A lot of Sydneysiders have heard of Harry Seidler.
The Austrian-born architect has been extensively recognised for his extraordinary contribution to the architecture of Australia, across a career which spanned 58 years.
Seidler is accepted as one of the leading Modernist architects in Australia, who managed to flawlessly combine technical competence with sculptural artistry.
But not many people are aware of Lombardy native Nervi, who was the most famous engineer in the world during the 1950s and 1970s.
The collaboration between Seidler and Studio Nervi lead to the creation of some of Sydney’s most iconic buildings, including the Australia Square Tower in Martin Place, the MLC Centre skyscraper, a modernist reinforced concrete structure with an octagonal floor-plan, and the adjacent CTA Business Club, known as the “mushroom building” around town.
The fruitful partnership is the subject of a current exhibition, entitled ‘Designed in Italy, Made in Australia’, which is now on show at the Tin Sheds Gallery until September 9, and which has been researched and curated by Dr Paolo Stracchi, Lecturer in Architectural Technology from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney.
“What we are showing is all the material regarding the 15-year collaboration between Pier Luigi Nervi and Harry Seidler,” Dr Stracchi said.
“Pier Luigi Nervi was during the ’60s and the ’70s the most famous engineer around the world, and when Harry Seidler had the opportunity to design Australia Square, he wanted to go to Rome to work with Pier Luigi Nervi.
“Because Australia Square was meant to be made in concrete and Pier Luigi Nervi was basically a master in concrete.”
The exhibition focuses first and foremost on the Australia Square building, which was the very first project the pair did together, plus a surveillance of many other of their architectural collaborations.
It also includes a virtual reality visit to the Palazzetto dello Sport (1957) in Rome, another Nervi building which was almost certainly a precedent for Australia Square.
The Palazzetto dello Sport is the small gymnasium built for the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.
The building was, in fact, the spectacular backdrop of that legendary Summer Roman Games, which were broadcast in more than 100 countries.
The famous Australia Square geometric ceiling is a direct likeness of the ceiling at the Palazetto dello Sport, and the product of the first-ever adoption of the Sistema Nervi (Nervi System) in Australia.
This system was implemented continuously after Australia Square by Rinaldo Fabbro of Fabbrostone construction company.
For Australia Square, Nervi also suggested the use of permanent precast column formworks to shape and build the outside colonnade of the famous Australian tower.
“Which means that they built a mould in concrete, and then inside this mould they poured the concrete itself to create the structure,” Dr Stracchi explained.
“But they didn’t remove this case.
“The formwork remained there – it was actually permanent, and is the one that you can still see if you go and visit the building.
“The mould itself was the cladding of the building – it was both structure and the finishing of the structure at the same time.”
This use of permanent concrete formwork instead of traditional timber formwork was innovative, safer and quicker to construct.
“It was the first time it was adopted at Australia Square and then adopted by Fabbrostone in many other buildings in Australia, including in Brisbane and Canberra,” Dr Stracchi said.
Dr Stracchi arrived in Australia in 2012 and was appointed as Lecturer at the University of Sydney in 2018.
He said that following the exhibition, his next calling is “writing a book about the collaboration”, plus utilising the Nervi System in a series of design experiments using 3D printing.
The exhibition will move from the Tin Sheds Gallery to the Australia Square Tower on September 18.
From that point on, visitors will be able to look directly at the ceiling and be “basically transported to Rome, see the same technique, geometry and design of ceiling of the Palazzetto dello Sport,” Dr Stracchi said.
Dr Stracchi added that he is the first person to investigate the long-term collaboration between Nervi and Seidler.
“No-one actually knew the extent of this collaboration,” he said.
“Everyone knows that Nervi had something to do with the ceiling of Australia Square, but no one knows about the other buildings, such as the mushroom building in Martin Place, which, when you look at the drawings you see they were actually done in Rome...
“What we can definitely say is that Nervi had a huge influence on Harry Seidler, who was of course one of the most prominent Australian architects.
“So Nervi had a strong influence on Australian architecture, for sure.”
For more information on the exhibition visit the University of Sydney’s website.