Henri Ciriani’s new antiquities museum at Arles in southern France boldly reinterprets and extends the spatial disciplines of the Corbusian Modernist inheritance in a sensually stunning interaction of light, form and colour
Working outside the image-conscious manifestations of the 1980s, Henri Ciriani continues to be one of the most influential forces in current French architecture. He has extended the inheritance of Modernism - and in particular that of Le Corbusier – to ally contemporary building programmes with aspects of contemporary theory.
As evidence of this serious and ongoing experimentation, Ciriani’s realisation of a series of housing projects in the New Towns around Paris has been supplemented - first by the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne (AR January 1993) and now by his Museum and Research Institute of Ancient Provence at Arles in southern France.
Arles had in fact been on the Franco-Peruvian’s drawing boards for some years before Peronne; the original red-and-blue sketches date back to 1983. The building is now complete but awaits the installation of its Gallo-Roman contents - busts, sarcophagi and urns. It lies on the perimeter of the scenically organic town as a blue-clad horizontal plinth colon ising a triangular site bounded by three elements: the river Rhône, the locks of a canal leading from Van Gogh’s famous drawbridge and a Roman circus that has yet to be excavated. In response, the museum is itself an equilateral triangle, with sides of linear shards which erode and do not touch so that the initial rigorous geometric imposition is tuned by and adapted to its context and function. This is what separates Ciriani’s work from the many aspirational grands projets of recent years: a benefiting from process which is neither simplistically sculptural nor casually empirical, but the generation of architecture from a full spectrum of ideas.
The great triangle at Arles, an imprint of the most basic form, is not closed or sealed in some naïve pursuit of triangular shape per se but is allowed to breathe. The project reads as reinforcement to the suburban edge of town, but the triangulation also results from Ciriani’s functional organisation ofthree blocks of museological programme around a surprising inner court.
Detached from the urban centre by an intermediary fire station, congress hall and confusing sens unique, the Museum slips into the view of motorists approaching from Nîmes as a blue-trimmed deck amid the trees. Whereas the pedestrian approach is across land which has clearly yet to be developed, the prospect of the building from the highway bridge across the Rhône positions it as some new sort of gateway to the city, a fragment of rampart whose terrace is enlivened by small kiosk-like projections.
These abstract pavilions also animate the entrance facade, rising from the ground as a comfortably languid ramp or punching through the blue-glazed vertical plane as twentieth-century oriels. This facade, to the east and towards the town, is a horizontal extrusion across the site, screening and framing the occasionally legible contents within. The triangularity of the museum is neither solid nor stagnant. The three great walls assume their primary importance as individual boundaries marking a triangular precinct and the resolution of corners is never fetishistic. The wall along the river slips forward to delimit a terrace offering views onto a sylvan expanse of the Rhône. The mask-like entrance facade slides away towards the canal, gradually reducing to a free frame within which the creamy stone foyer and pistachio tiled stair tower are allowed play. It is from this apex, with its pietra serena landscape of benches and reception, that the building is penetrated.
The corner is eroded and folded functionally so that the plasticity of skin and interior is not simply a wilful geometry. To the canal-side lies a block of laboratory and mechanical rooms with an easily accessible lift; towards the circus, the long ramp rises indoors between generous bureaucratic spaces and the contiguous blade of blue glass. Between, and central to this entrance node, a desk for security and information curves forward as the eye travels past into the heart of Ciriani’s project. There a cool inner exhibition space unfurls about the open court and spreads to fill that section of the triangle overlooking the river. Light folds down from the great waffle roof to illuminate the displays with a minimum of disruptive fittings. The exhibitions farthest from the entrance are gently subdivided by finial walls punctuating the horizontal panorama of the Rhône beyond. Le Corbusier memorably defined architecture as volumes masterfully playing in light and at Arles, Ciriani’s architecture attains that elusive quality.
The plentiful light of the Midi filters through the ceiling and in from the glazed - and pooled triangular court to illuminate a spatial fluidity. The grid of circular white columns recalls the trunks of gnarled trees lining the canal and windows to the exterior world frame picturesque individual views. In the main hall, another ramp mounts against the deep rose wall of the service wing into a tall slot. Clerestory light washes off this long red plane to reflect off surfaces opposite and interact with the pristine void of the court. The triangular form is intelligibly concise, yet allows for complexity along its periphery.
Threaded through the museum is the pleasure of the promenade architecturale. Whether looping across the main space and up its ramp for viewing inlaid mosaic floors, or leading immediately from the foyer to first floor café and temporary gallery, the pedestrian experience is one of discovery and even joy. The circuit of visitation pops out under the small flying canopies of the roof terrace and angles up through the observatory-like stairwell from the court. Along the route, from the plastic activity of the foyer with its greyer stone (dark on reveals, pale on the floor) to the differentiated handrail details, issues of construction are resolved with appropriate care. The stone and concrete base becomes a calm plinth on which the curators can act. And then there is that blue.
Ciriani is an established colourist and the palette at Arles includes not only blue but a family of terracottas and olive greens for the service wing, purple brown and orange red by the elevator, and shiny inlays of vivid primaries along the river facade. The blue glass is however unforgettable and iconographic. The sharp vitreous elevations are made by plates of Saint Gobain ‘Emalit’ blue, set slightly apart off concrete walls and pinned in place by flat-headed studs so as to be shadowed in slanting sunlight. Brilliant as the skies above, Ciriani’s blue covers his structure to intensify an already unmistakeable architecture.
Architect: Henri Ciriani
Photography: Jean Marie Monthiers