Sign of the times: Henri Ciriani in Arles
Henri Ciriani has completed a major archaeological museum and research institute at Arles.
Won in a competition in 1984, Ciriani’s Research Institute of Ancient Provence finally opens in the New Year. The design is striking as much for its parti, with a rigorous triangular plan embracing a huge internal hall, as for the dazzling blue glass used on its exterior.
The peninsular on which the museum stands mediates between the ancient town and modern quarters of Arles, writes Henri Ciriani. This meant creating a unified identity for the whole setting – like a sacred grove. The dimensions and position of the former Roman circus, vestiges of which remain, determined the location of the building. The museum is conceived as a strong, pure and recognisable form – a signal. The geometries of the square and the circle already form part of the built heritage of Arles; the triangle this completes the city’s formal repertoire. Seen from the elevated road that crosses the site, the building appears as a linear backdrop to the circus. Its volume, however tapering towards the point of the peninsular, forms a triangle.
Orientation has determined the relative opacity of the three facades. Facing the sun (towards the canal) the building is completely opaque; facing the Mistral (towards the river) it is glazed; and facing the circus and the historic town, it is animated by the formal play of projections and openings.
The nature of the objects to be exhibited meant that the exhibition spaces had to be on a single level. The requirement that visitors should be given a choice of routes, long and short, was met by the provision of two angled wings, of different widths, arranged either side of an open space and meeting at a single point, the entrance hall. This space is envisaged as an urban interior, the one place that allows the building to be comprehended in its entirety.
From the entrance hall one discerns the two wings which define the triangular heart of the museum (the original competition-winning project was for a Museum of Ancient Arles but this was subsequently expanded into the Research Institute of Ancient Provence). The two wings are quite separate. The cultural wing – to the right – includes a school of tourism, tourist information, library conference room, conservation, personnel and cafeteria; it occupies the side facing the historic town and has terraces and a balcony overlooking the circus. The scientific wing – to the left – includes laboratories for glass, bronze, mosaic and photography, reserve collections, an archaeological study centre plus loading bay and storage; it is reached by a long internal street which forms its spine. The cultural wing is separated from the exterior facade by a promenade relaying along its entire length the two levels of the programme.
The building forms an open figure on a closed plan, with the dynamism of the triangle emphasised by the autonomy of the intersecting walls that define it. The freely disposed planes of the south-west apex set up a dynamic effect, anchored by a viewing stair tower which emerges from the central patio.
The triangular figure sets the building and the circle in a state of tension in relation to the peninsular. Internally the floor is finished in grey stone and the structure, punctuated and pierced, is white concrete; it is left to the exhibits, screen and furniture to introduce colours and materials into the vast space. The space is animated by the quality of light (the museum faces north). Natural light, modulated, controlled and screened by louvres, becomes not just the means of identifying different parts of the building and the programme but in a sense the most important element of the programme. At night the spotlighting on the exhibits creates a theatrical effect quite different from daytime.
Exterior horizontal surfaces are finished in clay tiles, vertical facades are in blue glass panels the colour of the Arles sky – a sign of the permanence of ancient Arles in the spirit of its people, both now and in the future.