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Nicolas Borel, 2Portzamparc, Nimes, Museum

Antiquity Veiled with Glass: Musée de la Romanité in Nîmes

Norman Foster set the stage at the beginning of the 90s. Despite a few critical voices, his Carré d’Art cultural centre opposite the Maison Carré Roman temple in the heart of Nîmes is considered a prime example of contemporary building in historical surroundings. Twenty years later with the new Musée de la Romanité, the city is striving for a similar contrast between neighbouring buildings. In 2011, the municipal administration announced an architecture competition for a museum building on the corner of the Place des Arènes, located at the edge of the old town, kitty corner from the renowned amphitheatre of Nîmes.

The winning submission from Elizabeth de Portzamparc and her office 2Portzamparc sets the desired point of contrast to the historic monument and forms a gate situation leading to the interior of the city block that stands behind it, which has been transformed into a museum garden. The heart of the building is formed by a 17-metre-high atrium with a sculptural spiral staircase and the reconstruction of an ancient well shrine in its original size. Around this are the exhibition spaces; the permanent exhibition alone comprises around 5,000 individual pieces. Many digital reconstructions of historic buildings and urban areas help visitors’ imaginations along. In three white, backlit cubes known as knowledge boxes, the collection’s historical context is presented on screens and in timelines.

The exhibition spaces open onto many views outside, particularly in the direction of the amphitheatre. The suspended glass curtain consists of 7,000 small, screenprinted glass squares on a metal subconstruction. Elizabeth de Portzamparc compares the appearance of the façade with the folds of a Roman toga which set a deliberate contrast to the regular, stone rigidity of the ancient structure across the way. The museum courtyard, which measures 3,500 m², is the brainchild of landscape architect Régis Guignard. On three different levels, it brings together typical plants from three eras: the Gallic, the Roman and the medieval. The rooftop terrace, which is partly planted, was originally not part of the design for the competition, but represents a huge gain, for it offers a panoramic view over the roofs of the old town and its Roman monuments.

It was almost expected that the new building would arouse controversy, which soon followed: for years, Nîmes has been applying for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the spring of 2018 Icomos, the international organization for historical protection which advises UNESCO in matters of new admissions, reviewed the city’s application and returned the rather critical verdict that the integrity of the culturally valuable urban image is threatened by new buildings such as the museum. Furthermore, the increased numbers of tourists represent a burden on the historical structure. In July 2018, UNESCO rejected the city’s application. In 2020, Nîmes can reapply and try again.

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