Monolith of Memory

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Rivesaltes Memorial: an elongated monolith lying inside a crudely excavated ditch amongst ramshackle barracks.

The Camp de Rivesaltes, a sprawling military base built in 1938 near Perpignan, southern France, has the kind of history that some governments would prefer to erase. Before finally closing in 2007, it was mainly used as a detention centre for so-called ‘undesirables’. The camp’s 150 barracks, evenly distributed over a 6 km2 grid, were used during or after major conflicts of the 20th century, detaining refugees fleeing Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, and Jews, gypsies and communists on their way to Nazi death camps. In the 1960s, the camp held refugees from the Algerian Revolution, while more recently, it was used as a detention centre for illegal immigrants. In 2005, architect and engineer Rudy Ricciotti won a competition to convert the site into a memorial museum whose avowed aim is ‘to raise public awareness of the dangers of weakened democratic values’. The Mémorial de Rivesaltes, or Rivesaltes Memorial Museum, was inaugurated in October 2015.

The task of any memorial is to commemorate, which is to say, to communicate. In this case, French Republican values of freedom and democracy are communicated by architecturally showcasing a specific historical site of official repression. This is no easy task for contemporary architecture. With the invention of the printing press, architecture became relieved of the duty of recounting history, and since modernism, it has become abstract rather than representational. Yet the need for places of commemoration continues, and when architecture cannot resort to figuration, other ways of communicating must be found.

In this case, Rudy Ricciotti’s answer seems to be to use a highly abstract form in a figurative way. He takes the monolith, a structural symbol capable of conveying notions of power and violence, and combines it with a ground plane – Mother Earth – that is abstractly and violently scarred. The resulting building is succinct, powerful and moving. The ways in which materials are employed, spaces organized and illuminated, and movement orchestrated throughout the building and the site as a whole also help to reinforce the message and to deliver a potent user experience. In this regard, the museum can also be seen as a statement on architecture, or as a sort of manifesto in favour of a set of architectural values: specifically the fundamental importance of materiality in architecture, in this case cast-in-place concrete.

With the advent of digitization and generative or so-called parametric design, building materials have increasingly become an afterthought rather than a starting point in the design process. Today, we can import any material we want from anywhere on the planet, and the only consideration we need to give it is an aesthetic one, since suppliers, consultants and construction workers are increasingly the only ones who handle building materials. Architects, alas, are no longer required to understand the building materials that give shape to their works.

Rudy Ricciotti takes exception to this tendency. Materials are, for him, a fundamental point of departure in architecture. In his provocatively titled book L’Architecture est un sport de combat (Architecture is a Combat Sport), Ricciotti defends architecture as a local, sensual and physical endeavour, declaring war on bureaucrats, bean counters, and the globalization of everything. His material of choice is concrete. For Ricciotti, cast-in-place concrete is a local material because it cannot simply be imported from elsewhere and assembled on site with nuts and bolts. Cast-in-place concrete must always be prepared within a certain distance of the construction site, and its use demands local expertise in order to adapt it successfully to local climatic and geological conditions. Moreover, building with concrete is relatively labour intensive, which for Ricciotti is an important way of resisting the blows dealt by the multinational business interests that run the global economy.

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Rivesaltes Memorial Museum is ‘concrete’ not only in the sense that it is constructed of this particular building material. It also communicates its intention – namely, that it is here to stay – concretely, squarely and straightforwardly. As a grounded monolith of immense proportions, it sets out to be a permanent reminder of the official injustice this camp represents, and to tell the stories of those who suffered here.

When you arrive at the camp’s parking area, at the end of a rural road that passes through an industrial park as well as a wind farm, the first sight is a panorama of ramshackle barracks. From a distance, the museum looks more like a runway than a building; much of its mass is below ground level, remaining out of sight until you get closer. The landscape is a flat, arid plain surrounded by hills, while further in the distance you see the snow-capped peak of Pic du Canigou looming nearly 3000 m above the Mediterranean. As you approach the building, it becomes increasingly three-dimensional, taking on the appearance of an elongated monolith lying slightly off kilter in a trench. It is a mysterious sight, oddly reminiscent of the opening monolith scene in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, except that here the monolith is horizontal. You can’t help but look nervously around for signs of angry apes. Other possible analogies that come to mind are an oversized coffin lowered into a grave, or an old bunker being heaved out of the ground by movements of the earth, not unlike those celebrated by Paul Virilio in his book Bunker Archaeology.

The approach to the 240 m long museum is via a long, gently descending ramp culminating in a tunnel that leads to an entrance forecourt at the level of the trench bottom. A pair of concrete – of course – doors leads you inside, where a large foyer receives daylight via two sunken patio courtyards. With their different surfaces, plants and furnishings, including a water fountain, these patios break with the homogeneity of the rest of the building, which offers few exterior views.

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Permanent exhibition space of the Rivesaltes Memorial Museum

The heart of the monolith is a 1000 m2 permanent exhibition space that is reached via a long, narrow corridor designed to markedly separate this space from other spaces. The artefacts on display include letters describing the tough living conditions in the camp, as well as archival photographs and detainees’ personal belongings. The overall atmosphere is sombre. Other functions enclosed within the monolith are a 145 seat auditorium, a 400 m2 temporary exhibition space, a café, a research facility, a learning centre and offices.

The strong, brutally simple form of the building, together with its monolithic materiality and its placement in a trench that has been crudely excavated, make it resemble an unfinished, ongoing construction site, or perhaps a concrete foundation of a future structure. Ricciotti himself describes the building as being ‘oppressive’ and demonstrating ‘formal violence’ in order to make forgetting impossible. In an everyday urban context, such architectural violence might be questionable. In the context of a site of violent history, however, serving as a reminder of the horrors that even democratic governments can inflict on people, it seems not only allowable, but essential – and today, more than ever.

[originally published in Mark Magazine #61]

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photo M. Hédelin / Région Languedoc-Roussillon courtesy latourdefrance.canalblog.com

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

One comment

  1. Antonio Gomez-Moriana

    Hola, Rafael. Acabo de leer tu reciente trabajo “Monolith of Memory” y tengo que felicitarte por unos análisis excelentes, de gran pertinencia y actualidad, tanto en el campo del arte (de la arquitectura) como de la historia y de la política. Mi enhorabuena más cordial. Antonio

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