Finishing Touches

Lately, it seems the Washington University Medical Center is in a constant state of construction. Before one building is completed, work on another site begins. As the medical center has grown throughout its 100-year history, countless architects, construction workers, and artists have left their mark on its buildings.

One unique finishing touch is a concrete mural by artist Costantino Nivola. The untitled bas-relief currently ornaments the wall of a first-floor conference room in the Renard Hospital Building. It was commissioned for the David P. Wohl, Jr. Memorial – Washington University Clinics Building, which was designed by local architects Murphy and Mackey and opened in May 1961. The wall sculpture was relocated to Renard during the expansion of the Wohl Clinic’s emergency room.

In November 1960, when Nivola began his work on the sculpture, he was an internationally exhibited artist who had already spent three years as director of the design workshop at the Harvard School of Design. In the era of modern architecture and its stark aesthetic of exposed glass, steel and concrete, his work was a perfect complement, using the same building materials to express whimsical, abstractionist designs.

Costantino Nivola, Sculptor

Nivola was born in Sardinia, Italy and began working in the family business as a mason. He won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Milan. After art school, he began making murals for Italian corporations like Fiat, the automaker, and Olivetti, a manufacturer of business machines such as typewriters and adding machines. He received international exposure when he created a mural for the Italian pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, the same fair where Picasso first exhibited his famous mural “Guernica.” In 1938, the Italian government passed racial laws discriminating against Jews and minorities. During that year, Nivola discovered he was under suspicion by the Italian police for alleged anti-Fascist activities, so he and his wife, along with her Jewish family, fled to America.

Nivola and his wife spoke no English when they arrived in New York City in 1939. Both took work in factories and Costantino Nivola peddled Christmas cards until he was hired by the advertising department of a department store. After the war, he was able to buy a small farm on Long Island to use as a studio. His first major commission in the U.S. was again for Olivetti, creating a concrete mural to accompany the company’s sleek new showroom in New York, which was completed in 1954. Other commissions quickly followed, and he began work on a mural for the lobby of the new Wohl Clinics here at the medical center in 1960.

The Wohl Clinic Mural

Nivola normally worked out of his studio on Long Island, but for the installation at the medical center, he worked on site, utilizing a partially finished office near the first-floor lobby. Forms were made from 2-by-6-inch lumber laid on the floor to make 11 panels, each 2 feet wide. Sand from the Meramec River was used to partially fill the forms. Over this a mixture of carborundum, silica and marble dust was sprinkled, then the forms were filled with more sand before the sand was lightly wetted.

Nivola carved a negative of his intended design into the sand, which became the mold for the concrete. He often used a small model as a reference. With a bricklayer’s trowel, Nivola scooped out sand to create the general shape. Then using smaller tools, and sometimes his own hands, he refined the design and created more detail.

Nivola then created the concrete cast. First, he poured in a mixture, the contents of which he kept secret, which created a thin shell to preserve the fine details of the sand sculpture. Then his team laid reinforcing wire, poured the concrete and allowed it to set. The forms were then removed and panels moved into place.

The finished work is nearly 22 feet long and 9 feet high. Nivola claimed there was no intended meaning to the design – it was only meant to contribute to an atmosphere of serenity in the Wohl Clinic lobby.