A Walk Through a Painting

project Soulages Museum, Rodez, France
written by Jaume Prat Ortells

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Rodez, a small town with fewer than 25,000 inhabitants in the south of France, also the capital of Aveyron depart­ment, in 2014 faced a problem characteristic for many other European towns of similar size: the spread of the city core has marginalized the suburbs of undetermined limits with the vil­lage surrounding and feeding it; the urban crown where most of the population lives is the historic core (consistent until the end of World War I), necessary so as to have a sense of iden­tity: medieval fabric, the Cathedral and the first expansion of the town dating from the 19th century.


Pierre Soulages was born in 1919 in Rodez, at the very time when the later spread of the town would change its physiognomy. The painter started his career in this town, and even after choosing the coastal town of Sète on the shore of Languedoc, three hun­dred miles or so away, as his permanent residence, he never truly departed from Rodez, as proven by his intervention at the nearby abbey in Conques. Soulages is a painter whose career has been quite versified: from his beginnings in figura­tive painting with landscapes surrounding Rodez as motifs to the latest canvases in which the colour (colour as material) exhibits such presence, density and volume that it manages to overpower the composition: layer upon layer of black (always completely black) are mounting in the painting, sensitive to light and the relative position of the observer, shifting at all times. The surfaces as such are defined by the presence of the sole material with a strong personality determined by texture: their smoothness is memorable. Their robustness is tangible.


The RCR Arquitectes group has been studying the works of Pierre Soulages for twenty years. The decision on building the museum, inspired by the artist’s gift to his home town (the collection of his most important works providing insight into Soulages’s entire opus) seemed fairly obvious, and the two-stage concours confirmed so. As opposed to the other three final proposals (submitted by Marco Barani, Paul Andreou and Kengo Kuma groups respectively), the RCR proposal did not insist on the relationship of the building to the historic core (its immediate surrounding), but the rela­tionship to the city as it exists today, including its complete extension. They suggested a whole fragmented into five blind boxes connected by a single base defined by the vertical sun shadings of the glass closing it. The museum is situated on what is seemingly the worst proposed position: at the edge of the hill connecting the base of the building with the sur­rounding landscape; located on an elevated plain stretching to one of the main town avenues.


The location of the build­ing is defined by the park oriented towards the town and the impressive, massive façade determined by the position and the scale of the boxes defining the building, as opposed to the landscape and the suburbs. The building thus becomes a relative link, the connection builder, an urban joint between the two parts of town, at the same time creating the identity of the suburbs.


The uneven perimeter of the building is not where it is by mere chance: its inconstant position on a fault line leaves the building firmly placed towards the town faced only by the entrance in the form of an eaves, and under the entrance a beautiful exterior is located: RCR’s legacy to the historic core of Rodez may be found in the park containing tall trees, embraced by the base of the building forming an urban façade at least five meters tall.


The height necessary for exhibiting pieces of art has been accomplished by mov­ing the exhibition space under the ground level. The building has been dug townside – the immersion into the painter’s works is thus quite literal. The flow of the visit is divided into several stages; the zenith lighting of the interior via natu­ral light reveals some of the specific aspects of the painter’s work (such as the sketches of the Conques stained glass, one of the most interesting pieces in the museum), while the remaining space is open to the landscape and the sky.


The paintings may be placed on the wall, or free-hanging so that one might circle around them. One can experience the exhibition in chronological order, topically or randomly, offering more possibilities and tempos for the viewers. The program is complemented by the temporary exhibition hall, facing the lobby placed at an elevation, including a restaurant run by the local culinary chefs Sébastien and Michel Bras. Owing to hard work based on the local cuisine of Aveyron, these chefs have been awarded with three Michelin stars. Their space contributes to an ever greater connection with the local culture.


The material that the entire building has been constructed of is steel. Steel slowly oxidating from the outside and keeping its entire glow on the inside, playing with light in a very interesting way.


The Museum, just as the most famous of Soulages’s paintings, has been made of a single material, and it is precisely this absence of distraction that allows the space its expression. It enables a dialogue with each respective painting, strengthening the perception of the paintings and enriching them, just as we ourselves are enriched by their very presence. Steel has been brought to the final limits of possible dimensions: the external coating is made of pieces 14 meters tall and 1.80 meters wide (1.80 is the basic module of the whole building’s construction).


Nothing is distracting when contemplating the exhibited pieces. Here, the neutrality necessary to experience them is not conceived as a desire for impersonalized, sterile halls. In fact, it implies intentional neutrality. The neutrality of someone relaxed and decisive, ready for some physical activity, intense intellectual exercise, so as to discover the multitude of connections this building is able to provide.