Architecture in history-laden sites has to be conceived and built in acknowledgement of the special identity of place; physical form should give an insight into abstract significance and connection; the architectural programme should be able to give physical form to the layers of history implicit in a site. That raises the deeper, though no less essential, issue of the sort of statement an architectural project makes and how its inevitably concise and symbolic representation of history organises and moulds experience itself; how a specific architectural programme inevitably directs knowledge.
This is especially pertinent at the deeply symbolic site of Alésia, in the rolling countryside of France’s magnificent Burgundy region, place of the final great battle in 52 B.C. between the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, and the Gallic armies of Vercingetorix. A mix of historical fact and legend, the siege of Alésia has come down to us as a famous act of warfare that changed the history of a country. By the same token, archaeological interest is laced with sentiments of national pride and historical perceptions.
Bernard Tschumi’s architectural programme had to tackle all these elements. Taking his cue from the landscape, Tschumi has steered a delicate path to accommodate scientific archaeological representation, producing an immediately recognisable architecture that also serves as a cultural medium. The programme accepts the implicit contradiction of celebrating and interpreting a battle that shaped history and divided people into victors and vanquished. The architectures slip effortlessly into the landscape. They contain elements that fade into nature alongside elements that stand out from their natural surrounds, as if to highlight these latent contradictions.
The cultural programme comprises an “Interpretation Centre” where the historic event and its importance is narrated with a multi-language format, and a “Museum” proper housing archaeological artefacts giving substance to the tale. Bernard Tschumi’s two-building project blends consistency and difference. Both cylindrical in shape, the two buildings are made from different materials: the interpretation centre is clad in an outer envelope of spaced wood struts; the museum, to be finished by 2015, will be largely clad in stone. The different materials already imply two sides pitted against one another as in the actual siege: the Gauls barricaded inside their hill fort, or oppidum, and the besieging Romans down in the valley. Stone and wood, offensive and defensive works, temporary and long-lasting structures.
As well as evoking a fort, the low-rise cylindrical shape has also been chosen for its ability to blend into the natural scenery. Although offering views sweeping over the plain and reaching down to the valley, the oppidum is never intrusive.
The Interpretation Centre rises on the site of the Roman camp. A broad rooftop walkway protected by a pergola offers an extensive understanding of how the battle unfolded. The whole project is steeped in the importance of place. Its aim: to convey the story of the place through architecture. In the centre, the surrounding countryside enters forcefully through the full-height glazing shielded by an outer trellis of different-length slanting wooden posts slotted into horizontal beams that run round the curtain wall like a stringcourse. A concrete staircase with a side ramp climbs the slope up to the entrance of the platform. An outer fire escape staircase links the upper storeys. Metal plates secure the cladding to the sidewalls.
Inside the huge circular space, the eye is drawn inwards to follow the lines and structure of the significant “void”. This is the dynamic core of the building. Tall, obliquely set concrete pillars supporting the upper floor form a dense asymmetric thicket. A striking, suspended fair-face concrete ramp describes circular segments as it rises to the upper floor. Recessed luminaires in the soffits provide additional lighting. One has the feeling of being enveloped by a series of rounded ambulacra. Natural light floods the interior from the all-around glazed lights, changing as the day proceeds and adding to the narrative power of the place. The building forms the core from which to proceed to the upper floor to explore the recreations of the siege and learn more about an historic episode. The ground floor will house auxiliary facilities like restaurants, restrooms and a hands-on teaching area for children.