Auguste Perret was, in many ways, the French Nervi, though he was two decades older (1874-1954). His focus was on commercial and residential construction, so there isn’t a great match in terms of typology, but he was also a contractor and entrepreneur, making a reasonably strong parallel.
Perret gets a bad rap for an unadventurous style–concrete, the argument goes, could be any form you want, so why go with a simple trabeated frame? Perret’s answer was, to my mind, convincing. Concrete gets formed by timber boxes, which are easiest to make in rectilinear forms. Nervi was reacting against this tendency when he developed ferrocemento formwork, but France had better access to timber, and there was not as great an economic incentive to replace traditional wooden forms.
Perret’s work runs from fairly straightforward expressed frames–that’s his own office and apartment block at 55 Rue Raynoud, above–to some more elaborate meditations on what it means to build a frame in concrete. The Salle Cortot concert hall (left, 1929) is about as bold a facade as you can do in a solid material, and it was a cousin to his better-known (but demolished) Garage Ponthieu of 1909.
By far his best and most provocative structure, though, is Notre Dame du Raincy (1923) a memorial church in Paris’ eastern suburbs. It’s well-known but just far enough off the beaten path to be rarely visited, and it’s well worth the fifteen minute RER ride (and about a ten minute walk north from the station–no, seriously, if you’re in Paris take a morning and go see this). It’s an essay in what Nervi referred to as the three-fold realization of structural architecture: a strong diagram based on function and structural performance (in this case a straight-up reinterpretation of a classic basilica plan), the realization of this with a consistent material approach, and a thoughtful, present design mind behind all of this alert to the possibilities of explaining, expressing, and elucidating the one through the other. The plan couldn’t be simpler, the concrete columns, vaults, and perforated screens couldn’t be cruder, but the effect of light pouring through the screens and under the vaults and the play between the sublime atmosphere and the rough concrete is amazing. There’s something everywhere for the eyes to do, and the whole thing reads as an essay in modern gothic–what Viollet-le-Duc might have done if he’d played around with concrete in addition to iron.
By complete coincidence, you also run into Perret in a very different form when you go to Amiens (which, also, yes). The train station and commercial district immediately around it were master planned and constructed by Perret during WWII–an impressively coherent, if slightly unexciting urban space that’s been given a recent leg up by a giant glass canopy and some smart hardscape. Here it’s hard to separate the punishingly regular style with the fact that this was a Vichy project, and the politics behind it are murky to say the least.
If all that weren’t enough, in 1908 a young Le Corbusier spent fourteen months interning in the offices of freres Perret. So there’s a direct line to a lot of the more radical styling that went on in 1920s Paris. And I think Corbusier’s later career–the beton brut work reads as a subtle tribute to Perret, taking the regular language and finding a more poetic, sculptural grammar within it.