Innovation Winking at History
The first phase, in 2011, of the international competition for the Musée de la Romanité in Nîmes, southern France, received 103 submissions. The selection process whittled these down to a short list of three projects, with the winner being announced in spring 2012: the architecture practice of Elizabeth de Portzamparc. The subsequent phases saw the definitive project finalized, and the worksite get underway at the end of 2014. The last step, begun in summer 2017, was the installation of the museum collections according to museology concepts promoting “immersion in heritage” and “visitor interaction” in the widest sense. The date scheduled for the grand opening is June 2018. It will bring full circle a long and complex process to realize an architecture whose location and function are laden with significance. The project for a museum exploring the ancient Roman heritage of a place like Nîmes - whose history goes back even beyond the Roman era and whose unique layered urban fabric of architectures from past centuries is an outdoor history lesson - was always going to be a heavily charged undertaking redolent with symbolism. History is everywhere in the center of Nîmes: in the urban fabric as well as the archeological finds and exhibits forming the main collection of the Musée de la Romanité. History is visible and comes alive in the city’s architecture: monuments like the Roman Arena, or Amphitheater, and other vestiges of the past, from a pre-Roman settlement to the ancient Roman walls and the remains of medieval architecture. The huge square Musée de la Romanité dialogues directly with the historic landmarks making up the district’s dense urban fabric, creating significant urban perspectives with its historic neighbors. A highly contemporary structure, it nonetheless complements the Amphitheater across the way. The public walkway coursing through the new building literally extends the museum into the urban fabric it bears witness to, and by the same token, its diachronic investigation of city’s past. Its openness invites not only the exploration of the building itself but also of what it contains, fostering awareness and understanding of the city and its roots and triggering a heightened visitor experience. Nor is the new architecture merely a stark contrast to the nearby Roman arena, a clear example of the opposition between ancient and modern; together, the two structures create a complex whole. As well as a container of objects exemplifying Nîmes’s centuries-old cultural heritage, the museum has been expertly molded to fit into its urban context so as to become an integral - and open - part of the city, increasing the connections with public space. The whole architectural project embraces the surrounding landscape as inseparable from the architecture itself. Architecture and landscape create an itinerary through the historical and contemporary world. Together they form a learning tool, interpreting and making relevant twenty-one centuries of history. The link with the nearby Amphitheater, the city’s major ancient monument, is key to the design project of the Musée. Not only does the Amphitheater’s solid physical presence, or firmitas, impact the new building across the way; it substantiates the history and civilization narrated in the museum, confirming the very concept and purpose of museums. The museum’s architecture works on both the rational and emotional level. While the fundamental characteristic of the ancient Roman Amphitheater is its sturdy curved perimeter planted solidly on the ground, the Musée is all transparency and ineffable lightness. Together they form a contrasting whole reaching across the centuries. The museum’s outer envelope is a piece of technological prowess: undulating elevations made of thousands of square glass slabs - a modern mosaic in pointed reference to an ancient tradition - with an irregularly placed series of openings. This striking outer skin changes color and luminosity during the course of the day and with the changing seasons, mitigating the perception of a huge volumetric mass to give a sense of continual change as if before a kinetic sculpture. The envelope links in with the dynamic museum circuit designed to lead visitors back into the city after their tour. A sweeping dramatic staircase rises from the impressive atrium up through the museum, offering magnificent views of the city, up to the roof and observation terrace at the end of the visit.