprises, especially a few cases where seeing the actual construction drawings or getting up close to the buildings has proven some initial assumptions totally wrong.  The actual methods that Nervi used to build were almost universally simpler and cruder than I’d initially thought, which makes his achievements even more interesting.  

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

Dozens.  I’ve spent a lot of time in his drawing archives in Parma, and there have been those moments that you hope for as a researcher, where you turn one drawing over and there, on the next drawing, is a sketch that makes it very clear how something was conceived or built.  There’s been one drawing in particular: a rough sketch that Nervi drew for a second set of Air Force hangars in 1939, where you can see him working through a system for pre-fabricating the entire structure and figuring out how to connect all of these pieces.  Those hangars changed everything for him—he went from being a good concrete engineer to being a true innovator—and this one sketch seems to distill that turning point down to a single moment.  It was breathtaking to stumble across it and realize what it was.  I had to go outside and take a sandwich break.

But there have also been moments that are harder to pin down.  Since our first Fellows’ walk, I keep coming back to discussions in antiquities about the gaps between “texts” and “stuff,” and it’s made me realize that we have the same problem in architectural history; do you put your faith in the recorded narratives?  Or do you focus purely on the bricks and mortar?  These conversations have made me realize that the contradictions between the two are maybe the most interesting places to work.  I don’t know where that will lead, but it’s been useful for me to wade into these discussions, ask the dumb questions, and start to see parallels in my own discipline.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

As fun as it is to wade through the drawing archives, as an architect I much prefer to see real buildings.  I’ve made site visits to almost all of Nervi’s major works, but I’m looking forward to finding some more obscure buildings that marked important but under-appreciated experiments.  I know this sounds weird, but there’s a salt warehouse in Tortona that’s become a bit of an obsession, and I’m hoping to get into it this spring.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

I’ve always seen this project as tracing certain techniques or themes through Nervi’s whole career, and that sort of biographical scope is daunting.  Right now I have an incredible amount of information, and distilling all of it down to a coherent piece of writing is looming as the next big challenge.  You get to a point where everything is exciting and worth pursuing, and at some point you remind yourself that the goal is a book, not an encyclopedia.  Finding that focus and deciding what supports that and stays versus what’s distracting and gets set aside is always agonizing—it’s not nearly as fun as field or archive work.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

Having taught here before, the city itself feels familiar.  The happiest surprise has been the meals here at the Academy.  I’d heard that they were incredible, but it’s hard to describe just how good they are, and how large a role they play in daily life here.  The communal meals are something we all look forward to—they pace the day out, and to have a couple of hours of good food and wine gives you a chance to really slow down and talk with colleagues.  It’s a perfect way to end the day, to unwind, and to get inspired by what everyone else has been up to.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

It’s actually been very easy to float between time focused on my research and taking advantage of being in Italy.  Part of that is realizing that you’re not going to be able to do everything—Rome is infinite.  I’ve usually made it a point to get a good chunk of work done in the morning, and then to decide after lunch what feels right.  If I’m on a roll, I’ll hunker down in the studio or the library and keep going, but if I’m stuck or if the weather is particularly inviting I’ll head out into the city.  The Academy’s programs have been the one exception—any chance to go on a guided walk or to sit in on a lecture, no matter what the topic, has been incredibly rewarding.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

In addition to the Nervi project the time here has really helped me think about why I’m interested in this stuff in the first place.  Some of the most important moments for me have been those conversations at dinner, sitting with artists or scholars and starting with “how was your day?” and eventually spinning out into a much, much larger discussion.  Listening to what others are working on, having them explain it to you, and then adding your own work to the discussion and seeing how it relates really adds perspective.  I’ve been challenged in all kinds of new ways, and I can tell that I’ll come back to the States with a real desire to think about where my work fits into larger contexts.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

That’s easy.  I’m a compulsive sunrise runner, and the Villa Doria Pamphili, right behind the Academy, has miles of wide paths, beautiful gardens, and breathtaking views.  It might be my favorite spot on the planet.