Florence, Rome, Swindon: How the Grand Master of Italian Stadium Design Nearly Made His Mark in England

Pier Luigi Nervi is widely regarded as the godfather of reinforced concrete design. He was an outstanding engineer and architect, renowned for experimentation in terms of both aesthetics and construction techniques. In the early part of the 20th century, Nervi grasped the potential of concrete as a building material and spent the remainder of his long career expanding the frontiers.

The secret to Nervi’s success lay in his mastery of the complementary disciplines of architecture and engineering. His deep understanding of the technical properties of the materials allowed him to imagine bold, creative designs. Where others saw limitations, Nervi saw opportunities to innovate, combining elegance and efficiency in a single stroke.

Nervi was creating edifices from the 1930s through to his death in the 1970s. His designs were rational, economic, simplistic, but above all brilliant. “Beauty comes not from decoration but from structural coherence” he said. Few buildings from his era have stood the test of time, particularly those cast in concrete, yet Nervi’s curving forms are a joyful exception.

Nervi graduated from the University of Bologna in 1913 and began practicing civil engineering a decade later. His first major commission came in 1929 with the design and construction of a municipal stadium for Florence; now known as the Stadio Artemio Franchi, home of Serie A Fiorentina.

The success of this project placed Nervi at the vanguard of Fascist-era architectural design. His departure from classical principles and traditional materials were considered symbolic of the dynamism of a nation. From there, as the Italian Modernist movement gained momentum, he won commissions to design spectacular aircraft hangars for the Italian Airforce, Italy’s first skyscraper (Milan’s Pirelli Tower) and numerous venues for the 1960 Rome Olympics (Palazzo dello Sport, Palazzetto dello Sport and Stadio Flaminio).

The international exposure gained from his Olympic designs extended his reach and fortified his reputation. His services became highly sought-after abroad and he went on to work extensively in America (George Washington Bridge Bus Station), Canada (Tour de la Bourse), Australia (Edmund Barton Building) and South Africa (Good Hope Centre).

Nervi was commissioned to build the Parisian headquarters for UNESCO; an organisation responsible for the protection of world heritage sites. He was also entrusted by the Catholic Church to design and build an auditorium for Papal audiences within Vatican City. Whilst the versatility of Nervi’s talent led him to work on a wide array of projects, his true legacy came through his work on sporting venues.

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Stadio Artemio Franchi, Florence

The Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence was, and remains, a truly ground-breaking design. The slender, glass-fronted Maratona Tower elegantly pierces the skyline from a distance. On the same side of the stadium, three graceful helicoid staircases transport spectators to the upper gallery. However, his magnum opus was the pioneering roof of the main Tribuna. It was not technically cantilevered, but the deep-set supporting trusses enabled unobstructed spectator views. Construction was particularly daring since there was no precedent and, in the case of the stairways, no models to work from. Remarkably, the stadium construction costs were less than half of those for the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna which had been built, in a classical style, just five years earlier.

The Franchi was a work of technical and visual brilliance that set the path for decades to come in stadium design. Instead of concealing the structural elements of the stadium behind brick or stone cladding, Nervi made a virtue of them, leaving them polemically exposed. This single design prompted a plethora of imitations across Europe and South America. The Artemio Franchi has hosted two World Cups and, in spite of some unsympathetic renovations prior to be being listed as a national monument, it remains a modern masterpiece nestled at the foot of the Fiesole Hills.

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Helicoid stairways, Stadio Artemio Franchi, Florence

In 1957, Nervi was commissioned to deliver the 50,000 capacity Stadio Flaminio in Rome. By this time Nervi had been joined by his son, Antonio, in the family business. Whilst the venue is most commonly associated with the Italian National Rugby team, it hosted the football competition of the 1960 Olympics and provided a temporary home for both AS Roma and Lazio during the refurbishment of Stadio Olimpico ahead of Italia’90.

Despite now being in a state of decay, the clean, sweeping lines of the Flaminio still possess a futuristic feel which must have seemed other-worldly in 1960. The stadium features another quasi-cantilevered roof, offering unobstructed views for much of the main Tribuna. The vaulted roof incorporates an arrangement of glass portholes that dramatically project shafts of light into the grandstand. Once again, the supporting structural frames protrude from the exterior of the stadium, laying bare the mechanics of the design.

The innovation of the Flaminio project came not only in the aesthetic, but in the method. Nervi combined in-situ concrete casting (structural frames) alongside pre-fabricated sections (tribunes) and slabs of ferrocement (mortar reinforced with steel mesh, for the roof). This was something that had never before been performed on such a scale.

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Stadio Flaminio, courtesy of Pier Luigi Nervi Project, Brussels

Nervi completed more modest stadia projects at Novara and Taormina. Although smaller in scale, these designs were no less beautiful and both unmistakably Nervi’s work. Regretfully, a great number of his designs never graduated beyond the drawing board. Perhaps the best example was Nervi’s design for a 150,000 capacity stadium in Rio de Janeiro for the 1950 World Cup. Alas, the organisers opted for an alternative design, from which the Maracanã was born.

In June 1963, whilst at the height of his appeal, Nervi received an unexpected piece of correspondence from the municipality of Swindon, England. Swindon was a mid-sized railway town, located 80 miles west of London in the rural county of Wiltshire. The letter from Mr Laurence Robertson explained that he had received authorisation from the local Council to engage an “illustrious” architect to produce plans for a new grandstand at the County Ground, home of Second Division Swindon Town FC. The project was to be funded by the Council as landowners and repaid over time by the tenant football club.

The letter from Swindon Council described their admiration for Nervi’s Olympic portfolio, making particular reference to the Stadio Flaminio. They wanted to bring a piece of nuovo-Roman chic to Wiltshire. The precise identity of the visionary on the Swindon Development Committee remains a mystery, but the employment of Nervi certainly represented a shift in the town’s traditional architectural style, which was more Industrial Revolution than Italian Modernism. This was to be Britain’s first Nervi monument.

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Nervi’s drawings for the new stand at Swindon Town FC

Nervi responded in writing the following month, accepting the invitation to participate in the project. He explained that it would be his son, Antonio, who would travel to England to meet the project commissioners. Nervi senior was by now a septuagenarian and, although showing no signs of slowing down, had to ration his time between many competing demands.

In the September, Mr Laurence Robertson sent further correspondence to Studio Nervi, setting out a broad specification for a new stand to extend the full length of the pitch. They afforded Nervi a high degree of creative freedom, instructing him to focus on the aesthetics of the structure as he had done in his Olympic work. Their key stipulation was that it had to be deliverable for a budget of £175,000 (equivalent to £3.6 million in 2019 prices).

In functional terms, they wanted a stand capable of housing 4,000-6,000 people, with clear sight lines to the pitch and accommodation for broadcasters and journalists. In the space beneath the stand, Robertson wanted toilets (30 male, 30 female) and refreshment facilities, furnished with long counters. These facilities would also be used to service the cricket field that lay immediately adjacent to the stadium.

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Nervi’s cross-sectional drawings for new stand at Swindon Town FC

Studio Nervi set about their designs without delay, responding in November 1963 with drawings and calculations for two subtly differentiated solutions to meet the specification. The graceful designs did not disappoint. They featured many of Nervi’s hallmarks, including the quasi-cantilevered roof and exposed structural facets. In fact, Nervi had taken this one step further with the inclusion of a glazed facade in the lower part of the stand, accentuating the sense of simplicity and transparency.

An external gallery, very continental in style and of the sort seen in the Flaminio design, ran along the rear of the stand. This served as an access point to the seats in the grandstand, but had a secondary purpose in providing a vantage point over the neighbouring cricket pitch.

The stylish, glazed auditorium beneath the stand was perhaps the zenith of the design. In Nervi’s other stadia, this space had been used for more mundane purposes; changing rooms, swimming pools and gyms. Following his brief, Nervi created an environment that was more reminiscent of a theatre foyer than a lower-league football stadium. The perspective drawings depict a gentrified scene of bow-tie waiters serving canapés to well-heeled customers.

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Nervi’s perspective drawing for the space beneath the stand at Swindon Town FC

Ultimately, Nervi’s futuristic designs were never brought to life. The exact reasons are unclear, but cost – and the relegation of the team to Division Three – are likely to have played their part. Swindon Council had contemporaneous plans to build changing rooms, offices and a swimming pool on the wider site, but these were never realised either. After a hiatus of some three years, Nervi was commissioned once again in October 1966 to produce an adapted, scaled down design for the stand. But this too was consigned to the archives.

Towards the end of the decade, Swindon Town FC experienced an upturn in fortunes on the pitch. Against all odds, they defeated Arsenal in extra time to lift the English League Cup in 1969. UEFA rules prevented a third tier team competing in European competition so they were denied their place in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.

It was this perceived injustice that prompted the creation of the Anglo-Italian League Cup, a tournament which pitted the English League Cup winners against their Coppa Italia counter-parts over two legs. This competition paired Swindon with AS Roma, with the away leg taking the Robins to the doorstep of Nervi’s finest work in the Eternal City.

However, not even this trip to the peninsula was sufficient to breathe new life into Nervi’s vision for the County Ground. Eventually, in 1971, an unremarkable brick and steel stand was constructed to a much blander design and lower budget.

Today, Swindon’s most prominent landmark is the “Magic Roundabout”, a celebrated configuration of six inter-connected traffic islands that lie just a long goal kick from the proposed site of Nervi’s frustrated masterpiece. The good people of Swindon may well curse a missed opportunity to place their town – and their football team – on the architectural map.

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Swindon project (top), Stadio Flaminio (bottom)

Thanks for reading. If you got this far, you might also enjoy my article on the forgotten tragedy of Palermo’s La Favorita.

A huge thanks to Elisabetta Margiotta Nervi of the Pierluigi Nervi Project, Brussels and Ugo Carughi for provision of information and permission to use images. Thanks also to Pasqualino Solomita for sharing his Italian-language chapter on the Swindon project.

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