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SIXXI Report Summary

Project ID: 295550
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Italy

Final Report Summary - SIXXI (Twentieth Century Structural Engineering: the Italian contribution)

The SIXXI research demonstrated that there was, in Twentieth Century, an “Italian School of Engineering”. When this School reached its maturity, during the first part of XX Century until the autarchy, it was part of the great international family of modern engineering. Also in its later years, the School remained perfectly orthodox.
At the same time, the SIXXI research has highlighted how the Italian School gradually took on its unique identity. The structures built showed ever more clearly their distinctive features. Despite the many, different shades, a trait that they share and let them stand out in the international scene: their marked architectural value.
How was that “architectonics” of Italian engineering generated?
Avoiding the cliché of Italian creativity, our long research indicated some historical circumstances that are the basis of the School's unique prerogatives.
On the one end, the Italian engineer grew in a unique cultural environment, very different from that in which, for example, the English-speaking engineer worked. In such a context, science and technology played a central role. The engineer was the hero of modernisation, a bridge builder, a model for everyone.
In Italy, throughout the 20th century, the wind blew in the opposite direction: engineering (and applied science in general) was subjected to a 'humanisation' process.
Idealism and Catholicism dominated Italian culture throughout the century. The Italian engineer's positivism took on a wide range of humanistic directions.
Tracing the School's development, we have met some.
We have seen, for example, a widespread historicist hint. The dogma of modernity that imposed a 'break with the past' did not take root in Italy. Italian engineers looked at ancient works with sincere admiration. Pier Luigi Nervi’s nostalgia for the prescientific era when architecture and engineering were not yet distinct was shared by everyone.
We have seen the special sensitivity for the figurative aspect. A peculiarity we have attributed to interactions with futurism. Futurism draws some shades from engineering: positivism, scientism and technologism. In return, engineering absorbs from futurism a certain visionary flavour.
Finally, we have noticed the sense of “drawing”. The elective affinity with this area of the architectural culture is due primarily to the coexistence of engineers and industrial designers in the war period, and then also to an "anthropological" similarity that brings structures closer to industrial design objects than to buildings. After all, a bridge is an item of everyday use, such as table, bicycle, moka, ecc.
Historicism, futurism, industrial design: different features indicate the impact of humanistic culture on the Italian engineer's traits. That also reflects the economic and productive conditions in the country.
As emerged consistently from our research, Italian School of engineering was to participate in completely anomalous modernisation: a gradual path with no industrial revolutions and entrepreneurial concentrations. Actually, the School operated in a country that was locked in a state of proto-industrialisation, in which the idea of progress coexisted peacefully with craftsmen's traditions. Hence, the workers’ skills, low cost of labour, and low mechanisation were preserved.
Thus, humanism as a result of the cultural milieu adds to the humanism of working practices, in which the engineer was fully involved. We can affirm that the particular architectural value of the Italian structure is derived from this combination of humanistic factors.
That was the origin of the extreme “Italianness” of the School: a special historical significance, which explains how the structure became a symbol for the vicissitudes of the country. A real monument to the “Made in Italy”.

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