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Médiathèques exist in most French towns and cities. Typically they embrace magazines and books as well as music, video and cinema. Less common is the inclusion of a gallery for painting and sculpture. In Nîmes, the interaction within the same building of these two cultures - the visual arts and the world of information technology - held the promise of a richer totality. The urban context of Nîmes was also a powerful influence. The site faces the Maison Carrée, a perfectly preserved Roman temple. The challenge was to relate new to the old, but at the same time to create a building that represented its own age with integrity.

The Carré d'Art is articulated as a nine-storey structure, half of which is cut into the ground, keeping the building's profile low in sympathy with the scale of the surrounding buildings

At the heart of the plan is a glass-roofed atrium, with a cascading staircase, which references the courtyard vernacular of the region. This space exploits the transparency and lightness of modern materials to allow daylight to permeate all floors. The lower levels house archive storage and a cinema. Above are two library floors, with art galleries on the upper two levels. A reception space on the uppermost floor opens out to a shaded café terrace overlooking a new public square.

The creation of this urban space was an integral part of the project. Railings, hoardings and parked cars were banished and the space in front of the building was extended to create a pedestrianised place - a new social focus and an appropriate setting for the Maison Carrée.

Lined with café tables and thronged with people, the square has reinvigorated the social and cultural life of Nîmes. Together with these urban interventions, the Carré d'Art shows how a building project, backed by an enlightened political initiative, can provide a powerful catalyst for reinvigorating the social and physical fabric of a city.

View Carré d'Art - Interiors project page

“One must come to the Carre d'Art as one came to the Forum - for the pleasure of entering a beautiful space, of brushing against fine materials. But also for the pleasure of the intellect and imagination, of art and music... The Carre d'Art is what we call an intelligent building; but it must also become a builder of intelligence - a space that belongs to everyone, removing institutional and cultural barriers.” Jean Bousquet, 1993

“Sober and simple the Carré d'Art perfectly counterpoints the Mexican Caréé. This is not shocking juxtaposition but an elegant cohabitation of antiquity and modernity. The elemental simplicity of Foster’s building works to enhance the Roman monument and in this way the new building rolls out a red carpet to the antique temple.” Francis Rambert, Le Figaro, 7 May 1993

“The Carré d'Art is a ‘people’s building’ – open to, but also in a vital way possessed by, its user and the ancient city in which it is placed.” Chris Abel

“The line of the roof relates to the building’s domestic scaled neighbours, and by expressing the individual galleries, each with its own roof, the composition is discreetly tied into historic fabric of Nîmes.” Norman Foster

“Standing under the high rooflight of one of the main galleries last autumn, I could have been on top of the world. In engineering terms, a more correct analogy would be the Iceberg, since there is actually more of the project under than above the ground.” Tony Fitzpatrick, of Arup, writing in Architecture Today, June 1993

“Foster has returned all the grandeur to this square and has created a public space, exquisitely handling stone in the true manner of the Romans.” Francis Rambert, D’Architectures, May 1993 The central staircase is flooded with light and animated by people at almost any time of day. It feels like an ‘outdoor’ space – an extension of the square.”Norman Foster

“For me, the play of light is an essential party of the experience of enjoying art. The Nîmes galleries are the opposite of the sealed containers that characterise so many other museums.” Norman Foster

Appointment: 1984
Completion: 1993

Area: 20 400m²
Capacity: 33,000 visitors per month or 396,000 per year

Client: Ville de Nimes

Structural Engineer: Ove Arup and Partners / OTH Mediterranee
Quantity Surveyor: Thorne Wheatley Associates
M+E Engineer: OTH Mechanica
Lighting Engineer: Claude R Engle

Additional Consultants: Daniel Commins, Jolyon Drury Consultancy

Awards

  • Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design,
  • 'Interiors' (USA) Award

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