Nimes’ Musée de Romanité, the architecture of a contemporary building with the stature to stand up to the adjacent monumental Roman Arena built in 70CE

Famous for its rich classical past, the ancient city of Nîmes in the south of France highlights the remarkable state of conservation of its Roman monuments. And the city continues to uncover its archaeological remains: in 2006-2007, during preventive excavations before road works, an entire Roman house and two mosaics – ’Achilles’ and ‘Pentheus’ – were found. In an excellent state of conservation, they were described by specialists as ‘the finest pieces after those of Pompeii’. The discovery strengthened the resolve of Jean-Paul Fournier, Mayor of Nîmes, to create a contemporary museum where the city would exhibit these extremely rare works, together with those held by the city’s nineteenth century archaeological museum that had become too small.

Designing harmonious architecture

In June 2018, Fournier’s dream came true when a stunning new museum was opened just opposite the city’s equally imposing 20,000-seat Roman Arena – an amphitheatre still used for bullfights and also for rock festivals in the summer. But how do you establish an architectural dialogue between two buildings facing each other that are separated by 2,500 years of history? This was the challenge at stake for Brazilian-born architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc.

Draped in its dazzling translucent facade, the Roman Museum’s flowing and diaphanous glass surfaces offer a contemporary contrast with the arena’s monumental stone structure. The square shape of the museum contrasts with the roundness of the arena. Whereas the Roman Arena is firmly anchored into the ground, the large translucent white and silver glass box of the museum is cantilevered over the large empty and transparent spaces on the ground floor. The shadow cast on the facade conceals a line of thin 60 cm wide pillars laid out on a regular grid at 12m intervals that are integrated within the interior volumes.

The Roman Museum in the French city of Nîmes was opened in 2018 to house the city’s Roman artefacts. Designed by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc. Image shows main façade.

The Roman Museum in the French city of Nîmes was opened in 2018 to house the city’s Roman artefacts. Designed by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc. Image shows main façade.

The supple drapery of the façade evokes a Roman toga, and the square glass plates bring in a modern element while subtly evoking the ancient decorative art of mosaics, a major element of the museum’s collections. However, if the new museum displays a light glass outward shell, the concrete structure behind it had to be strong and sturdy to withstand the very heavy loads of the different artefacts on display. For instance, some of the Roman milestones on display weigh three tons and each of the stones of the pediment that frames the main entrance weigh 26 tons.

Fluid urban design

The land site of the new museum is that of an ancient Pagan temple dedicated to water, later replaced by a Roman temple. Straddling the ruins of the Roman rampart, the museum acts as a gateway linking the neighbouring buildings with a public square surrounding the amphitheatre through a series of axes and openings. A central thoroughfare crosses through the main building heading from the arena square to an archaeological garden of 3,400m², a public place that is itself connected to the surrounding urban fabric where everyone is welcome to wander, without necessarily entering the museum. The hallway follows the line of the city’s Augustan ramparts, a section of which has been carefully restored along with all other remaining traces of the site’s history.

Site masterplan showing the ancient Roman Arena and the new Roman Museum in the French city of Nîmes. A central thoroughfare links the arena, museum and archaeological garden beyond.

Site masterplan showing the ancient Roman Arena and the new Roman Museum in the French city of Nîmes. A central thoroughfare links the arena, museum and archaeological garden beyond.

This monumental street blurs the frontiers between public and private space by using the same paving inside and outside the building. It allows everyone to discover and cross the ground floor of the building through the fully glazed museum hallway. Through these different interactions with the city, the museum goes beyond the simple function of an exhibition space to become a bridgeway between the contemporary and historic areas of the city. A pedestrian link runs through the museum to reach the city’s railway station.

Project facts & figures:

As in many other Roman cities, water was a key element in Nîmes development: its first inhabitants settled around a water resurgence infiltrating the karstic soil north of the city. They made it a sacred place dedicated to the god Nemausus. Framing the main entrance of the museum – leading into the 17-metre high atrium – stands a splendid fragment of one of the pediments of the Sanctuary of the Fountain, placed within a spectacular reconstitution of this sacred site dating from the foundation of the pre-Roman city. The purpose of the museum is to take the visitor through the history of the city from the seventh century BC until the Middle Ages in order to comprehend the process of “Romanisation” of society, before and after the Roman occupation.

Cross-section of the Roman Museum in the French city of Nîmes, designed by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc. Included in the non-exhibitory spaces are an auditorium and roof-terrace.

Cross-section of the Roman Museum in the French city of Nîmes, designed by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc. Included in the non-exhibitory spaces are an auditorium and roof-terrace.

Museography

Elizabeth de Portzamparc was also responsible for the museography, which separates the exhibits into three main chronological periods. The collections exhibited occupy 3,500m² of the building’s total floor area of 9,200m². In addition to the exhibition rooms, the museum has 700m² of storage space, an auditorium with 180 seats, a bookshop and boutique (140 m²), three educational spaces (400m²), a resource centre (250 m²), a café, a 2 star restaurant and finally, a 200m² venue on the top floor.

Throning in the middle of the main atrium is the aluminium, helicoidal central staircase that leads up towards the centrepiece of the museum, a mosaic depicting Pentheus (a king of Thebes) being murdered by his mother, which was unearthed during building works in 2006. In near-perfect condition, it was subsequently reconstructed, tile by tile, on the museum’s first floor. A frieze of headless eagles, marble busts, limestone nymphs and a sixth-century sarcophagus are among the other 5,000 pieces on display, many coming from Nîmes’ now-closed archaeology museum.

The main atrium of the Roman Museum in Nîmes designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc. The museum houses 5,000 artefacts of the city’s rich Roman archaeological heritage. Photo - Copyright Sergio Grazia 2018 musee nimes IMP-A-26r

The main atrium of the Roman Museum in Nîmes designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc. The museum houses 5,000 artefacts of the city’s rich Roman archaeological heritage. Photo – Copyright Sergio Grazia 2018 musee nimes IMP-A-26r

Blurring boundaries

The museum’s interior design functions as a continuation of the urban fabric, with indoor streets connecting plaza-like gathering places, and built elements used to house the exhibits and break up the semi-open spaces. Mezzanines at different levels help to break up the floor space into different volumes. The folds and gaps in the building’s outer glass screen are a dramatic visual motif and also work as a peep-hole out of the museum towards the Roman Arena opposite. Although a chronological route is provided running over twenty centuries, shortcuts abound. The museum has an impressive array of hi-tech gadgetry: immersive projections, touchscreens, holograms and luminous white “knowledge boxes” that present maps and historical timelines which help to place the various artefacts in a meaningful context.

Panoramic views of the city

Visitors ascend gradually through the exhibition spaces and ultimately emerge onto a huge landscaped roof terrace spanning 3,500m² across. This belvedere, made up of alternating plant bedding and roof decking provides a 360° panoramic view of the city’s skyline with the Roman Amphitheatre, the nine hills of the city in the distance and the Tour Magne – the tallest tower in the Roman walls which marks the shrine of the first springwater source around which the first city developed. In the eighteenth century, the site was landscaped and became the Fountain gardens, a public park at the heart of the city.

The roof terrace at the Roman Museum in the French city of Nîmes, designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc. It can be accessed via the museum or directly from the street below. Romanite Nimes Terrrasse ©Nicolas Borel

The roof terrace at the Roman Museum in the French city of Nîmes, designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc. It can be accessed via the museum or directly from the street below.

The roof terrace can also be accessed separately from the museum through a staircase that leads directly on to the street below so city dwellers can use it as another public open space. This also provides an independent entrance to the roof-top restaurant which offers spectacular views onto the Roman Arena. Since the museum first opened in June 2018, it has attracted over 300,000 visitors including foreign visitors of many different nationalities.

The translucent glass façade of the Roman Museum in Nîmes designed by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, consists of 7,500 screen-printed glass plates. Romanite Nimes Republique Reflets2 © Serge Urvoy.

The translucent glass façade of the Roman Museum in Nîmes designed by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, consists of 7,500 screen-printed glass plates. Romanite Nimes Republique Reflets2 © Serge Urvoy.

“According to the different times of the day,“ explains the architect “the façade offers kinetic effects, subtle variations of reflections depending on the angles, inclines, troughs and ridges, which accentuate its movement and constantly transform it over the hours and seasons, creating a dialogue with the city by reflecting the colours, the light and the surrounding life. ” The translucent glass skin covers a surface area of 2,500m² and is made up of more than 7,500 screen-printed horizontal glass plates, 20cm wide and 1.5m long for standard elements as well as special sections between 60cm and 2.50 m long.

The illusion of separation

This glass double-skin façade wraps around all four sides of the main building of the museum. Although the outer façade is not insulated, the screen-printed glazing contributes to the overall thermal performance of the building. The glass segments that make up the façade are not fixed with screws but with a specific structural adhesive. To ensure the glitter effect, the screen printing is punctuated by panels of the same size giving the illusion that each square is separate.

However, whereas point-fixed structural glass systems generally have four to eight attachment points, the blades here, are only pierced and secured at two points. This refined and minimal solution was only made possible thanks to a unique combination of highly resistant glazing. The standard blades are laminated glazing made up of two types of glass: on the outer facing, a toughened HST tempered glass of 8mm was combined with a heat strengthened glass of 6mm on the inside. 10mm thick glass plates were used for the glass plates on the corners of the façades that are cantilevered towards the exterior. In addition, the glass is assembled with a SentryGlas® safety glass interlayer, 1.52mm thick, with much higher mechanical properties compared to transparent PVB (polyvinyl butyral) film.

A complex steel structure

The extraordinary double-curved shape of the façade is obtained through its substructure of fixed louvers made up of undulating lasered steel struts. Since the glass surface is flat with vertical angles ranging from 36° to -68°, it is this metal frame which gives the curved and counter-curved shapes of the glazed outer skin. The steel struts are made up in different layers allowing each to integrate different layouts and three-dimensional adjustments as well as other possibilities of differential movement. Each stainless-steel glass clamp is then fastened on a geometrically variable square bracket which is itself fixed on a stainless-steel upright in the shape of a small serpentine. The latter is in turn fastened onto the main uprights in 30mm thick lacquered steel that are shaped identically. The uprights are fastened at the top on metal consoles that are anchored at the rear of a concrete base with further anchors set out at different intervals into the concrete walls of the museum that are all fixed systematically through the aluminium faced insulation cladding.

Behind the glass façade of the Roman Museum in Nîmes, designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc. The undulating steel struts give the exterior its curved shape.

Behind the glass façade of the Roman Museum in Nîmes, designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc. The undulating steel struts give the exterior its curved shape.

The glass veils are separated in the corner angles to meet with earthquake and wind constraints. A clearance of 45mm allows movements of one glass veil relative to the other. Because of the random undulations of the envelope each element of the steel frame is quite unique: some 15,000 square legs and 2,800 parts make up the serpentine curves and uprights. Each element had to be identified on plan and put together very precisely in a workshop prior to assembly on site. Four access points for firefighters have been integrated into the façades as well as technical gangways to allow climbers to make maintenance checks every three months. Impact tests at 900 joules were carried out to verify that the glass blades withstood impacts and other risks linked to maintenance.

Project facts & figures:

Client City of Nîmes
Architecture and museography ELIZABETH DE PORTZAMPARC
Associated architects A + ARCHITECTURE
Construction period Spring 2014 – December 2017
Building programme
Floor area 9100 sqm
Net floor area 10,000 sqm
Total expenditure 59.5 M€ including 38 M€ HT construction costs
Façade – glass mosaic HEFI
Main building contractor FONDEVILLE

By Robin Fisher, Architectural Critic
After studying both literature and landscape architecture I worked for over thirty years in the field of PR & communication. Because of my background I worked particularly on environmental issues such as waste reduction but also for the wood industry. As a PR consultant for the American Hardwood Export Council I had the unique opportunity to combine my interest for design with the promotion of a very sustainable material. I was able to write up lots of case studies on architectural projects across Europe, meet some leading architects and designers as well as organising a student design competition. Today I have the good fortune through this blog, to write about some fascinating design projects which draw from the constant technical innovations in steel and metal structures.