Concrete Quarterly

Lasting Impression

Alex Ely - Le Corbusier’s influence, and influencing Le Corbusier

Six years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building (1) in Moscow (1931). It’s a housing block built during the heyday of constructivism, so there’s a real energy and a liveliness to the architecture. Ginzburg raised the building off the ground on pilotis, put a terrace on the roof and ran ribbon windows along the length of the facade. You can see these ideas informed Le Corbusier – he claimed authorship, but Ginzburg got there first. Inside, it has this really interesting section, with the circulation on every other floor and the apartments wrapped around on split levels.

At Mae, it has really informed the way we think spatially about housing. I’m a big fan of the Swiss modernist practice Atelier 5. They made their name with Seidlung Halen (2) (1961), a development of 81 houses that step up a wooded hillside outside Berne. As with the Narkomfin Building, the concrete isn’t expressive but it couldn’t have been built from anything else. It nestles into the hillside, and over time it’s been completely enveloped in greenery, so it looks like a wonderful ruin even though its fully occupied and loved.

A more expressive Atelier 5 project is the housing at Brunnadernstrasse (3) (1971), also in Berne. The setting is quite suburban, but suddenly you see these amazing projecting balconies and circular staircases, staggered bay windows and brise-soleils with concrete fins that support window boxes. The concrete has a sculptural quality and I’m interested in how they’ve created depth in the elevations – using it to help manage climate and provide outdoor-indoor space.

I can appreciate where all of these projects are coming from, but with my final choice, I’m left wondering how an architect arrives at such a design. Last summer, I was on the motorway from Florence to San Gimignano when I spotted Giovanni Michelucci’s church of San Giovanni Battista (4) (1964) out of the corner of my eye.

When you step inside, there’s this wonderful tent-like space with columns that look like trees and no repetition – each one does its own thing. I presumed there was some structural logic but I couldn’t work it out. The light just creeps in at the apex of the roof, and you have the contrast between moments of bright light washing the billowing roof and areas of pitch black where it disappears into the recesses of the bell tower. It’s quite mystical.

Alex Ely is founding director of Mae


Photos 1. Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo 2. Ginkgo2g / CC BY 3.0 3. Tom Oliver Payne 4. RIBA Collections