The work of Pier Luigi Nervi gets the Formafantasma treatment in Rome

Pier Luigi Nervi installation by Formafantasma
Installation view of ‘Formafantasma. Nervi in the Making’ at MAXXI Museum, Rome.
(Image credit: Alcantara)

For the second year, Rome’s MAXXI Museum cracks open its vast archive for its now annual ‘Studio Visit’ exhibition, curated by Domitilla Dardi. In collaboration with innovative material company Alcantara, the project gives a working designer free rein to create an exhibition from the institution’s deep historical catalogues. In 2018, Nanda Vigo and Arch-Arcology paid tribute to utopian architect Paolo Soleri in the form of an immersive installation. This year, Dardi tapped Italian expats and experimental wunderkinds Formafantasma.

Pier Luigi Nervi installation by Formafantasma

(Image credit: © Alcantara)

For their project, duo Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Ferresin set their sights on the impeccably preserved archive of Sondrio-born structural engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi. ‘We were fascinated by his work because it is very different from ours,’ explains Ferresin of the choice. ‘He was so obsessed by engineering as a source of formal translation. He saw architecture as the aesthetic solution for a problem of engineering, which is a very 20th-century perspective.’

‘We chose to present images of his work in an unfinished state. By breaking up that perfection it leaves more space for interpretation’

Nervi is well known for inventing ferro-cement, a type of low cost reinforced concrete that became ubiquitous during the Second World War when more expensive building materials were harder to come by. Nervi, famously, was an absolute wizard with the stuff. He was able to spin the rigid material like gossamer silk, he puffed it up over parabolic roofs and draped it across vaults like curtains. A prodigy of parametric design, he created mathematically complex buildings long before computers made it easy to do so.

Pier Luigi Nervi installation by Formafantasma

(Image credit: © Alcantara)

Nervi’s buildings, like Rome’s domed Palazzetto Dello Sport and the Vatican’s Aula Paolo VI auditorium, made elegant use of organic forms and impressively large, column-less spaces: a foil to hard-lined rationalism that was popular in the 1930s and 40s when he was most prolific.

For the exhibition, Trimarchi and Ferresin printed photographs from the archive — these included images of construction sites, building references and architectural inspiration, from gothic buildings to mineral formations, that he used for presentation slides while he was a professor at Rome’s Sapienza University — onto sweeping sheaths of technical performance material Alcantara. The images are further divided up into those that illustrate either the skin or framework of a building, demonstrating his enlightened approach to structure and form.

Pier Luigi Nervi installation by FormafantasmaMuseums

(Image credit: © Alcantara)

As an added didactic element, the duo tracked down a recording of one of Nervi’s lectures that had been stashed away for years, which is piped into the gallery from four industrial-style bullhorns.

‘We wanted to create the idea of a construction site,’ explains Trimarchi of the setup, a series of structures built up from work-site scaffolding. ‘We chose to present images of his work only in an unfinished state. By breaking up that perfection it leaves more space for interpretation.


‘Formafantasma. Nervi in the Making’ is on view until 14 April. For more information, visit the MAXXI Museum website and the Studio Formafantasma website


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Laura May Todd, Wallpaper's Milan Editor, based in the city, is a Canadian-born journalist covering design, architecture and style. She regularly contributes to a range of international publications, including T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Azure and Sight Unseen, and is about to publish a book on Italian interiors.