Rome Wasn't Built in a Day
Paredes Pedrosa Arquitectos spent four years constructing a shelter for a Roman archaeological site in present-day Spain
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 10/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
During the tumultuous summer of 1968, while walking across his farm near Palencia, Spain, agronomist Javier Cortes stumbled on a stone block. A few yards away, a shiny bronze object caught his eye. And these turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. His discovery prompted an archaeological dig that uncovered the remains of a palatial Roman villa dating from the fourth century AD. La Olmeda, as the villa is called, is one of the largest and best-preserved relics of Roman architecture on the Iberian peninsula, with thousands of square feet of excavated mosaic floors including an especially elaborate one from The Odyssey that depicts the mythological arrival of Ulysses on the island of Skyros. Scientists deduced that a fire is likely to have destroyed the rest of the structure.
Cortes was so moved by his discovery that he became an archaeologist, funding the initial 12-year excavation and the construction of the first protective structures over the dig, which opened to the public in 1984. Over the years, archae-ologists also unearthed a freestanding bathhouse and three necropolises near the main villa. Spain’s ministry of culture designated the entire zone a cultural landmark in 1996.
With the original enclosure woefully outdated and the precarious roofs declared asbestos-filled, the cultural ministry launched a competition for a permanent shelter with proper visitor amenities. The husband-wife firm Paredes Pedrosa Arquitectos won the commission, which clocked in at the equivalent of $9 million, in 2004. La Olmeda closed to the public in 2005 and recently reopened to great acclaim, although the official opening ceremony, hosted by Queen Sofía, is November 4.
The redesign “confronts antiquities with modernity,” Angela García de Paredes says. She and her husband placed new functions along two contiguous sides of the building. The bookshop and the café are next to each other in front; around the corner are the auditorium and a gallery for visitors as well as a meeting room and a restoration workshop for administrators and archaeologists. Aside from these perpendicular runs of enclosed spaces, however, the 66,000-square-foot interior is vast and shedlike.
One key concern was to bring in natural illumination without creating harsh shadows on the archaeological site or letting UV rays damage the artifacts, and the architects dealt with the issue by creating a two-layered enclosure. The inner one has an 8-foot-tall base of board-formed white concrete capped by 12-foot-tall panels of translucent polycarbonate. To further temper the daylight streaming through them, the firm installed an outer skin of folded, perforated Cor-Ten steel. The cutouts grow longer the higher up you look on the facade, like leaves thinning at the tops of trees. Indeed, the architects drew inspiration from the surrounding poplar groves and windbreaks, especially their autumn color—although the weathered steel was chosen as much for ease of maintenance.
Inside, things open up dramatically. The aluminum roof’s four sweeping vaults, surfaced by a trellislike grid of white-painted steel, are supported by hefty steel beams to create an almost- column-free interior. Four mighty steel pillars are the only visible vertical supports. Shouldering the rest of the load are 110 columns hidden in the exterior walls.
Ceiling vaults top out at 40 feet above the unearthed foundations, which neatly outline the villa’s classical floor plan: rooms and corridors wrapped around an impluvium, or open-air atrium. (La Olmeda’s is an impressively scaled 75 feet square.) Around the atrium and throughout the site, lengths of stainless-steel mesh suggest long-vanished walls. “They indicate to the visitor the third dimension of the rooms,” Ignacio García Pedrosa says. The site’s only vertical structure, a brick arcade, is a 1970’s reconstruction except for one original arch.
The architects initially considered leaving the atrium as an open-air garden with a fountain at the center, as would have been the case during the days of Theodosius the Great, but the archaeologists advised against it, citing the effects on the ancient mosaics of everything from dust to guano and sprouting seeds. Instead, the firm laid artificial turf on a platform around the atrium’s perimeter. Boardwalks with glass balustrades surround the atrium, giving visitors a glimpse of multilevel excavations and mosaics softly lit by incandescent lamps.
“The new architecture does not touch the ancient,” Paredes notes. “They are completely independent, but there is still a dialogue between them.”
Photography by Roland Halbe.