In this issue of L’Aperitivo Illustrato, dedicated to the theme of blue in art and architecture, we have tried to highlight those “icons” which best match the essence of the magazine. For this reason, as concerns architecture, we have chosen as the protagonist of these pages the architect Henri Ciriani’s project for the Archaeological Museum at Arles (France), which was inaugurated in 1994.
We have chosen to republish this project, despite its already wide publicisation, since those who remember it as it was in the images of its inauguration will now have to betake themselves to the site armed anew with their cameras. Yes, because the museum is undergoing a transformation, an extension whose compositional approach completely differs from the style of its original creator.
In view of this, we asked the architect Henri Ciriani to grant us an interview about what is happening today in Arles, to “his” museum, giving us a brief summary of his original idea.
M.B. Often in your architecture you have tackled large-scale projects. In the project for the Museum at Arles, how did you link together all the variables inherent in the surroundings, the infrastructures and the architecture in relation to the development of that particular territory?
H.C. The surroundings of Arles possess the brilliant beauty of a burning sun, like the one Van Gogh gave us in his painting. The site is almost a natural peninsula occupied by traces first of the Roman circus, then of the town slaughterhouse. Today the motorway is the only link between the ancient circus site and the old centre. With a well-thought-out transformation into a viaduct, the peninsula could be connected to the town.
Based on the competition project, the archaeological museum is situated on the slopes of the semicircle of the circus, as if it were a kind of stage set, and it is bounded by the river Rhône at the right face and the waters of Canal du Midi at the left face (south side). Seen from the motorway, the museum appears like a monumental object, a triangular shape which with its walls becomes the transitional element between a water-dominated landscape and the intense blue sky.
M.B. According to Colin Davies, the importance of significance lies in the fact that without representation there is no significance. But representation belongs above all to the world of art, and identity to the sphere of architecture; so what is the significance of the identity of the project?
H.C. The first obstacle in planning a museum concerns the scheme by which the works of art contained in it will be presented to its visitors. The other fundamental aspect is how the exhibition itinerary must be planned, besides the aspects connected with natural lighting. In other words: a spacious, solid building with all the necessary majesty for honouring its contents. In a modern museum, the shape is important, since it must be able to correctly guide the visitors along the inside itineraries, rather as in the Guggenheim of Wright in New York, or in the concepts expounded by Le Corbusier. In my case, the triangle leads to an itinerary which has the effect of a circuit en boucle, or closed circuit.
As regards the significance and identity of the project, the alternation of glazed blue glass plates with the marble lining of the base was the only way of marking the line of separation between ground and sky, a sky so blue that it envelops the whole of the town.
M.B. Organising both form and function is one of the most difficult things in architectural practice. How did you link these two aspects when conceiving the Museum?
H.C. Form and function are complementary. However “form” does not mean simple upward development of the ground-plan, but it must be done on a precise theoretical basis. Function in this case follows form and viceversa. The need to have the entrance and exit at the same point immediately suggested the choice of a difficult triangular shape. Inside, this triangular space is punctuated by the separating walls of the cultural and scientific wings on two sides, while the windows on the third side open onto the river.
M.B. In the light of recent episodes, in which part of the Museum has been demolished to make way for a new extension, designed what’s more by another architect, what for you indicates respect in architecture, and what does it mean to respect it?
H.C. Respecting architecture means above all to understand it, to be informed about it, then starting from this knowledge the intrinsic logic of a work can be assessed. This also means using all possible tools for ensuring the work does not lose its essence, even after modifications. Demolishing part of a recognised architectural work which has been published all over the world, without making an effort to understand it, amounts to a cultural crime.
M.B. Schulz said that every place contains a spirit. In the original project for the Museum what was your perception of the so-called genius loci? And if a genius loci exists, will it continue to live on even after the falsification of the original?
H.C. The spirit of the original project can be summed up as a spacious horizontal building whose roof conducts natural light and whose corners enclose open spaces. The ability of a project to maintain the genius loci depends on how forcefully a work fits into a particular territory, but above all on how the inhabitants of this territory appreciate it. In my opinion, the architect cannot establish this in advance.
M.B. A final question. A work is said to be complete when it is perfectly balanced in all its parts, so the material loss of even a small element threatens the overall stability of the work. When the works of extension on the Museum are completed will you still acknowledge your authorship of the project or will you disown it?
H.C. The addition of a new block destroys the balance of the initial project. One of the three corners no longer corresponds; the interior space is upset and the continuity of the itinerary is no longer a unified one. Indeed the modifications actually affect two of the three faces of the museum. I can neither accept or reject it; I can only denounce the crime.
Many thanks to the architect Henri Ciriani for granting us this interview, and I would like to end by saying that the power of architecture, combined with the culture underlying it, will never cease to exist. We would be nothing without culture.
*The complete article on L'Aperitivo Illustrato quarterly No. 59