Bernard Tschumi’s Interpretation Centre memorializes a Gallic hero with a resoundingly empty space
In his Commentari de Bello Gallico Julius Caesar describes in great detail the siege and battle of Alésia which took place in September 52 BC. It was here that he finally defeated the confederacy of Gallic tribes under the leadership of Vercingétorix, chief of the Averni, so guaranteeing Roman dominance in Gaul for the succeeding centuries. Vercingétorix had already dealt Caesar a major blow at the earlier battle of Gergovie (not far from the present day Clermont Ferrand) and had withdrawn to the hill top ‘oppidum’ of Alésia to consolidate his revolt and guarantee protection from all sides.
Caesar describes how he constructed two rings of fortifications including ditches, ramparts and timber towers, one ring facing inwards towards the besieged enemy, the other facing outwards to repel relief forces who eventually arrived in vast numbers. In the final battle Caesar had to face enemies from within and without but his legions held the day and Vercingétorix finally surrendered.
However he was recuperated in Gallic nationalist mythology as a hero of the French people and in the 1860s a huge statue was erected near Alise-Sainte-Reine (north of Dijon) portraying the defeated warrior as a muscular but somehow benign giant with long hair and a flowing moustache. The base to the statue, incidentally, was designed by Viollet Le Duc.
The only problem with all this is that it is still not one hundred percent certain that the site of Alésia was Alise-Sainte-Reine. From the physical remains it is clear that a battle took place there, and from the archaeological dig on the hillside it is evident that a Gallo Romaine town eventually flourished on the site. But a case can also be made for placing Alésia near the village of Chaux-de-Crotonay in the Jura where the landscape fits the descriptions just as well. It was during the Deuxième Empire that Alise-Sainte-Reine was decreed as being the authentic site.
Thus the whole question of ‘memorialising’ and reconstituting the site of Alésia enters the difficult territory which separates memory and myth from history and fact. Rather like Joan of Arc (the sacred heroine of the French infantry in the trenches of the First World War), Vercingétorix gradually took on the dimensions of a mythical figure who emerged somehow glorious even in defeat. He even came in handy as a Gallic and vaguely Republican counterweight to the Royalist and Catholic insistence on a lineage running back through the Capetian Kings to Clovis, the first ‘French’ king to be baptized (probably in 497AD).
Then of course there are the comic book versions of Gallo Roman history which every French school child picks up through the rumbunctious figure of Astérix with his Gallic helmet and his exaggerated golden moustache. It is only one step further to a sort of Disneyization of national history for the entertainment of tourists and school groups.
The programme for the Muséo Parc at Alésia had to cater to both education and mass tourism. It included both the Interpretation Centre in the valley (just completed) and an Archaeological Museum on the hillside, still to be constructed. Bernard Tschumi’s winning project envisaged both buildings as cylindrical structures, the one in the valley constructed of concrete with wooden trellises protecting glass facades, the one on the hillside buried more in the ground and made of stone. These two markers were thought of as stopping points in a sort of strolling landscape in which the history and geography of the site would gradually be revealed. Included in the sequence was a reconstitution of the stockade and ditches of the siege fortifications.
The Interpretation Centre emerges from the soft and rolling landscape as a cylinder wrapped in a rustic screen of heavy timber pieces laid out in diagonal patterns which bring the facades alive. Windows and walls are black and recede into shadows on a secondary plane. Landscaping is an essential part of the project. The vast area of parking for cars and buses is separated from the Centre by means of groves of birch trees, a subtle landscape design by Michel Desvigne. But trees are also planted on top of the cylinder and these give the structure the air of ancient Roman Mausoleum. Analogies have clearly played a role in the genesis of the project. Tschumi’s circular geometry is perhaps intended to recall the rings of Caesar’s fortifications, while the wooden trellises suggest wooden stockades.
The cylindrical form also grew from the intention of supplying an all around panorama of the site from the interior exhibition spaces on the upper level and of course from the roof. The architectural promenade is guided from the parking by means of a meandering path to an eccentric position in the open landscape. It then turns to face the entrance on a line which cuts through the cylinder and continues on the other side through a vertical cleavage in the structure to a wooden path which goes directly to the reconstituted fortifications beyond.
Unfortunately this intention and this axis are scarcely perceived: the main entrance is curiously underplayed and when you penetrate the cylinder you enter a large central volume filled with concrete columns which lean this way and that (a period cliché descending from Koolhaas) obscuring the axial route.
A spiralling ramp takes the visitor to the first level where most of the exhibits are distributed in a ring of spaces with views to the exterior. The ramp inevitably recalls the interior of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Not much happens in the main central space (which is top lit through skylights). School groups mill around bumping into each other and making a terrific din. The problem of reflected sound does not seem to have been on the agenda. The spaces around the edges of the entrance level provide segments like slices of cake with their narrow ends pointing inwards and their broader ends extending outwards. The restaurant for example expands towards the exterior perimeter and has ample terraces (and an oversized bathroom) but it is tightly squeezed where it meets the central volume on the interior and where people file in. The circular geometry and the needs of mass tourism may be on a collision course in this sector.
The Interpretation Centre is roughly 50 metres across and 15 metres high. There are five levels in all and the lowest one is half buried in the ground. But the building still seems too high for its site and you wonder if a moat could not have been dug deeper into the ground. The entrance path might then have been emphasised by a species of bridge leading into the fortified volume.
A vast amount of space is taken up by the void at the centre and some of the exhibits are squeezed in at the first level. There are some conflicts between the exhibits which require artificial lighting and the intention of supplying daylight and views to the outside.
The exhibits themselves are sometimes tacky. These are not the direct responsibility of Tschumi but were designed by a firm known as Scène. In effect you are guided from one scenario to the next as in a fairground: Caesar’s literary descriptions; a corridor of giant warriors who appear to be made of papier maché; a diorama of the ancient landscape of the site of Alésia; a frieze explaining the Roman background; a series of maps explaining Caesar’s campaigns; even a representation of Vercingétorix but without a face because, we are told, we do not know what he really looked like. Of course attempts are also made to reconstruct the siege and battle including ‘Le rêve d’un roi nu’ (‘The Dream of a Naked King’, a B movie directed by Christian and Gilles Boustani) which makes Hollywood blockbusters look highbrow by comparison. Many of these installations require subdued lighting so the visitor weaves in and out of partitions while along the edges some attempt is made to link the interiors to the views of the landscape in the distance. In effect this is a huge container for a theme park, a silo for fast food knowledge and lightweight historical (or mythical?) entertainment.
So how well does Tschumi succeed in translating his intentions into architectural terms? Despite the declared aims, the building does not succeed in interacting with its surrounding landscape. When you are wandering around on the terrace of the Centre it takes some time to understand that your attention is supposed to be directed towards key points and landmarks in the historical setting. The diagonal wooden beams which work well enough seen from the outside do not aid a focused perception and framing of the surroundings when seen from the inside; they are even quite distracting. The detailing of the building is sometimes crude and standardized as if there had not been time to find an appropriate expression for this particular work. Over the years Tschumi’s architecture has been distinguished by sophisticated conceptual explorations but these have not always been satisfactorily transformed into the spaces and materials of his buildings.
He has made abundant use of precedents, sometimes in witty ways, as with the red cubes of the ‘Follies’ in the Parc de la Villette (AR August 1989) which were mannerist interpretations of Soviet Constructivist prototypes of the 1920s. His reading of sites has included analogical relationships with existing features, as with the Acropolis Museum in Athens, which succeeds better inside than outside, the exterior being out of scale with its urban setting.
The Interpretation Centre in the Muséo Parc at Alésia reflects similar strengths and weaknesses. The project relies upon intelligent moves and pertinent metaphors (although some of these contradict each other), but these are not adequately supported by architectural experience. The guiding ideas of the project remain schematic and intellectualized. They do not always come alive in the realm of architecture that encompasses space, light, materials, the orchestration of movement and control of views.
Architect: Bernard Tschumi Architects
Structural and service engineer: BEA Ingenierie
Landscape design: Michel Desvigne
Wood Facade: Ochs
Glazing: Saint Gobain
Recessed Lighting: Regent
Facade Lighting: Philips
Interior Partitions: Placoplatre
Acoustic Ceiling: Oberflex
Auditorium Seats: Quinette
Glass Floor: SGG - Glaverbel
Tiles: Casal Grande
Photographs: Iwan Baan, Christian Richters
The Parc de la Villette by Bernard Tschumi Architects is featured in the August 1989 issue