Standing on the backbone of the site, the ancient limit between the medieval town and the modern city, the Musée de la Romanité creates a strong architectural dialog between two buildings separated by two thousand years of history. The museum’s transparent ground floor offers a view of the Arenas from the Rue de la République. The drapery of the façade and the glass panes of which it is composed evoke a Roman toga, blending modern transparency and mosaic, one of the ancient Romans’ primary art forms, and subtly evoking the content of the museum’s collections.
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“The explicit request issued by the competition officials was that the museum should be created as a contemporary reply to the Roman Arenas. I undertook a long analysis of the Arenas and even wondered about the idea of a contemporary building and how to glorify the twenty-one centuries of the history of architecture that separate these two buildings. Designing light architecture, made possible by current technology, seemed the obvious thing to me, as well as expressing the differences between these two forms of architecture through a dialog based on their complementarity: on one side a round volume, surrounded by vertical stone Roman arches well set in the ground, on the other a great floating square volume, entirely draped in a toga of pleated glass.” - Elizabeth de Portzamparc
1. CONTEXTUAL RELATIONS The challenge posed by this exceptional site, facing the Arenas of Nîmes with the vestiges of the Roman rampart running straight through it, was to design a museum that would become an obvious international reference. Standing on the backbone of the site, the ancient limit between the medieval town and the modern city, the Musée de la Romanité creates a strong architectural dialog between two buildings separated by two thousand years of history. Twenty centuries of urban strata overlay these vestiges, with as many types of representative architecture. Such is the exceptional heritage of the city of Nîmes. The relationship between the building and the monument firmly in mind, The Musée de la Romanité has been designed with a belvedere on its roof terrace. It offers visitors a panoramic view over the entire city and its heritage, with the Arenas in the foreground. The museum is also part of a broader effort to preserve and enhance the material and immaterial heritage of the region of Occitania. The future museum will be a key element of a coherent and comprehensive cultural policy at the service of tourism open to the world.
A strong architectural dialog In a context requiring careful treatment to ensure a balanced dialog between the two buildings, Elizabeth de Portzamparc’s proposal translates into a relationship founded upon their complementarity. Two geometries, two materials and two forms interact, creating an architectural tension. Facing the massive stone presence of the magnificently designed vertical arches bequeathed to us by ancient Rome, the building’s fluid and diaphanous contemporary architecture glows in a clear and luminous presence, its horizontal draperies seeming to float above the site and the archeological garden. With the Court of Justice standing opposite, the museum offers a new view of the Place du Parvis and the curved shape of the Arenas, its lightness facing this massive classical volume creating a respectful and exceptional dialog. Rising among the witnesses to the past, the museum is designed as a door to an urban promenade, organized into a system of urban passages and new perspectives, highlighting the treasures of Roman heritage (the Arenas, the vestiges, the Pediment of the Source) and the more modern architecture built around it.
2. A UNIQUE FAÇADE Though completion of the installation of the collections and the museum’s opening are scheduled for June of 2018, the building has already been delivered and its unique façade unveiled. Standing at the entrance to the ancient city, the museum’s transparent ground floor offers a view of the Arenas from the Rue de la République. This powerful and surprising draw heralds the new urban spectacle. The drapery of the façade and the glass panes of which it is composed evoke a Roman toga, blending modern transparency and mosaic, one of the ancient Romans’ primary art forms, and subtly evoking the content of the museum’s collections. The façades are the final mark punctuating the building’s architectural statement, with their dual symbolic and practical function. As the calling cards for these buildings, they are designed to convey their values.
Vibrant façade The façade is comprised of three parts: a light interior filler made of aerated concrete; metal cladding ensuring waterproofing and thermal insulation from the exterior; the whole faced with glass panes held in place by a stainless steel framework. The four façades are like a skin filtering the strong sunlight so characteristic of the South of France. The manual installation of this skin of screen-printed glass pieces enveloping all four of the museum’s façades began in September 2016. The structure, which gives the pleats their shape in the mosaic, holds in place 6,708 glass strips covering a surface of 2,500 m². Each strip is comprised of seven screen-printed glass panes. The museum’s own collections provided the inspiration for the design of this unique façade. The glass panes subtly evoke Roman mosaics, prime examples of which are to be found in the museum’s collections (mosaic of Penthea). The reflections from the undulations in this glass mosaic change with the varying conditions throughout the day. A work within a work, it creates kinetic effects of subtle variations in reflections according to the angle from which it is observed, the degree of sloping, the hollows and the bulges, which accentuate the perception of movement, resulting in a continuous metamorphosis according to the hour and the season, creating a dialog with the city and reflecting the surrounding colors, light and city life.
Light façade The museum’s façade had to be light, given its location in an area of seismic activity. As the building already had to support the weight of the works of art, the façade had to be designed to be as light as possible, in order to ensure this weight would have the least detrimental structural impact and to maintain the impression of floating, namely by avoiding the use of heavy pillars in the museum. Glass façades are ordinarily made of molded glass, an onerous and heavy technique, whether this is owing either to the glass itself, or to the structure required to support it. The façade of the Musée de la Romanité is a unique piece. It is comprised of a very light and fine structural system upon which the screen-printed glass strips are affixed. This structure generated cost savings on raw materials and manufacturing. This is an ethical and responsible project with regard to public finances and the environment. Here, the architecture responds to current economic, environmental and social challenges, recurring and central subjects in the architecture and urban planning projects developed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc
3. THE BUILDING The structural solution using reinforced concrete for this project is simple and adapted to seismic constraints, thanks to the vertical circulation hubs which serve as moorings counteracting the effects of torsion. The large spaces and the slender columns are distributed according to a large grid capable of making available spaces necessary for exhibitions, and forming a monolithic ensemble without expansion joints. This structural choice is also well-adapted to producing a light and airy form of architecture. The structural vertical cores are designed to distribute the main technical networks from machine rooms which are wisely located in the basement. Thus, the technical installations are rationalized and plenums of the ceilings are optimized. In this logic of rationalization, the production of heat is ensured by heat pumps extracting heat from the water table. The building’s rectangular form and the flat surfaces of the interior façades simplify the primary structure, allowing for free expression of the curves in the glass panels.