Both Sides of the Story
Bernard Tschumi Architects
1 Route des Trois Ormeaux
A mysterious circular building sits alone on an open expanse of grassland on the outskirts of a small town in Burgundy, France. The Alésia Interpretive Center is the first half of a two-part museum complex; the second building is due to begin construction in 2015. Together, the pair memorializes an event that is both celebrated and ignominious in France: the last battle between the Romans and the Gauls.
The architect Bernard Tschumi conceived the plan that won a competition sponsored by the government of France ten years ago. Through a dialogue among disparate yet complementary materials and forms, Tschumi’s center, which opened last March, evokes the dichotomy between victory and defeat.
Some 2,000 years ago in Alise-Sainte-Reine (then called Alésia), Julius Caesar led a small legion into combat against the Gauls. The Romans claimed victory by trapping their enemy atop a central hill and surrounding its base with inner and outer fortification rings. The battle marked a turning point in favor of Rome, but it was also a pivotal moment in French history. “Instead of being marked as a defeat, it’s celebrated as the beginning of France,” Tschumi says. “It’s relatively stark, serious. It’s not going to be Disneyland.”
The circular Interpretive Center tells the story of the three-month battle and the subsequent culture that emerged under Roman control. Its shape offers a 360-degree view of the area, including the hill where the Gauls were trapped and the recreated Roman fortifications that stand on the exact spots the originals did at the time of the battle.
The building’s tinted glass wall is set behind an outer lattice of larch-wood beams. Inside, concrete columns dance haphazardly through the lobby, leading visitors’ eyes up and around the four-level structure. “What has surprised me most is the dialogue between the wood and concrete,” Tschumi says. “Concrete is always gray and massive and has an air of permanence, while the wood is much more gentle.”
The center juts up from the earth dramatically, but the French government wanted to preserve the landscape of the town, which is nationally protected and has few commercial developments. To offset the visual disturbance, Tschumi topped the building with 400 trees. And when it is built, the main museum will be tucked into the earth about a kilometer away.
Therein lies the paradox of the project, says Tschumi: Alésia is both visible and invisible, ceding architectural impact to the significance of the site’s history.