Chrysler Museum of Art exhibition celebrates 50 years of Norfolk’s Scope and its Italian designer, Pier Luigi Nervi

In 1960, people around the world marveled at that year’s Summer Olympics, the first to be commercially televised.

Fans watched athletes compete in the oval-shaped Stadio Flaminio, Rome’s new 30,000-seat stadium designed by Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi and his son.

Norfolk civic leaders were watching too and were captivated by the stadium. In 1965, they tapped the man behind it to design Norfolk’s cultural and convention center for basketball championships, rock concerts, opera and theater: Scope.

Scope opened in November 1971. The building and nine other Nervi projects are the focus of the 50th anniversary exhibition, “Pier Luigi Nervi: Art and Science of Building,” at the Chrysler Museum of Art.

The show opens this weekend and will continue through Feb. 27.

The traveling exhibition was curated by Cristiana Chiorino from ComunicArch in Rome, a company that specializes in architecture and Nervi’s work. Pieces from the Norfolk library system and SevenVenues, the city’s culture, arts and entertainment department, were also loaned to the exhibition.

When Norfolk first approached Nervi, he was in his 70s and revered for his dome designs and simultaneous use of concrete and mesh. Deemed “the Michelangelo of this generation,” Nervi had a portfolio that ranged from a 33-story skyscraper in Milan — still one of the world’s tallest reinforced concrete structures — to a 47-story skyscraper in Montreal. He was also part of the design team for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

But Nervi’s reputation wasn’t enough to appease some locals who argued that the city wronged its homegrown architects. Other issues included designs that didn’t fit the city’s needs, a tug of war with Richmond officials who were also eyeing Nervi for a project, and a construction price tag that jumped from $11 million to nearly $30 million before construction.

The Chrysler show follows Nervi’s career through panels of information and includes his work on airplane hangars, St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, the Torino Esposizioni center in Turin and the Augusteo movie theater in Naples, said Lloyd DeWitt, the Chrysler’s chief curator and Irene Leache Curator of European Art.

The exhibition includes a Nervi drawing, a model of Scope and Chrysler Hall made of resin, plastic and wood, and a time-lapse video of Scope being built. Also included is work by Kenneth Harris, a local artist who depicted the neighborhoods and buildings torn down and replaced by Scope as part of Norfolk’s urban renewal efforts.

DeWitt suggested bringing the Nervi exhibition here because he and others at the museum felt that the building was not “well understood or not well appreciated locally.”

The exhibition sheds light on Scope’s importance and what makes it different from other architecture in the area.

Its name, Scope, is short for “kaleidoscope,” a name chosen by New York graphics and communications firm Loewy-Snaith, archives show. Some locals protested the name, arguing that it sounded like the mouthwash brand. Others suggested names such as Thesaurus, Bay Palace, Globe or Oysterdome.

But Scope it was.

The building was part of a Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority program to revitalize the city. The federal government footed most of the bill for Scope, while the city paid about $12 million.

“This whole project was the crown jewel of the whole urban renewal movement,” DeWitt said. “An awful lot of people, mainly Black people, were kind of pushed out of their neighborhoods downtown.”

DeWitt said Scope is an improved version of the Olympic stadium.

“That one was done for conditions in Rome,” he said, ”but he had a chance to sort of improve on his earlier design.”

Scope, at 85,000 square feet, seats 12,000 people. It’s 110 feet high; its flying buttresses are each 54 feet tall. The structure includes more than 2.5 million cubic feet of concrete and 1,400 miles of steel rods, according to archives.

Experts compare the building’s circular ceiling to a mandala or a patterned, geometric, spiritual symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism. Outside, struts lift Scope’s dome, which is made of rubber, fiberglass, insulation, foam urethane and concrete panels.

Nervi’s design included a domed arena, convention hall and theater building, DeWitt said. What sets his designs apart is that it lets light in from the bottom; traditional domed buildings let light in from above.

Nervi was backed by four local firms tasked with finalizing the designs — architects Williams, Tazewell & Associates, engineers Fraioli-Blum-Yesselman, landscape architects Sasaki, Dawson, Demay Associates and parking consultant Ralph H. Burke.

One firm said Nervi’s designs were “magnificent,” but Nervi did not fully understand how the city planned to use the building. For example, some argued that the plans did not have enough seats and three-fourths were on one side. The entrances were too small for circus vehicles and there would be no air conditioning and no way to add cooling, archives say.

Nervi wanted Chrysler Hall — the concert building next to Scope — to look like a horseshoe-shaped Milan opera house, but that wouldn’t have fared well in Norfolk, said chief architect E. Bradford Tazewell Jr. in 2011.

DeWitt said, “They really did work with the plans and change Chrysler Hall quite a bit to soften it and make it look more like the buildings around it.”

Nervi’s domed top and two dozen flying buttresses did make the cut, though.

DeWitt said the architect was a trained engineer who was careful and took his specifications, measurements and tests seriously.

Nervi never visited Norfolk but sent his sons multiple times to present his designs. Nervi’s team created a model of Scope, then tested it in a wind tunnel to make sure it could withstand hurricanes and other harsh elements.

DeWitt said some of Nervi’s techniques and materials had been used before his time, including rebar (reinforced steel), but he improved them by using lighter steel meshes that added strength without thickness or weight. Nervi designed buildings despite the shortage of heavy equipment and raw materials after World War II.

Nervi’s innovative techniques were too radical for some, but they are a testament to how beauty can come from necessity, DeWitt said.

“He pushed the limits of concrete so that it did things it wasn’t supposed to do,” he said. “He understood his materials really well. That’s sort of why people call him a poet in concrete. It’s not just technically advanced, but it’s gorgeous. When you come into it, they turn on the lights, you look at the ceiling, thinking ‘Oh my goodness. This is so mesmerizing. It’s almost mystical.’”

Still, the architectural poet drew naysayers, including Berry D. Willis Jr., a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for Norfolk City Council and questioned the originality of the designs.

“I’m also wondering if the city is getting anything original from Mr. Nervi or just warmed over pizza,” Willis said in February 1966.

Four months later, Lawrence M. Cox, NRHA’s executive director, said Nervi was the obvious choice.

“There are many good architects, local architects and many architects around this country and other countries that have had experience in designing large gathering places,” Cox said, according to a newspaper article. “No one has had the success, acclamation and recognition that Pier Luigi Nervi has received in this area.”

Cox said the building could become a No. 1 tourist attraction, drawing thousands. Others involved in the project said it would allow the city to host eight events in one night.

Plans were finalized in February 1967 after Tazewell made a second trip to Rome to meet Nervi and go over details. The meeting lasted three days.

Cost was also discussed throughout the project. The city demanded the best, which increased costs.

Tazewell said in a 1968 article that the increase was due to the surge in major construction bids on other Virginia projects, including a coliseum being built in Richmond. Richmond and Norfolk were also in a competition of sorts to get Nervi, who was known to take on four or five projects a year.

Norfolk civic leaders claimed they didn’t know Richmond had spoken to Nervi until Norfolk approved his contract in 1965.

“Richmond just didn’t move as fast as we did,” City Manager Thomas F. Maxwell said at the time.

Scope has hosted more than 3,800 events with more than 17 million people during the past 50 years, The Pilot reported in July.

In 1976, Frank Sinatra performed to a crowd of 11,044. Columnist Larry Bonko recalled him asking if Scope was truly made of concrete and wondering if his voice would bounce off the dome.

In 2003, the dome won the Test of Time Award from the American Institute of Architects.

“This is a very ambitious building — Scope,” DeWitt said. “It literally takes a dome and lifts it off the ground and puts it on these struts so light comes in from underneath. That kind of breaks all the rules. It’s almost showing off how fantastic of an architect he is with techniques like that, but also inspiring people to use this material in new and creative ways.”

Saleen Martin, 757-446-2027, [email protected]


If you go

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 27.

Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, McKinnon Galleries, One Memorial Place, Norfolk

Tickets: Free

Details: 757-664-6200, or [email protected]


Related programming

Walking Tour: Norfolk Architecture

2 p.m. Dec. 4

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Norfolk’s Scope and the Chrysler Museum’s exhibition, guests can explore some architectural landmarks of downtown Norfolk. Joshua Weinstein of Norfolk Tour Co. will lead the tour and share stories during the 90-minute tour. The tour is limited to 24 participants. Registration is required at $15 for museum members, $20 for non-members.


Virtual Lecture: The Architecture of Pier Luigi Nervi

7 p.m. Feb. 10

Architectural scholar Thomas Leslie will host a virtual presentation about the architect of Scope, Pier Luigi Nervi. Leslie is an architecture professor at Iowa State University who specializes in 20th century modernist architecture. Registration is required at The Zoom link will be sent on the day of the event. Free, but donations are welcome to support free programming.

Angelia S. Rico

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