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Modern primitive: Jean Nouvel emphasises beauty and surprise in his installation of exotic artefacts at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

Starting with Georges Pompidou, French presidents have commissioned grands projets so that they might be recalled, as Louis XIV still is, for their contributions to la gloire de la patrie. During Mitterrand's long reign, the overpriced disasters--including Spreckelsen's Defense Arch, Ott's Bastille Opera, and Perrault's not-so-great Library--overshadowed the successes (the Arab World Institute, Louvre Pyramid, and Cite de la Musique). President Chirac, a cultured man who would like to be remembered for something besides weak leadership and shady dealings, has improved on his predecessor's patchy record, with a single imposing edifice: the Musee du quai Branly.

Jean Nouvel won the competition to design a museum of the arts and culture of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, enhancing the prestige and visibility of artefacts gathered by anthropologists and colonialists. It was named for its riverfront location after earlier attempts to summarise its content fell short. Four thousand of the 300 000 objects assembled here are permanently displayed in four geographical sections, others will be included in temporary exhibitions, or made accessible for scholarly research. That programme, plus the usual public amenities, demanded a huge building, but the architects have succeeded brilliantly in fragmenting and dematerialising its mass. The 220m long exhibition hall is articulated as two connected blocks to echo the curve of the Seine and raised on pilotis. A curved entry pavilion at one end leads into the temporary exhibition area at ground level. Bridges link a library to two steel-louvred office blocks which extend forward to the quai, and tropical botanist Patrick Blanc has installed a carpet of greenery on one street facade. The monochromatic steel screens are enlivened with vibrant splashes of colour. Australian Aboriginal artists painted the four ceilings of the library, and orange-red wedges support windows when they are tilted out to provide natural ventilation.

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A glass screen shields the site from traffic noise and maintains the street line, as it does at Nouvel's Cartier Foundation on boulevard Raspail. There, the building is crystalline (which poses severe limitations on what can be shown); here, natural light is largely excluded by dark red steel louvres to the south, and a diamond grid of screen-printed windows to the north. Twenty eight blank-walled galleries of different sizes are cantilevered out like open drawers from the north facade. Already the street trees and the garden that flows under the building have softened its sharp edges, and newly planted oaks and maples will grow 20m high, surrounding the roof terrace with a verdant canopy. The horizontality of the buildings plays off the vertical thrust of the Eiffel Tower a short distance away.

A glass dining pavilion occupies one end of the roof terrace. The steel ribs of its shallow dome cast an angular pattern of shadows across the floor and this is picked up as an inlay on the wood panelling behind the bar. Folding glass doors open onto the terrace with its linear reflecting pool. Another indoor-outdoor space is the sunken theatre--naturally lit from within a grassy berm--which comprises a block of 400 steeply raked seats that face an open stage and a horseshoe of tapered bleachers. Curtains can be drawn to close off both the lobby and the glass doors that unfold to open the space to the garden.

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Nouvel conceived the museum as a cinematic experience--an interweaving of time and space--and as an organic entity in which the main route would evoke a river winding through a forest. 'It's important to create a territory for this kind of art; I wanted an ecumenical home for gods of different cultures and to envelop them in a sense of mystery,' he says. It's an idea he began exploring in the Arab World Institute (AR October 1987), with its automated metal mashrabiyya and deeply recessed entrance, and with the alternation of light and shadow in the recently completed Guthrie (in Minneapolis) and earlier theatres.

Visitors enter the luminous white space of the foyer, where light filters down from a red ceiling grille, and in through vertical louvres angled like the blades of a fan. A neutral white volume is reserved for temporary exhibitions, and an oval glass silo containing musical instruments from around the world serves as a central mast. A sinuous ramp (to be decorated by a different artist every year) winds up through this space, opens onto a darkened passage, and emerges into the long, shadowy hall of the permanent display. The structural steel frame of roof is covered with an undulating net of steel mesh through which suspended lights shine.

The architects collaborated closely with the curators and lighting consultant to design every aspect of the display, and, for better or worse, this is pure theatre. The goal was to liberate totems and masks, textiles and carvings from the rails, vitrines, white boxes and grid plan of a conventional museum. Here the exhibits seem to float in the darkness, protected by invisible sheets of glass, and lit from overhead pin spots. The glass and tall black dividers capture reflections. Together, they layer the space, creating a labyrinth through which visitors find their own way, pausing, if they choose, to view explanatory videos set into an undulating leather bench.

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You can get the big picture from boat-like galleries that seem to hover within the void. To the south, pierced louvres and fritted glass are overlaid to create a moire pattern that admits a sparkle of natural light; to the north, diamond panes are silk-screened with foliage to evoke a forest, though nature should soon provide the real thing. The cantilevered side galleries each focus on a single theme, from jewellery to carpets. Three house shadow theatres; a shaman holds forth in another.

Predictably, this emphasis on beauty and surprise, reaching out to a broad public, has enraged many purists. Some are angry that these disparate objects have been taken from the Musee de l'Homme, where the emphasis was entirely cultural, and presented as works of art; others complain about the absence of clear-cut divisions and didactic labels to explain spiritual significance and provenance.

However it's worth remembering that many exhibits were transferred from a museum that occupied a pavilion built for the colonial exhibition of 1931 which glorified the French mission civilatrice to native peoples. This is clearly a more dignified setting, and perhaps it's time to reclaim these objects from scholars who would prefer aesthetic delights to be prefaced by helpings of verbose texts. Arguably you don't have to study ancient Greek mythology to appreciate the Elgin marbles, and it's patronising to suggest that African artefacts must be prefaced by lengthy interpretations. Paring away the pedantic clutter, Nouvel allows the objects to speak for themselves.

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Article Details
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Author:Webb, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Words:1152
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