Infrastructure As Environment: The Basento Viaduct
November 9, 2011
The Basento Viaduct by Sergio Musmeci
Since the Renaissance, for as long as architecture has been conceived of as an autonomous art, the architect has subjugated the methods of the engineer in the design process to the temperaments of the creative will. By negating the engineer’s aesthetic or artistic capacities, the architect thereby implicitly diminished the former’s role until the binomial was altogether differentiated by the time we get to modernism. Le Corbusier’s earliest dialectic of the architect and the engineer yielded the the “Builder,” a poet-engineer hybrid whose awe-inspiring works were capable of averting revolution. Needless to say, this was naive, and only a few examples of true collaboration between the architect and the engineer (Le Corbusier with Xenakis, Kahn with Komendant, Saarinen with Severud) can be spoken of. Today, we have architects who win competitions with ridiculous shapes and engineer subordinates who spend months figuring out how to make it work.
However, in the immediate post-war period, several gifted engineers entered the fray with designs for structures that managed to be both technologically and formally innovative. One such engineer was the Italian polymath Sergio Musmeci, whose best known work, the Basento Viaduct (1967-74) in Potenza, Italy, is emblematic of the period’s eclectic infrastructures. Read on.
Musmeci, who along with contemporaries Frei Otto, Eladio Dieste, and his mentor Luigi Nervi, derived his forms from the stresses incurred upon different materials and structural systems, usually through extensive studies using large-scale models, reversing the typical design process which first prescribes arbitrary geometry to specific conditions or problems before seeing to structural issues. The finalized form was the result of its optimization, which ensured maximum efficiency in performance and minimal material usage.
The Basento Viaduct is comprised of a road deck supported below by a continuous structural concrete membrane 30 cm thick. The flatness and expanse of the carriageway’s top layer is subverted by as “underworld” of complex surfaces, whose curved, fluid forms can only in the most vulgar sense be called organic. This cavernous space functions as a pedestrian walkway–a perverse iteration of the High Line, avant la lettre, a kind of public (skate-) park sandwiched in mid-air.
Whereas Musmeci’s bridge may seem an over-elaborate solution to a relatively standard problem, it speaks to the aesthetic capabilities of the engineer, whose forms here are not given over to some Calatrava-like exuberance for expressivity’s sake, but are instead justified by their inherent efficiencies. Of course, formal justification now comes in all shapes and sizes (see BIG‘s 1,392 diagrams. Seriously.), yet they are rarely evinced in the built architecture.