Cri d’un Corbusien
Allen Cunningham was in the crowd wooed and won by Henri Ciriani at the opening of his Arles museum last month
On a beautiful morning, the prime minister's helicopter landed on a sports ground, greatly surprising a lady exercising her dogs. his proper destination, however, was the site of a new museum of archaeology which he was due to open.
Meanwhile, dignitaries made their speeches to a crowd of several thousand, each emphasising the creative contribution of the architect. The architect then electrified the throng with an unscripted, poetic evocation of his role. He was greeted with sustained applause. But still no prime minister. The crowd grew restless. The architect, invited by the politicians to speak again, continued the extemporaneous seduction of his audience, talking of architecture, creativity, culture and the necessary partnership between the architect and those being served. They were enraptured and heartfelt applause followed. The poor prime minister, when he finally arrived, found his pitch had been stolen by the architect.
The country was France, the prime minister Édouard Balladur, the city Arles "Petite Rome des Gaules" and the architect Henri Ciriani. The Musée de l'Arles Antique is built where the Roman circus was sited on the east bank of the Rhone. The architecture, generated by the programme, serves three primary objectives: to organise and conserve a rich historical inheritance, to pursue the study and restoration of the artefacts and impart knowledge about them, and to present the collection of pottery, jewelry and domestic artefacts, statuary, sarcophagi, mosaics and model reconstructions to the public. Like all great architecture, it gloriously transcends the programme.
The promenade architecturale, as short or long as you choose, encircles a triangular hollow core which generates the form of the building and provides a constant orientating device for orthogonal mindsets. Penetrating this court is a triumphant vertical triangular sail defining a route to the fourth facade, the roof. This concrete banner salutes the towers of Arles a kilometre away, tying this cultural haven to the urban centre as did the giant obelisk at the heart of the circus in Roman times. The roof landscape enables visual links to be enjoyed, placing the experience of ancient history within its modern urban and geographical context. The building organisation may be "read" from this elevated position, revealing penetrations of the flat roof plane where it billows to admit soft reflected light. Ciriani has orchestrated natural light in the service of objects of timeless beauty with the same mastery as he did in his 1992 Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne.
At the start of the route through the museum, counter-clockwise like the Roman chariots and equally thrilling, the beautiful first century BC Lion de l'Arcoule sets the mood for the gradual revelations which unfold from neolithic to late Roman objects, some large (the statue of Auguste and the mosaic floors), and some small (game pieces and domestic items). The architecture is neither intrusive or subservient; objects and building are in partnership. Within moments of its opening by Balladur the objects and the embracing building had been assimilated and appreciated in equal measure by Arlésiens, the modern parenting the ancient as naturally as one could wish. But this is France.
Just as the roof establishes the distant context, so the museum spaces allow the site to be enjoyed through a layering of planes and columns framing the close landscape, mediating the reciprocal penetration of inside and outside. This layering carries with it memory of the exterior forms which define the centripetally created outer limits of the triangle which first confront the visitor, the generators being the hollow core exploding skywards and the triangular limits of the site which the core mirrors.
Confronted by the exterior, the intellect is initially obliged to submit to the senses. The poetry of abstraction is captivating. The enigmatic planes play every game with the eye and the mind. They enclose and yet invite physical and visual penetration; they are both column and wall; while defining a triangle they elide at the apexes; they are neither front nor back nor side; they have weight but merge weightless with the sky, emulating its penetrating blue; they are structure but carry no weight.
This building matches its plastic versatility with a tactile range which produces astonishing effects. The reflective, Provençal blue ceramic panels dematerialise powerful facades and play a magic catch-as catch-can with the sky which they sometimes substitute, the stand-in becoming main performer. That such play implies wit and optimism is no accident – it reflects the spirit of the architect. Colour also plays a discreet supporting role as in the light green mosaic wrapping around a stair serving the library and destined to march copper when its patina forms. The use of rust red has Roman evocations. Even softer shades are employed for explanatory texts, maps and diagrams which are painted onto the walls, emulating Roman frescoes. Modern media techniques have been eschewed resulting in an atmosphere of subtle, scholarly dignity.
This is a work of art which floods the emotions upon initial contact. Then realisation dawns that it powerfully asserts the evolving Corbusian modernism which Ciriani leads. The plastic invention is never wilful, always under control in the service of a functional programme, while extending the vocabulary of modernism. It was inevitable that this architecture of substance would see off the trivialities of post-modernism. It also provides a model to counter the the object fixation and physics envy of much recent production. It is a generous, humanist, architecture of integrity which celebrates the public domain in poetic, plastic form without compromise to public "taste" and yet is immediately assimilated into la vie quotidienne. But this is France.
Whereas the millennium is a media hype, the prospect in the UK of National Lottery Fund investment to emulate the grands projets is real. The Arles Museum, a provincial grand projet, was opened within a week of Mitterrand's premature cutting of the Bibliothèque Nationale tape in Paris, these events signalling the end of the French big spend era. The prospect that any UK architect might upstage some future prime minister, let alone by invitation, is destined to remain more in the mythic realm of Monty Python. However, if the tendency towards politically motivated, vacuous public display can be deflected into an identification of national or local need realised in modern architecture of the optimism, generosity and sheer quality in Arles, then future BD reviews may revel in saying "but this is the UK!"