Out of Antiquity
French architecture of the past decade has been known mostly through President Mitterrand’s grands projets in Paris; But some of the most interesting recent buildings in France have been realized in the provinces. A case in point is the recently completed Musée de l’Arles Antique (Arles Museum of Archaeology) designed by Peruvian-born Parisian architect Henri Ciriani, who was selected by a competition. The complex is a center for research, combining workshops and study areas with galleries and administrative offices for surveying local archaeological digs. It is, in effect, a place of initiation for the visitor who wishes to grasp the ancient history of Provence.
Ciriani establishes a strong presence for the new institution, located beyond the western edge of the old city, by basing his geometry on an equilateral triangle. This shape stands up to the chaotic immediate environment and resonates with bold imprints in the history of Arles, such as the Roman amphitheater and oval arenas. But Ciriani chose a form never used in antiquity, avoiding obvious contextualism.
The interior is organized around the Corbusian theme of an architectural promenade through a grid of pilotis by means of ramps; at the building’s center is an atrium with reflecting surfaces of water at its base. A stair ascends to a roof terrace with stunning views, and slots and skylights admire natural light. The result is a vivid experience of geometry, structure, space and color.
Ciriani’s museum at Arles is a clear statement of his notion of a “cultivated abstraction”, a geometrical order reiterating basic architectural ideas such as the façade, the processional route, and the atrium, but without recourse to historical references. It relies upon incisive gestures, such as the punctuated main façade with its receding and advancing objects beckoning to the old city and, of course, the triangular plan rotating around an illuminated void. But the routes suggested by the geometry of the building and the museum’s sequence of historical periods do not coincide; while the clear-cut planes and the structural grid sometimes overwhelm the objects on display.
Critics claim that Ciriani still reverts to Neo-Corbusian trills when uncertain what to do. Even so, the architect must be credited with a memorable work, one that takes its place in a line of research into the anatomy of Modern spatial ideas.
(William J.R. Curtis)