Nimes, the center of the Gard region in the south of France, is mostly famous for roman monuments, bullfighting and a textile industry that was once the primary purveyor of denim in the world (originally de Nîmes). Despite its illustrious past and picturesque férias, the Nimes of the 1970s and early 1980s lacked the dynamism of its rapidly expanding neighbor, Montpellier. In 1983, the new Mayor Jean Bousquet decided that change was required if Nimes was to have a future. Grand architectural gestures were high on the political agenda in the France of the 1980’s, and Mayor Bousquet’s effort sparked an ambitious international competition for a new Library and Art Museum on a site facing the iconic Maison carrée, a Roman templewhich is, with Nimes arena, among the most complete Roman buildings still in existence.
The mayor Jean-Paul Fournier – formerly responsible for urbanism in Jean Bousquet’s administration – is trying to sustain his predecessor’s effort with a new series of ambitious architectural projects. Above all was his personal interest is to replace a small obsolete archeological museum no longer capable of fulfilling the needs of a city full of history. Facing competition from surrounding cities like Arles with its Museum of Antiquity completed in 1995, and more recently Narbonne with another Roman museum project, an international competition was announced in August 2011.
The site faces the most symbolic monument of Roman Nîmes – the arena – and is crossed by the ruins and archeological remains of ancient roman fortifications. It is a perfect square in shape, with each side having a strong directional hierarchy: a front towards the Arena and a large open plaza, two sides bordered by narrow roads, and the rear opening to an open space to be used as an archeological garden, and connected to the Arena.
The Museum is designed as the gateway to an urban narrative and promenade, a monumental portal at the beginning of a journey to the Maison Carrée and Nimes’ other Roman treasures. It is the entry to the city’s cultural identity, a symbolic reference to the Empire’s monumental gates, and the 60 arches of the Arena. As a geographical and symbolical center, it is as much a place of convergence as a generator of new paths for discovery. A largely transparent façade displays a contemporary reading of Roman civilization. From the outside, it offers the visibility of the objects and the volumes of the Museum. From the inside, it offers the exposure to the objects and the volume of the arena, in a strong reflective dialogue between two architectures separated by over two thousand years of history.