Memorial Du Camp de Rivesaltes
Obeisance to the victims
The former largest internment camp of the republic was converted into a memorial site in the vicinity of Perpignan in the South of France. For this purpose, a FFGm-long, hermetically closed huge building made of ocher-colored architectural concrete was built on the sometime drill ground of the camp.
The ground is characterized by one-story ruined buildings made of fiber-reinforced concrete, providing a hostile impression. These are the remains of the former military barracks built in the 1930s for the colonial army so that the recruits at that time became seasoned to the hot climate, which had been waiting for them during their mission in Africa later. During the Second World War, the military facility became a transit camp for Jews and Roma people, who were interned here first by the pro- Nazi Vichy Regime and then deported to the determination camp in Poland. Yet in the post war time during the Algerian War (1954 to 1962), the camp severed as inhuman accommodation of the Harkis, the disliked descendants of the legionaries trained there erstwhile. Over the years more and more voices were protesting against forgetting these atrocities committed by the French Republic and calling for a memorial of atonement there.
The architect Rudy Ricciotti living near Marseille had realized the memorial site over a construction and planning period of almost ten years. On the former drill ground, he built a 220 m long and just about 25 m wide cuboid of architectural concrete, appearing totally closed from the outside. The huge building structure looks like a coffin just carried to an open grave which is 3.80 m deep in this case. It is resting in a slightly inclined position on the floor, as through it has not yet reached it final position. Its ocher-colored lid made of architectural concrete is flush with the terrain on the west side of the building, but projects 1.70 m out of the same on the east side. This highest point corresponds to the average wall height of the surrounding barrack remains.
Walk through the building
In the building that is halfway in the ground, the architect implemented the overall space allocation plan required by the request for proposals, that is the floor space needed for the use as a museum: including, of course, a permanent exhibition, a lecture hall with seating for the audience, the inevitable secondary rooms, but also a café and rooms for the administration and the museum education service. An elongated ramp situated on the north side provides access to the museum building; it leads downwards to the pit floor, where it abruptly ends in front of a wall. There, the visitor has to turn towards the south – being dazzled by the midday sun or not, depending on the time of the day –, where he espies the huge portal in the trench. The entrance consists of two gate wings made of architectural concrete, colored in the same shade and the same surface finish as the surrounding wall. From the bright, dismissive outdoor space, the visitor enters into the dark with a slight feeling of unease and then he is surprised by the pleasant atmosphere that he discovers there. The café, the administration and the educational rooms are aligned around three interior courtyards, where fountains splash – bringing the atmosphere of a Roman cathedral to mind. A convenient coolness is prevailing everywhere and the café is furnished with inviting leather arm-chairs. Passing these areas through an extensive hallway, again appearing rather oppressive, the visitor gets into the exhibition hall covering some 1,700 m#. The floor of the hall is climbing together with the roof of the overall building structure to a height of approximately 5 m over an impressive room length of just under 85 m.
Concrete as stylistic element
All wall areas, columns as well as floor areas are designed in ocher-colored architectural concrete. For the coloring of the concrete, the architect initially intended to use the pigments, which he directly filtered out of the excavated earth from the excavation pit. Here the soil shows a reddish-ocher shade in a striking way. However, the technicians of Roussillon Aménagement, the manufacturer of precast elements based in the nearby town of Toulouges, advised him not to use them, as the concrete quality would have been altered in an uncontrollable way or even might be reduced in case of doubt. Instead the concrete specialists were able to match the shade of the soil by means of conventional ocher oxide pigments, which they used for integrally coloring of the concrete. The walls were constructed with an 11 cm thick core insulation made of closed-cell polystyrene in cast-insitu construction, in order to get fair-faced concrete surfaces both inside and outside and in order to comply with the Heat Insulation Ordinance. The architect had the shutter panel joints resulting from placing the concrete not treated – they remain as visible evidence of workmanship. The formwork of the exterior walls was removed during the early age strength, then the concrete was sand-blasted immediately, providing the ocher surface with a rough texture. The interior areas were not provided with any further treatment or finishing, the formwork was just removed after hardening. The floor consists of a load-bearing shell construction that is also integrally colored, for creating the desired bottom view of raw concrete (“béton brut”) in the same color shade. The roof sealing as well as the thermal insulation were applied before eventually applying a cover made out of screed colored in the same way as the other concrete components.
Architecture shows respect
The large exhibition hall is effectively staged by spot lights integrated in the floor, illuminating the wall areas with grazing light which additionally highlights the color shade of the concrete. As the floorboards were just laid on a crossed latticework and not on a raised floor, respective recesses had to be built in the shell construction for the light sources. In addition to that, all cables needed had to be installed in open ducts integrated in the concrete floor slab. Even during the extremely hot midsummer of this region, the indoor climate in fact remains very pleasant, owing to the actual cubic capacity of the building and the good insulation. The climatically as well as emotionally depressing contrast between the relicts of contempt for mankind under the brutal heat and the pleasant coolness in soft twilight amplifies the dramatic intensity of the memorial site. The inclined building structure inside the pit is a felicitous obeisance to the victims in their anonymous tombs. Robert Mehl, Aachen http://www.bft-international.com