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The architecture of beyond

Apr 2007
Francesca Molteni
The architecture of beyond

Paris is the backdrop to the first museum nonmuseum in history. The museum of the other and elsewhere. Commissioned by President Jacques Chirac and designed by Jean Nouvel. The highest relevant French authorities. Standing on the banks of the Seine, at the feet of the Eiffel Tower, for now it is known simply as the “Musée du quai Branly”, after the piece of riverbank it overlooks.

It may one day be known as the Jacques Chirac Museum, as happened for Pompidou who commissioned Renzo Piano’s Beaubourg design. This is how French Presidents want to be remembered. This is why this is not simply a museum. It is a landscape, more than an architecture, and it is to house an extraordinary collection: 40,000 square metres of which 10,000 are exhibition space, are the new home to the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Cultures remote both in terms of time and space: elsewhere.

Here “everything is designed to provoke the emotions in response to the primary object, to protect it from the light,” explains Jean Nouvel, “but also to capture that ray of light which is essential in making it vibrate and reawaken its spirituality”. This is the French architect’s third major Paris project after the l’Institut du Monde Arabe and the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art.

But this time Nouvel has chosen an Italian company, UniFor, to create the permanent display elements, which take up about 6,000 square metres inside the vast building which makes up the main part of the M&C / 5 museum. 300,000 exhibits from all over the world. 300 display units designed by Unifor: fibre optic lighting, multimedia systems, hidden supports under a floating floor, dustproof systems and security devices.

Because the technology for showcasing art from outside Europe is even more refined than usual. Glass, cement, wood and steel, the design materials, must disappear. “The museum gives the impression that it is a refuge without a face, as if in a wood”, says Jean Nouvel. To achieve this result, Unifor has created 25 boites, themed exhibition rooms, suspended and fitted in the north wall, and an anthropomorphic sculpture 290 metres long which extends inside the length of the museum, dividing spaces and resolving the irregular sloping floors.

This metal sculpture is completely covered in leather, and inside it is a complex integrated multimedia system: video, LCD, audio systems, 3-D binoculars, tactile integrations inserted into the leather’s surface, information broadcast systems using radio for people using listening devices, movement sensors and computers which coordinate the multimedia installations. There are four buildings in total, symmetrical and airy, dominated by unpredictable, changing surroundings, as in nature. The museum stands in a “sacred” wood which is still growing, a garden of 18,000 square metres containing paths, small hills and streams. Poetry and undermining of certainties in a place dominated by contemporary technology. An elsewhere crying out to be discovered

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