In memory of Dr. Giovanni Lombardi – founding and honorary member of the STS

Giovanni Lombardi, citizen of Airolo (Canton of Ticino), was born in 1926 and grew up in the French Pyrenees. Ever since his grammar school years, he showed a keen interest in technical matters. He was particularly attracted by wood as a building material, which he got familiar with through his family's sawmill. He was already designing timber bridges at an early age and patented a specially developed chainsaw system. He retained his appreciation of wood throughout his later career. Indeed, his technique of incorporating pliable timbers in tunnel support systems under rock pressure provided a simple and efficient solution in many problematic situations.

After obtaining his school-leaving certificate in Basel, Giovanni Lombardi studied at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) Zurich, completing his doctorate in 1954 on the subject of arch dams. During this time, he undertook professional internships, centering on hydraulic engineering, in Fribourg and Berne. At the age of 30, he moved to Ticino, where he opened an engineering practice with a partner. Their ways parted after ten years when, having recognized the potential of information technology, Lombardi decided to set up his own computer center.

The first phase of his professional activities focused on hydropower plants, initially in Ticino. His crowning achievement here was the Verzasca Hydroelectric Power Station, with a 220 m tall, double-curvature arch dam. The dam, which first reached capacity level during a high-water period in 1965, boasted two notable innovations: first, it was designed with a very high slenderness ratio, and, second, it marked the first-ever use of an electronic computer program for structural analysis. 

Apart from hydropower facilities, Lombardi also tackled building construction and highway engineering projects along with bridges such as the first bold "hairpin slab bridge" (Fieud Bridge) on the southern approach to the Gotthard Pass.

Gradually, the focus of his work shifted to his favorite disciplines of rock mechanics and tunneling. Lombardi was awarded his first major project in this field – the Gotthard Road Tunnel – in an engineering competition. His system and routing proposals were the result of meticulous optimizations that yielded the most cost-effective solution to the complex and diverse project factors. The cost benefits were duly confirmed by the bids which the contractors were required to submit for each of the two competing projects.

Giovanni Lombardi played a key role in promoting the tunneling profession in Switzerland. On 12 September 1973, he presided over the inaugural meeting of the STS (Swiss Tunnelling Society). A key concern at the time was to develop a standard library of specification clauses for tunneling works. The resulting system was based on a bilingual version of specifications prepared by Lombardi in 1968 for the Gotthard Road Tunnel project. 

His seat on the Swiss Board of Higher Education (Schweizerischer Schulrat) and his role as expert in numerous teaching institutions enabled him to exercise a broad influence on education and research. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne) in 1986 and a titolo ad honorem by the Politecnico di Milano university in 2004. In the same year, Lombardi set up a foundation to provide doctoral engineering students with technical and financial support on research projects.

For many years, Giovanni Lombardi promoted the reputation of Swiss engineering on countless boards in Europe and beyond.

His abundant achievements include a number of highly significant contributions to both theoretical and practical issues in tunnel engineering:

  • He developed sound, pragmatic solutions for the analysis and design of underground structures in swelling ground, e.g. for the CERN laboratory caverns, and as an expert consultant on the Seelisberg Tunnel project.
  • The FES method, which he developed for the analysis of waterlogged rock masses, was used to solve numerous rock mechanics problems, e.g. in determining the drainage effect of the Rawil exploratory tunnel as the cause of deformation in the Zeuzier Dam.
  • In the field of injection grouting for waterproofing and ground stabilization, Lombardi encouraged the abandonment of intuitive methods by developing a sound, technically and scientifically based method for analyzing the injection process, as a forerunner of the GIN method.
  • Engineering design was never his only concern: he always gave careful consideration to on-site construction methods and, above all, the cost-effectiveness of his projects. With tireless ingenuity, he mastered even highly complex problems by devising solutions that combined simplicity with an acceptable cost-benefit ratio. 

His wide-ranging interests were also underscored by innovative achievements outside of his main field of activity, e.g. relating to both the production and consumption of energy. At a time long before politicians started jumping on the “energy revolution” bandwagon, Lombardi was designing highly energy-efficient installations for public-sector, industrial and residential developments. His first ultra-low-energy apartment building came into service in 1980. These facilities not only stand out as trailblazing accomplishments of their time, they are also notable for their decades of trouble-free operation.

Although a pioneer in the use of information technology, Giovanni Lombardi always viewed it with a certain skepticism. He often warned that its blind application, without the requisite background knowledge and the correct interpretation of results, can lead to rash and potentially dangerous conclusions.

His well-rounded personality also expressed itself in his various cultural interests and involvements as well as through his high articulacy. He also took the time to participate in chess tournaments and attend classical concerts.

With his natural, unforced authority, he was always a relaxed, amiable and occasionally jocular conversation partner. His modesty made him largely averse to pomp and ceremony, though he still appreciated the occasional token of recognition.

One of his last pursuits was to investigate the feasibility of a tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar. This technically complex challenge, which is subject to previously unencountered conditions, called for a level of expertise that only someone of his vast experience could provide.

Giovanni Lombardi passed away on May 22th 2017. With him, we have lost one of the world's foremost engineers. We will nonetheless continue to benefit from his services to the tunneling profession.

Andreas Henke, STS President 2004-2006