The three point plan
(pages 88-93)
Peruvian born Parisian architect, Henri Ciriani is best known for his housing projects. He is now, however, forever linked with the hugely successful, if drawn-out, project for the Musée de l'Arles Antique in the ancient Roman city of Arles, in Provence, southern France. Fourteen years, and four Ministers of Culture, later the museum is a masterpiece in open-plan design and dramatic use of colour and site.

When Henri Ciriani won the competition to design a new museum to house Arles' enormous archaeological collection, Europe was buzzing with exciting and innovative designs to accommodate major collections –Richard Meier in Frankfurt, and the late James Stirling in Stuttgart to mention just two.. "Museums were the big theme for the eighties" said Ciriani, "showing off the architect and providing a thermometer for the temperature of that architect at the time." Museum projects became well known amongst the general public, and were afforded copious publicity on completion –much as they are today, particularly in the cases of Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry, for example.

Within this culture, Ciriani set about finding a dynamic and appropriate solution to housing the most important archaeological collection in France. Such monuments needed a home that would show them off in natural light (as far as possible) and spacious surroundings – a departure from the dusty vaults of many of the existing European museums.

Arles has often been referred to as "little Rome". Visitors to the city today can still wander around the arena and ancient theatre in the centre of the old town, and there is evidence of the remains of a circus on the outskirts of the town, towards the new museum. It was essential that Ciriani's museum should be a fitting backdrop to the circus and ancient monuments in the distance. The unusual equilateral triangle plan of the museum was chosen because, as the architect explained, "it is the only pure form not used by the Romans in Arles." The triangular form therefore made direct reference to the geometry of the Romans, while at the same time introducing something new to the city's vocabulary and ensuring that the building would also be unashamedly twentieth century.

The brief also stipulated provision for three specific areas: a museum, an educational department and an extensive research wing.  The research wing and educational department are each accommodated in one side of the triangle. The city also required that the museum should be on one level, due to the weight of the exhibits. This demand allowed Ciriani the opportunity to optimise the ease of circulation for museum visitors, the triangular form lending itself to a clear definition of route. No stairs, or lifts were required in the gallery, and an open-plan solution proved beneficial both for the viewers and for the display of the objets d'art.

"Corbusier and Wright both appreciated that circulation was the form-giver, but neither resolved this completely", explained Ciriani, whose museum clearly pays homage to the work of the former, with a series of pilotis guiding visitors through the open space. Vital to any successful circulation plan is the atrium, and the provision of one point of entrance and exit.

Thus Ciriani's three point plan to ensure a successful design, was the circulation, the lobby or atrium, and the lighting. For lighting the antiquities the architect had fewer points of reference – Corbusier, Wright and their successors designing largely for painting museums. Ciriani also placed emphasis on the importance of colour for the museum. The only geographical constant with Roman times in Arles is the sky. This penetrating Provencal blue was therefore adopted by the architect, and reflected in the blue glass stretched over the concrete structure, glass being the Roman equivalent of marble today, "the most perfect material". When the Mistral blows across the town the horizontal planes of the museum blend seamlessly with the sky.

What was particularly unusual in the Arles museum brief was the request for the architect to complete the design for the installation, as well as the museum building. But is is his skill in this department that has determined the commercial and artistic success of the project. Ciriani and his small team of architects designed all the partitions, signing and display cases, down to a bespoke wave-formation "bottle rack" for the display of ancient flasks. He determined the use of muted colours on the polished plaster – mainly grey, red, yellow and blue – and insisted that they were applied by hand thereby showing the brushstrokes.

On entering the museum the most immediately striking aspect of the design is the reflection of a pool of water at the building's centre, across which visitors can walk during the summer. The overhead sun on the water casts shimmering reflections onto the floor and walls of the gallery space creating a sense of tranquility and unadulterated beauty.

Natural light is filtered through slots in the sculptured ceiling, and from skylights. The exhibits benefit from northern light traditionally exploited in galleries.  The scientific research wing occupies the south facing wing. The harsh southern sun would be too damaging for the museum, and the cool conditions required for research and storage welcome the blind, top lit wing. The north-east entrance façade seems two dimensional on approaching the museum from the town, the cultural wing popping out through the wall of blue. The open and closed spaces created by the sculptural form serve to express the interaction of exterior and interior, but also have a practical purpose: if, or when, the museum has the need or finances to expand, the external structure will already be catered for.

The financial state of the museum is not as rosy as the picture painted by the building would suggest. Arles is a poor town, and the authorities have failed to raise the money for the completion of the café or the auditorium upstairs. But Ciriani remains optimistic. They've waited this long for the gallery. They'll just have to be patient for a few years, or decades, longer. Good things come to those who wait.

(Nicola Turner)

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