Palazzetto dello Sport. Rome, Italy. 1957. Pier Luigi Nervi
Pier Luigi Nervi is to architects what Pete Maravich is to basketball players or Fritz Lang is to film directors – a technical virtuoso whose extraordinary work so fundamentally broke from architectural tradition that his influence is only fully appreciated generations later.
As the And1 Mix Tapes glorify passing, dribbling and Maravich-ian hoop creativity and Star Trek and Star Wars capitalize on modern society’s fascination with worlds beyond our own, Nervi’s expressive structural engineering work is only today becoming mainstream, with the rise of the organic, parametric movement in architecture.
Nervi basically invented reinforced concrete, a type of concrete impregnated with steel bars that give concrete its missing tensile strength. Although reinforced concrete is now used pretty much everywhere concrete is required, Nervi’s use of the material was anything but quotidian. His characteristic, lightweight, shell structures gain their strength from the strategic placement of structural ribs. Much like a groin vault in Gothic Cathedrals, the loads acting on Nervi’s structures are concentrated along the system of ribs. Nowhere is this rib system more beautifully on display than at the Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome.
Built in 1958 the Palazzetto dello Sport was the home of boxing and basketball for the 1960 Summer Olympics. The venue got off to an auspicious start when it saw the rise of a young Cassius Clay en route to winning the gold medal for the United States in the light heavyweight division.
Like many great buildings, the cozy 3,500-seat arena is simultaneously large and small, intimate and grand. The small seating capacity and incredible roof are largely responsible for this duality. The 60-meter diameter space is spanned by the paper lantern-esque, white-painted roof. Consisting of a series of prefabricated concrete pieces, the roof took a mere forty days to be snapped into place. The forces leading outward from the roof are picked up by Y-shaped flying buttresses that ring the perimeter of the building, another reference to ancient architecture Nervi was so fond of.
A continuous ribbon window forms the transition between roof and arena proper – the visual separation the windows create between the two heightens the impression that the lightweight roof is hovering above. The windows fill the arena with a generous amount of daylight creating a category of arena that might warrant its own Stadiafile series sometime soon.
The Palazzetto is the younger sibling to the larger PalaLottomatica (originally Palazzo dello Sport) located across the city. The 11,500-seat PalaLottomatica was also designed by Nervi for the 1960 Summer Olympics and features a similar concrete roof to the Palazzetto. However, the lack of natural lighting inside the PalaLottomatica makes it a less spectacular space than the Palazetto.
Today the Palazzetto hosts volleyball, basketball and other community sporting events. It sits adjacent to the Nervi-designed Stadio Flaminio rugby stadium and Renzo Piano‘s Auditorium Parco della Musica. Down the street is Zaha Hadid’s recently opened MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, making this location a must-visit for sports-inclined, architecture lovers.
Like Zaha’s Aquatic Centre for the 2012 London Olympics, the Palazzetto’s ambition and lasting legacy can be greatly attributed to its being designed for an Olympic Games. The ease of construction, structural ingenuity and sheer beauty of the Palazzetto roof are lasting features of this small venue and a shining example of what post-Olympics venues can be.
Main picture credit: Palazzetto dello Sport, via University of Washington Library ©2010 Vicki Reed