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Cabinet of curiosities: its internal layout based around ancient remains, this new Gallo-Roman museum is a lightweight, luminous box that engages with nature and lets antiquity speak for itself.

As witnessed by recent projects such as the Lucerne concert hall (AR October 1998) and Nantes law courts (AR November 2000), the big roof has become something of a Jean Nouvel signature. Here in the French town of Perigeaux it makes another appearance, floating languidly over a lightweight glass box that houses the municipality's new Gallo-Roman museum. From a distance the building resembles a cabinet of curiosities, with tantalizing glimpses of historic artefacts; its lightness and fragility are also reminiscent of the temporary structures used to protect archaeological digs. Within lies a modern labyrinth arranged around the physical remains of ancient Roman town houses, together with more conventional exhibition spaces.

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The museum has its origins in the serendipitous discovery in the late 1950s of two Roman dwellings (during excavations to build a low-cost housing development). The houses were geologically compacted on top of each other and decades of exploration subsequently revealed an archaeologically significant array of bathing rooms, wall paintings, a courtyard, kitchens and two peristyles. To protect and display these precious relics it was decided to build a new museum on the site, and in 1993, Nouvel was selected through a competition. His design reads as delicately transparent planes set in a mature landscape, recalling other projects of the period such as the Cartier Foundation in the Montparnasse district of Paris, in which mass is dissolved in a mesmeric play of light, reflections and evanescence. The box is anchored on its west side by a long, low bar containing two levels of exhibition spaces for the Gallo-Roman collection. Despite its simple and apparently uncompromising geometry, Nouvel's building is actually quite circumspect in its response to existing elements. The broad brimmed eaves of the great roof shelter a small seventeenth-century house (now remodelled as the museum's offices) and a protected 400 year old oak becomes the unexpected focal point of the entrance hall, its branches rising up and out through the roof.

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Inside the soaring central space, the presence of nature is also never very far away. Separated by a skin of clear glass hung on a slim steel frame, the arboreal landscape forms a verdant screen around the cavern-like hall. Through one wall there are also views of the surrounding medieval buildings on the north edge of the site. The oversailing eaves of the umbrella-like roof mitigate the distracting effects of glare.

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Nouvel responds to the challenge of making the Roman ruins accessible (yet also safeguarded from the effects of such access) by employing a system of raised timber walkways and platforms supported on a dark steel frame. Made of billinga, a robust African hardwood, the walkways guide and orientate visitors around the site. The original Roman plans of the houses are mapped out on the ceiling, colour coded red and yellow according to their different eras.

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Glass cases on hardwood bases are used to display artefacts such as pottery, jewellery and metalware; larger objects are mounted on steel slabs anchored to the concrete walls of the two-storey block to the rear of the main hall. Individual pieces are illuminated with theatrical precision against sober, neutral backdrops; in fact the entire building is conceived as a kind of protective, workman-like stage set. At night it gently pulsates with light, revealing its historic contents. Though Nouvel tends to be associated with a more gestural sort of architecture, here his intelligently understated approach has a dignity and clarity that lets antiquity speak for itself.

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Architect

Jean Nouvel, Paris

Photographs

Paul Raftery/VIEW
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Interior Design
Author:Joubert, Paul
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:603
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