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Honey-colored, load-bearing concrete highlights the collection at the Narbo Via museum

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The walls’ resultant stripes call to mind the area’s local sedimentary sandstone; they echo the process of stratification inherent in the museum’s archaeological focus; and they reference the look of ancient Roman concrete (Photo by Nigel Young/Courtesy Foster + Partners)

The French city of Narbonne, founded by Romans in 118 BC, is known for its rich historic heritage. Once a major Roman port, the city has recently added a new archaeology museum, Narbo Via. The museum’s two-story structure rests atop a single landscaped plinth and is intended to evoke a sense of monument in both its refined structural expression and simple materiality.

Narbo Via, which opened earlier in 2021, uses an exposed concrete design intended to orient the visitor’s experience on the collection: A simple warm material evokes neutrality while also highlighting the work on display. Foster + Partners served as both architect, structural, and environmental engineer to achieve a harmonious, yet complex, project that ultimately came in at 79,502 square feet. The firm collaborated with museum specialist Studio Adrien Gardère, a studio known for its global designs—most recently Paris’s Decorative Arts Museum and French Polynesia’s Tahiti Museum.

The exterior showcases faint stripes, like a lined notebook, as a result of the colored dry-mixed concrete that was poured in layers and tamped into place on site. Given the museum’s archeological focus, the bands seem commensurate to the process of stratification within the field of study as well as the area’s local sedimentary sandstone. Adding to the rich referential nature is the evocation of ancient Roman concrete. Hugh Stewart, a partner at Foster + Partners, explained that “Inside, the raw surfaces act as display walls; the hard materials combined with carefully managed natural light help to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
“The concrete’s optimal thermal inertia is also ideal for the conservation of the museum collection. The finished walls have a high thermal mass, which contributes to the environmental comfort within the museum, particularly in summer, while a substantial layer of insulation cast into the centre of the walls gives an even higher level of thermal efficiency. The temperature stability also creates the best conditions for displaying the fragile collection of artefacts. ”

The exposed load-bearing concrete and unique rammed earth construction technique at play here are attributed to Meror Krayenhoff, founder of SIREWALL, who Foster + Partners worked closely with.

“We worked closely with Krayenhoff, who made an initial scouting trip to check the viability of the local aggregates at the pre-contract stage,” said Stewart. “The teams spent a total of six months developing an optimum concrete recipe and graded composition of aggregates, followed by the testing of colours and textures in full-scale prototypes. There was an element of training of the contractor’s team, to impart the technique developed over a long period. French contractors are well used to building very high-quality uniform concrete, but this technique which celebrates subtle variations of colour and texture meant they had to ‘unlearn’ some of their natural instinct for ‘perfection’. We experimented with aggregates to perfect the reddish colour tones, reminiscent of Mediterranean roof tiles, as well as the structural composition and striated appearance of the final product. To have a continuity of finish for the walls and columns contributes to the simplicity and the strength of the design.”

“Inspired by the natural setting and the fascinating collection of Roman artefacts, the building hopes to strengthen the connections with the landscape and the region’s incredible past,” added Spencer de Grey, head of design at Foster + Partners, “as well as being a major centre for research, restoration and interpretation of the story of antiquity of the wider region.”

The project used 63,566 cubic feet of concrete and ultimately took 10 months to construct. Used for the first time in Europe, the concrete construction technique experimented with local aggregates and oxides to build Narbo Via’s 18 foot exteriors walls. The museum opened earlier this year after much anticipation.