Reflections on Artist Costantino Nivola


Tino and Grady

Reflections on the Artist: Costantino Nivola. A collection of images from Carl Stein’s recent presentation at the Italian Embassy in Washington DC

It’s not possible to describe Costantino Nivola – Tino – in a few paragraphs or a few pages. His art as well as the sum total of his life have far too much range and depth. Rather than making a futile attempt at comprehensive inclusion, I will try to add texture to his accumulative portrait by sharing some personal recollections drawn from more than thirty-five years of knowing Tino as a mentor, a colleague and a friend.

I think I was nine or ten when my parents first brought me to visit the Nivola family in The Springs on Long Island. While I’m not sure of the exact year, I do have evidence that by 1956, when Tino was working on studies for a large multi-panel sand-cast relief for the Grady High School in Brooklyn – one of his early collaborations with my father Richard Stein, I, as a thirteen-year-old, was already hanging around with my most-prized possession, an inexpensive Japanese knockoff of a Rolleicord. Interestingly, not only is this image of Tino, standing by the maquette of the Grady relief one of the few early photographs of mine that has survived, the maquette in the photograph was in my possession until a few years ago when I gave it to a young colleague who is fortunate enough to have a loft large enough to display it properly. It is still there, having been passed from Tino to my father to me and then to him.

An unintended although quite relevant reading of the photograph might be that of a dual portrait, a diptych – Tino and friend, and might speak of the equivalency between the artist and the art. The image of Tino conveys an overarching sense is of immediacy and connection, intense and complex. The art is somewhat more aloof, the figure being a representation of idealized humankind, an iconic graphic. Yet within the structure of the grand figure there are pictograms of more mundane events, suggesting that integral to the conceptualized essence of the primary figure are daily human activities; and that these activities are not only essential to basic existence but are the undertones and overtones that flesh out a fully engaged life. Looking back to the artist, underlying, or perhaps emerging from the immediately apparent warmth and passion is transcendental dignity and intellect. Micro and macro, macro and micro.

Any discussion of twentieth century art must clearly distinguish between narrative subject on the one hand, and conceptual subject and formal structure on the other. The narrative for Tino’s work almost always involved the human experience, and throughout his career, this narrative oscillated between the micro and macro perspectives. In many works including the figures for the Piazza Satta and the Combined Police/Fire Facility in New York City, subtle representations of daily activity imply a grandeur far beyond that of either the scale or literal reading of the narrative. In others, such as Grady relief, the primary formal theme speaks of elemental human dignity, yet with footnotes addressing events that give human life warmth and color. The choice of one point of view or the other was never one of absolutes nor did it follow any particular time line. Consider, for example, the similarities in perspective between the Masculine Figures from the mid-1950’s and the Feminine Figures from the early 1980’s, or between the Piazza Satta figures from 1966 and the Combined Police/Fire Facility figures from 1984.

Between 1954 and 1971, Tino and my father collaborated on a number of projects –playgrounds including Stephen Wise Houses in Manhattan and PS 55 in Staten Island, a building which also incorporated four large concrete reliefs integrated into the facades; other schools such as IS 183 in the Bronx; and public spaces, in particular the Piazza Sabastiano Satta in Sardinia. During this period, I was going to school, eventually getting my architectural degree from The Cooper Union, and then working for Marcel Breuer.

In 1971, I joined my father’s firm. One of my earliest assignments was working with Tino on the architectural components of the memorial to Antonio Gramsci (unbuilt). The project consisted of three figures, approximately life-size, populating and open-topped room whose walls and floors were to be blocks of local stone. The front wall incorporating the single opening into the space and the back wall sloped away from the front. This created an inherently unstable condition at the top of the entry. The solution was to add walls on either side of the entry, parallel to the side walls creating a short, narrow passageway whose ceiling – the underside of the front wall – sloped sharply upward. I remember Tino’s delight at the tightly controlled views and the spatial fluctuations that resulted. His interest was not only in the objects, the sculptures themselves, but in the experience of encountering them and the contextual message inherent in the enclosure for the Gramsci figures. The lesson of the experiential power of entry, for architecture as well as for art, was not lost on me.

Following this were the ongoing activities involving Tino, my father and myself dealing with the completion of various commissions including the large sculpted concrete pieces for IS 183. There were also many lunches when Tino came to the office to discuss some aspect or other of the works in progress, but for ten years, there were no new commissioned collaborations.

In 1981, I got a phone call from Tino asking whether, for a few months, during the mid-week, he could use the guestroom in the house in Greenwich Village where my wife, daughter and I live. He was working on a series of paintings of New York and wanted to spend time sketching the city. We, of course, said yes and for a number of months, Tino would arrive on Monday or Tuesday and stay until Thursday or Friday. Some evenings he would go out for dinner but more often, we all ate together. On a few special occasions Tino cooked, preparing his own variations on Sardinian cuisine. Even more memorable than the food was the conversation. One evening, Tino pulled out some drawings of lower Fifth Avenue, looking south toward the Flatiron Building. The view included a number of the late nineteenth century loft buildings that lined the street. The drawings stressed the horizontal lines of the column capitals about fifteen feet above street level, implying a plane parallel to the street but overhead. The pedestrian zone became a strongly felt volume bounded by the buildings, the sidewalk and the new surface suggested by the capitals. Tino remarked that Le Corbusier had frequently said that most new architecture failed to use the weight of the building to define the ground.

By this time, I had become a partner with my father. In early 1982, we received a commission to design a new Combined Police/Fire Facility on East 67th Street in Manhattan for which I was the partner-in-charge. The project was to incorporate the facades of two freestanding Victorian buildings which would be restored as part of the work, and to connect them with new building fabric. The facility, which would provide an entirely new state-of-the-art headquarters for a police precinct, fire company and the Manhattan arson squad, included an allowance for artwork. I proposed to the City that Tino be commissioned for this work, suggesting that something loosely related to his recent New York City drawings serve as the basis. Happily, both the client and Tino accepted, starting what was for me one of the most exciting collaborations of my career. Tino’s plan was to create a set of narrative sculptures speaking to the history and work of the Police and Fire Departments. In the course of my investigations for the restoration of the two facades, I had come across a book called Our Police Protectors published in 1885, contemporaneous with the 1885-6 construction date of the two buildings. The book contained a none-too-accurate drawing of the then under construction precinct station but it also chronicled Police Department work and included a number of etchings showing both nineteenth century police activity and portraits of many of the NYPD officers. These, along with photographs from the museums of the Police and Fire Departments became the narrative subjects for what turned out to be Tino’s last public commission in the United States.

Interestingly, although the pieces that were created for the Combined Facility were envisioned to be “architectural sculpture,” they are more closely related to the figures for the Piazza Satta as well as the “Beach” and “Bed” terra cotta series from the mid-70’s, than to the earlier angular concrete architectural works. Similarly, the large relief of the city is “drawn” with reference to the New York City drawings from 1981-82 as well as the Chicago drawings of 1968, the Citta gremite drawings of 1947 and the Veduta di New York paintings dated 1943-65.

During the first few months of this project, Tino returned to his schedule of spending weekdays in New York City. He and I visited various archives looking for subject material for the works. When a likely image appeared, we would discuss how a sculpture based loosely on the particular image might be incorporated into the architecture. An underlying criterion was to create and present sculpture that conveyed the importance of civic and public commitment while, at the same time, demonstrating that civic action could be incorporated seamlessly into daily life.

Once the raw material was selected, Tino returned to working in his studio in The Springs, creating first a series of sketches and very preliminary maquettes followed by more detailed maquettes. These were presented to and enthusiastically accepted by the clients. Tino then made the final sculptures in terra cotta and sent them to The Modern Art Foundry in Astoria. Because of the size of the relief panels and the complexity of some of the freestanding sculptures, a number of the works were cast in several pieces, to be welded and finished after removal from the molds. Tino oversaw that process as well as the final finishing and application of patina. On several occasions, I accompanied him to the foundry.

In what I remember as being late autumn in 1987 when Tino and I were returning from a visit to the foundry, we were driving down Fifth Avenue giving us a similar perspective to what had been the starting point for the large relief to be installed in the lobby of the police station. Tino reflected somewhat sadly that with all of the pressures of contemporary life, people – or artists – weren’t taking the time to simply gather quietly, enjoying and discussing their work – or perhaps it was that the time just wasn’t there to take. This observation has remained with me for nearly twenty-five years and, when I restructured my office about five years ago, a key organizing principle for my colleagues and me was that it be structured to encourage these discussions, not only to take the additional pleasure from the process but equally to encourage the synergistic growth and development that only comes when working in a strongly-felt creative and intellectual community. That trip to the foundry and the return drive were to be the last project meeting I had with Tino who died the following May.

Due to construction delays and contractor failures, the building did not open until 1991. Working closely with Ruth Nivola, we oversaw the installation of the sculpture. The sculpture at the Combined Facilities along with all the artwork – the bronze, stone and concrete, the large maquette in the left of the 1956 photograph – carry Tino’s creative DNA; however for those of us who had the good fortune to know and work with Tino, there is also the presence of the man – the intense, smiling figure in the right of the photograph, which remains fundamentally undimmed.


1. Much of this material has been extracted and adapted from a project with Giuliana Altea and Antonella Camarda documenting and analyzing the architectural collaborations and unbuilt projects of Costantino Nivola

2. For photographs of sculptures referenced here but not pictured, see Costantino Nivola in Springs, Micaela Martegani, 2003.

3. For copies of drawings and paintings referenced here but not pictured, see Seguo la traccia nera e sottile – I disegni di Costantino Nivola, Giuliana Altea, 2011

Shepard Hall: Buildings = Energy Exhibition at The Center for Architecture, New York City


Elemental is proud to announce that it’s award-winning historic reconstruction of Shepard Hall at The City College of New York is included in the current exhibition on view at the Center for Architecture in New York City as part of the month-long celebration Archtober.  The exhibition explores how critical choices and consumption patterns of professionals and building occupants can make positive energy changes in our cities.  Shepard Hall was selected as an exemplar of sustainability in historic reconstruction.  his is particularly evident in considering the use of Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete (GFRC) as the primary reconstruction material, in lieu of other materials.
The project’s 72,000 units of replicated terra cotta – the largest terra cotta replacement project in the world – yields an embodied energy savings by using GFRC of approximately 29,880,000,000 Btu or the equivalent of about 207,000 gallons or about 4,900 barrels of #6 oil when compared with cast stone and approximately 57,600,000,000 Btu – the equivalent of about 400,000 gallons or about 9,500 barrels of #6 oil – when compared with terra cotta.
In addition, in considering just the energy savings in transportation of the much lighter GFRC, the 72,000 units of replicated terra cotta, the savings in the weight of material that must be fabricated, transported to the building, lifted and installed is 14,400,000 pounds – or 7,200 tons.
Here is how we arrived at the findings in savings. Information on the embodied energy of various materials is from the Handbook of Energy Use For Building Construction prepared for the US Department of Energy by Elemental’s Carl Stein and the late Richard G. Stein:

The analysis examines two alternative systems for replacing decorative, cast masonry units – thin shell glass fiber reinforced concrete and cast stone.  Cast stone is used for the solid alternative because there is limited embodied energy data available glazed terra cotta, the original material and, at other buildings on the CCNY campus, cast stone has been used to replace deteriorated terra cotta.  Note, however, that structural facing tile – a clay-bodied vitreous-glazed unit masonry product that is similar in composition to glazed terra cotta – has an embodied energy of about 860,000 Btu/ft3 as compared with that for precast concrete which is approximately 318,000 Btu/ ft3
The exterior reconstruction of Shepard Hall was the first large-scale use glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) – thin shell units for historic preservation.  This greatly reduced the quantity and weight of the replacement cladding as well as achieving a number of technical goals such as accommodation of thermal movement
Currently, more than 65,000 damaged terra cotta units have been replaced.  When complete, the total will be approximately 72,000 units. As a frame of reference, GFRC (Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete), with an average wall thickness of ¾” is compared with cast stone (precast concrete) having and average thickness on 6” including the complex molding and sculpture.

Embodied energy in precast concrete is 318,000 Btu/ ft3.

Average face area per unit is approximately 3 ft2

Volume of GFRC is 0.19 ft3

Embodied energy for GFRC is approximately 60,400 Btu/unit

Volume of cast stone is 1.50 ft3

Embodied energy for cast stone is approximately 477,000 Btu/unit

GFRC saves approximately 415,000 Btu/unit (average) when compared with cast stone.

Note: this does not include the embodied energy in the polymers and matakaolin that would be added to both materials, increasing the embodied energy savings for GFRC; however, it also does not include the Alkali Resistant glass fiber reinforcing (approximately 4½% of the total weight) which would apply only to the GFRC. If the embodied energy in the glass reinforcing is similar to that in conventional glass fiber, it would be about 6,500 Btu/pound or about 9,000 Btu per unit.  In other words, even discounting the fact that there would be significantly more polymer and metakaolin in the cast stone, the addition of about 9,000 Btu of reinforcing results in the saving of about 415,000 Btu of concrete

The 72,000 units of replicated terra cotta for the entire project yield an embodied energy saving for GFRC of approximately 29,880,000,000 Btu (the equivalent of about 207,000 gallons or about 4,900 barrels of #6 oil) when compared with cast stone.

Using the embodied energy for structural facing tile to represent that of glazed terra cotta gives the following analysis:

Difference in volume of concrete between GFRC and terra cotta is approximately 1.0 ft3/unit.  (The cellular construction of the terra cotta body allows it to made with somewhat less volume of material than with cast stone

Volume of GFRC is 0.19 ft3/unit

Embodied energy for GFRC is approximately 60,400 Btu/unit

Volume of terra cotta is 1.00 ft ft3/unit

Embodied energy for terra cotta is approximately 860,000 Btu/unit

GFRC saves approximately 800,000 Btu/unit (average) when compared with terra cotta

The 72,000 units of replicated terra cotta for the entire project yield an embodied energy saving for GFRC of approximately 57,600,000,000 Btu (the equivalent of about 400,000 gallons or about 9,500 barrels of #6 oil) when compared with terra cotta

Weight of Materials:

Although not directly convertible to energy quantities, it is also instructive to consider the weight of materials that must be handled in the reconstruction process. At 1.5 ft3/unit, the average cast stone unit weighs 225 pounds. At  0.19 ft3/unit, the average GFRC unit weighs 28 pounds. The weight saving for GFRC when compared with cast stone is +/- 200 lbs/unit.

For the 72,000 units of replicated terra cotta, the savings in the weight of material that must be fabricated, transported to the building, lifted and installed is 14,400,000 pounds – or 7,200 tons.

Carl Stein to Deliver Keynote Address at GRCA International Congress - Istanbul


Elemental Architecture, a firm recognized for its pioneering work in sustainable architecture, design and advocacy is pleased to announce that founding principal Carl Stein, FAIA will be delivering a keynote address at the 16th International Congress on GRC in Istanbul, Turkey on September 6, 2011.

The four-day conference brings representatives from twenty nations to share knowledge and advancements in glass fiber concrete technology. Keynote presentations by Elemental Architecture, New York and Foster and Partners, London.

The Restoration of Shepard Hall - an Interview with Carl Stein


Elemental Architecture’s award winning process for restoring City College’s Shepard Hall, discussed in an in-depth interview with Carl Stein on PROSOCO’s blog, “Green Journey” Shepard Hall Restoration

New York Times – The Gas is Greener: A Response


Robert Bryce’s June 7, 2011 Op-ed in the New York Times “The Gas is Greener” zeros in on a fundamental fault in the logic of depending on solar, wind and other renewables as primary sources of energy.  As Bryce correctly points out, generating large quantities of electricity from renewable sources requires vast amounts of natural resources — most notably, land, not to mention the energy and resources expended to collect and distribute that power that could be generated.
These realizations aren’t new. Interestingly, in 1993 Carl Stein notes in “Energy Conscious Architecture” for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) that a report from the Energy Policy Project determined:

“From 1965 to 1973, U.S. energy consumption grew at the annual rate of 4.5 percent. This is doubling roughly every 15 years. If we could, miraculously, switch to total solar power in 1995, and if this switch created a return to the “cheap energy” attitudes of the 1960s with the associated exponential growth, by 2010, we would have to devote one percent of our land area to solar collection; by 2025, 2 percent; by 2070…10 percent of the United States would be taken up by collection systems; and before 2110…solar collectors would completely cover the United States.”

Clearly, there is no “silver bullet” to meet our demand for energy consumption and when considering the environmental impact of creating such systems the attitude that renewable energy is the answer is, in fact, directly contradictory to an environmentally responsible point of view. As Carl further points out, “…we must never fall in the trap of thinking of [renewable energy] as easy, cheap or environmentally neutral.” Simply put, there is no free lunch.

The best and most immediate solutions to address the demand for energy are by decreasing the rate of consumption through conservation, resourceful planning and energy conscious design.

Exhibition: Drawings by Costantino Nivola & Online Gallery of Collaborations



I follow the thin black line.
Drawings by Costantino Nivola

Although Costantino Nivola was an extraordinary draftsman, and for almost ten years had worked as a graphic designer and a professional illustrator, he regarded himself above all as a sculptor, or more precisely a sculptor-builder, heir to the ancient nuraghi builders, faithful to the vocation passed on to him by his mason father. This is why his graphic work has gained little recognition. Yet, it is a body of work of great interest and quality, a cross-section of which is exhibited for the first time: over a hundred works, almost all unpublished.
The drawings and illustrations on display, made between 1941 and 1980, document the central and most productive phases of the artist’s career: his first period in New York, shortly after his flight from Fascist Italy, divided between commercial graphics and exploratory works (1940-1945); his approach to sculpture in 1950 and a return to his home-town, Orani, in 1958; the preparatory drawings for major public commissions; the so-far ignored episode of tapestry design (1960 – 1966); the private series of the Beds and Male Figures; the biting drawings of political and social criticism he had begun working on since 1968.

A Nivola emerges who is in many ways different from the well-known creator of large public monuments and solemn sculptures (the Mothers and the Widows of the final phase), but a an artist who is by no means less fascinating. (Excerpted from the exhibition catalog)


During his time in New York, Nivola collaborated with numerous architects on the installation and integration of his artworks into architectural projects.  Over the coming weeks, Elemental will be showcasing images of some of these important collaborations with Carl Stein, FAIA and the late Richard G. Stein, FAIA on Facebook


Visit our online galleries on Facebook for the following projects:

Learn more about Nivola at the Museo Nivola website and in an extensive article on his architectural collaborations in Metropolis Magazine.

John Barboni Featured in NY Times Style Magazine


John Barboni, co-founder of elemental, is featured in the New York Times T Magazine’s article “Dinner at 8” by Stephanie LaCava.NYTimes-Tmagazine-style

Does Saving Historic Buildings Really Save Energy? - A Response


In a recent posting on, “Does Saving Historic Buildings Really Save Energy?” Tristan Roberts pointed out a number of benefits that may be realized by the adaptive reuse of older buildings; however, he dismissed the notion that there is value in the energy embodied in these structures.  While he is correct in his assertions about the cultural and urban value of historic buildings, he misses the point, or at least part of the point of the value of the energy embodied in those buildings.  Despite the fact that there is no way to “recover” the embodied energy in old buildings, if their reuse offsets the need to build replacements, the energy that would have been embodied in those new buildings is saved – avoided cost.
Of course, there will almost certainly be some construction, and therefore some energy commitment, required to extend the useful life of older buildings including implementation of measures to significantly improve performance.  The net avoided energy cost will be less than the total energy cost on the new building.  Nonetheless, the new energy that must be “embodied” into the existing building will typically be 1/3 to 2/3 that of starting from scratch.  Additionally, there is that much less debris sent to landfill and that much more “embodied” culture carried forward.

This is not to say that saving older buildings will always be the best choice for the environment, nor is it saying that one should only consider saving important historical buildings if their continued existence can be justified through energy savings or other environmental benefits.  The considerations will be based on a sliding scale.  At one end, there are the truly significant historical and cultural artifacts that must be preserved at all costs.  At the other end, there are the purely utilitarian structures whose continuance will be determined by quantifiable, pragmatic concerns.  In the middle is that vast majority of buildings that make some contribution to the understanding of history and sense of place, and whose reuse will offset some portion of the embodied energy that would otherwise by required for new construction.  These are buildings that are neither historically and culturally indispensable, nor clearly justified by environmental imperatives.  In some cases, the positive attributes embedded in these structures will be outweighed by benefits that can only be achieved through new construction.

Decisions regarding adapting and reusing instead of demolishing and replacing should be informed by multiple factors; some environmental, and some, as Roberts noted, cultural.  What is critical, however, is that all significant considerations be included.  This is particularly true for those middle ground buildings for which no single criterion is likely to prove decisive.  While it’s true that embodied energy itself is not a recoverable resource, it is a valuable asset that can offset the need to expend new energy resources.  And, while it’s unlikely that the energy offsets inherent in building reuse will be the sole determining factor in deciding whether or not to save a building, it is a real consideration that may push the eventual decision in one way rather than another.  To exclude this asset from the equation is to neglect a readily exploitable and relatively benign resource.  To knowingly neglect such a resource at this point in history would be irresponsible.

Datum International – Disaster Mitigation Site


We highly recommend visiting friend and colleague, James Lewis' Datum International . While relevant in regards to current events, the site also offers valuable insight and is closely connected to Elemental Architecture's goals.

Publish or Perish: A Response


Residential Architect Magazine editor, S. Claire Conroy, writes in the November/December 2010 issue on architects and social media.  We offer a response:
Ms. Conroy;
Your observations in your piece “Publish or Perish” are well taken and I believe true, however, I would offer that rather than cast online forums such as Facebook and LinkedIn as tools for self-promotion, architects should be using them to assert thought leadership.
Our responsibility, as architects, extends not only to the places we create but also to communicating & educating on issues that we observe and are engaged in. Social media, be it through Facebook, Twitter, blogging or other forms, allows architects to do so for both the general public, as well as internally to the industry, in ways never before seen. Whereas previously in order to have an audience for publishing original content or critique one was forced to survive editorial review, now anyone is given the opportunity to express thought. Within the formats of each online medium, the profession is offered opportunities to share content and by doing so, has the ability to educate and promote change.

Take sustainability as an example; while the general public is becoming increasingly aware of the consequences of resource depletion and the need for energy conservation, there seems to be a lack of holistic understanding of the role architectural, planning and construction decisions play. Architects and their clients are increasingly considering how decisions affect the allocation of resources and contribute to the creation of infrastructure. Many architects are researching sustainability concepts and technologies through their projects and documenting their revelations. With all of the content that is being generated within the profession and externally on this issue, social media provides forums to disseminate knowledge and collective experience; work can be shared to promote progress, not just itself.

Beyond attempting to merely ascend Google rankings for greater online presence, our disciplines must use its collective knowledge to promote ideas that move society forward; by doing so, the use of social media will be perceived as less self-serving and more as elevating discussion. By not doing so, however, our non-building contributions may be drowned out by the ever increasing online noise.

Tom Abraham, AIA