Architecture: Modernist temple brings new gods to an old city: Jonathan Glancey on a British design at home in France

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The Independent Culture
'ONE has to know what one wants,' said Jean Bousquet, the charismatic mayor of Nimes when, nine years ago, he invited four of the world's leading architects to design a 'Beaubourg (Pompidou Centre) of the South' slap-bang in front of Nimes's famous Maison Carree. At the time, the idea seemed outlandish.

Bousquet's plan to build a modern arts centre in the antique core of Nimes seemed mad, bad and dangerous. Did this ambitious man have no respect for the architecture and setting of the Maison Carree - the first- century capitol designed during the reign of Emporer Augustus by the Roman architect Crispius Reberrus. It had survived in almost perfect condition for 2,000 years, along with the equally famous amphitheatre, Les Arenes (the work of the same architect), in the nearby Boulevard Arenes, and the great aqueduct on the edge of town. Now it was to be undermined by an upstart mayor with a self-proclaimed mission to 'relieve the excessive Parisianism of big cultural projects'.

When Bousquet and his judges chose a design by Norman Foster (now Sir Norman), an English architect (the other finalists in the design competition were a Frenchman, Jean Nouvel, and two Americans, Frank Gehry and Cesar Pelli), the local press and the architectural profession could barely contain their fury. The national newspaper Liberation, describing Foster as a 'sublime mechanic', reported that his design for the Carre d'Art was nothing more than a 'heap' with 'no subtlety'.

But that was a long time ago. In any case, Nimes is used to doing things its own way. Settled originally by the veterans of Rome's Egyptian campaign, it has long been independent of Paris and all things Parisian; the city supported the Huguenots and the Camisards when Paris was bent on slaughtering them. It is the centre of bullfighting in France and in many other ways is out of step with a country of presidents and central control.

In the six years it has taken to build the Carre d'Art (construction started in 1987 and finished at the end of last year), attitudes have softened.

In May the building opens its revolving doors to the public. It is - as French critics have begun to agree - one of the finest new structures in Europe; an art gallery, multi-media library (it holds videos, tapes, microfiche, CDs and books) and civic meeting place.

The Carre d'Art is a building that rivals President Mitterrand's grands projets in Paris. It is the cornerstone of Jean Bousquet's successful plan

to raise the profile of Nimes, which

is now considered one of the key 'sunshine belt' cities of southern Europe (with Milan, Barcelona and Montpellier).

The Carre d'Art has turned out to be a subtle building that, far from cocking a snook at the Maison Carree, acts as a modern foil to its ancient sibling. Like the Maison Carree, it is a civic temple, but one dedicated to art, culture and learning - our modern gods - rather than to deified Roman dignitaries. A public building commissioned by the Ville de Nimes, the pounds 24m it has cost (below budget) is an investment made from the city purse.

In privatised Britain, such a building would be considered not just a waste of money but a disgrace - even if, as with Nimes, it raised the profile of an old city centre, bringing investment in its wake. It might attract tourists and investment (as other European cities, principally Frankfurt, have discovered when they have invested in art and the best possible public architecture), but this is the role of the private sector, design-and-construction companies. What new public buildings there are in Britain are expected to be utilitarian and designed by the outfit that accepts the lowest fee.

French mayors such as Jean Bousquet do not want to be unkind; they simply find the anti-architecture attitude of the British government somewhat eccentric.

The design of the Carre d'Art, although complex, is decidedly low key. Although it is nine storeys high, four and half of these are underground, so that it gives the appearance of being half its size. However, Foster and his team have ensured that daylight reaches almost every part of the building.

The Carre d'Art is not a bravura display of leading-edge technology, as some of Foster's earlier critics thought it might be. In this sense it is very different from the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano with Peter Rice as engineer. At heart, it is little more than a simple, geometric concrete frame, clearly visible from the street, with a five-storey courtyard at its centre.

The spaces between the concrete frame are filled with a mixture of clear and milky-white glass. Steel louvres protect these tall and narrow windows from the harsh glare of the southern sun. The structure is topped with a number of louvred steel roofs, each expressing the scale and location of the gallery it protects. This arrangement gives the building a lively roofscape, which, from a distance, sets up an interesting and sympathetic play with the existing skyline of the city centre.

The Carre d'Art also fits into Nimes much better than Foster's critics anticipated. It is not an alien hi-tech structure dropped as if from outer space into a delicate old city but an arts centre and library that appears to have grown from the heart of the site, to have filled a hole that had always existed in the city's fabric.

This 'hole' has an interesting history. The Carre d'Art sits on the site of the old 'Comedie', built in 1803 and gutted by fire in 1952. For 35 years after fire destroyed the rest of the building, the colonnade survived with a gaping hole behind it. This was not a problem until the decision to build the Carre d'Art. Norman Foster does not design buildings with Classical columns, but at one stage was encouraged to design the elevation of the Carre d'Art facing the Maison Carree and incorporating the Napoleonic colonnade.

A model was built (one of many before the final design was arrived at), a grotesque mask hiding the face of an exciting new friend. Mayor Bousquet decided the colonnade had to go. After much agonising and acrimony, the decision was taken to move it to an appropriate site elsewhere in the city and to give Foster a free hand. However, that was not the end of the hole story. Five years ago, the centre of Nimes was severely flooded and the huge hole in the ground dug for the lower floors of the Carre d'Art was temporarily transformed into a lake.

Inside, the building is generously planned and very light. At the moment it is full of activity and clutter as librarians, artists and curators line shelves with books, hang paintings and install sculptures. Soon it will be quietly bustling with visitors, who will throng up and down the great central glass stairs or rise silently by hydraulic glass lift to the art galleries on the floors above street level. At the top of the building, a terraced cafe overlooks the Maison Carree. Elsewhere on the upper floors, the building opens on to balconies so visitors can take the air and soak in views of Nimes, as if from a handsome liner berthed in the city centre, as passengers once did of Liverpool from the upper decks of Lusitania or New York from those of Queen Mary.

The Carre d'Art is a model of how to bring a big modern building into an old city centre by employing the best architecture of today - in civic service - to raise the profile and fortunes of a provincial centre. It is also proof that visionary thinking on Jean Bousquet's part (inviting some of the world's most celebrated architects to compete for the design) has not led to show-off architecture, but to a building that is modest and respectful of the town it enhances. If any other excuse was needed, May will be the time for that trip to the south of France.

(Photograph omitted)