Shelters For Roman Archaeological Site
By Pol Martin
One of the first big projects for the 2009 Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor was this protective pavilion built to cover the remains of two Roman buildings. Built in 1985-86 and located in the capital of the Swiss canton of Graubünden, arcspace had the opportunity to revisit and photograph the site this summer. It’s astonishing to think it was designed and built almost thirty years ago. Not only does it still stand in perfect condition but it looks like it was conceived just yesterday.
Chur is no less than the oldest town in Switzerland: the first settlements found at the site date to 3.500BC. In 15BC the Roman Empire conquered the village and designated Chur (Curia Raetorum) to be the capital of their new funded Roman province of Curia – hence the name Chur. In those days the location at the right shore of the Rhine River was a strategic crossroad where several of the major Alpine transit routes came together before continuing down river. The Romans inhabited the area that is nowadays called Welschdörfli, just off the historic town center of Chur.
In modern days archaeological excavations uncovered a complete Roman quarter. The authorities decided to preserve the excavations and to open them for public exhibition. Local Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was chosen as responsible for the design.
Sheltering Roman Remains
Zumthor came up with a design of wooden pavilions that functions not only as a protective cover but a museum and a veritable architectural jewel. The timber lamella shelters allow visitors to comprehend the original extent of the Roman buildings, providing a visible and physical form to distinguish the ancient remains in sharp contrast to the modern city.
The protective lightweight wooden enclosures follow the outer walls of two of the original adjacent buildings as well as a third building of which only a corner was excavated and visible. By following the original perimeter, Peter Zumthor conceived these “cases” as an abstract volumetric reconstruction of the Roman buildings. But only in footprint, not in height. An original wall painting was found in fairly good condition lying on the floor of the first and larger building. After being restored, it was returned to its original position giving the impression of the probable real height of the single-storey houses.
The outside display window constructions found along the Seilerbahnweg street facade point out the former house entrances allowing potential visitors to take a peak from the outside. But in Peter Zumthors design this is no longer a point of entering.
Stepping on Roman Soil
The new entrance takes place in one of the side facades. Almost hidden, an enigmatic metal box comes out apparently suspended from one of the building’s wooden facades. Avoiding any contact with the ground, this mysterious floating access contains a small stair and a solid steel door. More than a standard entrance for a building, it could almost look like the access to a spaceship or maybe some sort of time machine.
Just a few steps up, the stainless steel door opens into a long modern metal footbridge which runs across the interior of all the buildings at a raised observation level. Suspended here above the ground Zumthor’s design definitely works as a time machine that allows the visitor the unique opportunity of walking down the stairs to step on real Roman soil.
The Interior of a Time Machine
Almost flying over the excavated areas, this light metal footbridge is smartly solved with an oversized Pratt type beam structure supported only at the points of intersection with every facade that comes across its path. The visitor walks along the metal footbridge through dark connecting tunnels from one building to another. A few light metal stairs allow the connection down to the Roman soil.
The orginal Roman foundation walls are backed with black clothing. The charred remains of a wooden floor at the back of the larger building is well preserved from the Roman times, as well as some of the items found and carefully displayed for public exhibition.
Zumthor’s design has no ordinary windows, but the timber lamella walls admit light and air into the structure, filtering warm light and allowing for the position of the sun to shine through the structure. Zenithal colored metal skylights provide some extra light into the interiors.
Walking around inside these protective shelters, in the presence of exhibited ancient Roman remains, one gets the impression that time is a bit more relative than usual. Magically, rather than in the late eighties, it feels that Peter Zumthor’s intervention was designed today.