When architect Marco Ortalli was approached to design a home for a couple and their young child in Carugo, in the Italian province of Como, they asked him to use reinforced concrete as the defining finish. It might seem an unusual request for a family’s inner sanctum, but the couple had already seen Ortalli work magic with the material in an earlier project. True to form, he delivered for them a house, Casa ELL, that is resolutely modern, minimal and brutalist — both inside and out — while at the same time enveloping in its coziness.
A 220-square-metre barn-shaped structure, the house features concrete exterior walls that are 47 centimetres thick and punctuated by deep-set wood-framed openings, turning what could have been foreboding into something decidedly more friendly and approachable. At the front, square apertures of various sizes are positioned irregularly, while on the opposite side, Ortalli organized the windows in a regimented manner; coupled with slatted-wood shutters and generous glazing that frames the kitchen and living room, it presents a completely different feel from its counterpart. Somehow, the architect has provided two contrasting characters, acting harmoniously, in one building.
“The house has a simple structure,” says Ortalli, explaining that this simplicity allowed for a significant reduction in construction time and cost. “All the details that express a complexity can be perceived only in the indoor areas — and are never too loud. And the contrast between the concrete and the wood gives a homey feel and a sense of continuity with the private rooms.”
The rigorously linear interior is divided into three zones: To the south is the living room, kitchen and studio; in the middle are bedrooms and bathrooms; and on the north end is a leisure area for various uses. The communal bookends are set under delicately pitched 3.4-metre-high ceilings clad in warm chestnut planks that play off the coolness of the concrete — polished on the floors and reinforced on the walls — and refined yet comfortable Italian furnishings (by Flexform), another layer of softness to counter the dominant material. Anchoring it all is the stunning kitchen and dining area with its vibrant stainless-steel island, expansive wood-topped table and elegantly mismatched chairs. This heightened drama is dialled down in the private areas, where flat ceilings, chestnut floors and tactile plaster walls offer sanctuary.
But perhaps the project’s biggest surprise is how it connects to its surroundings in many nimble, carefully orchestrated ways. Overlooking the garden and main road, the eastern facade’s seemingly arbitrary window placement allowed Ortalli “to create an effect of seeing while not being seen” — a sense of privacy modulated by sublime vantage points.
To wit, the deep-set entrance there, which extends inward with a wood-framed vestibule, provides a liminal space where the family can enjoy being simultaneously indoors and out — and gazing in from that doorway, one can see right through the sliding-glass doors on the opposite side. On the western facade, the iron roof has a generous overhang that is lined in chestnut slats; it recalls the ceiling inside and provides a sweet spot to sit al fresco. Solid, sculpted, almost fortress-like, Casa ELL also contains powerful moments that dissolve the line between interior and exterior.
The material’s multiple personalities shine through in architect Marco Ortalli’s refined Casa Ell in Como, Italy.