National Museum

of Roman Art

Mérida, Spain


The following is transcribed from The Pritzker Architecture Prize: The First Twenty Years, published in 1999 by The Art Institute of Chicago.


José Rafael Moneo is above all an architect of tremendous range. His flexibility in varying the appearance of his works based on their differing contexts is reflected in the way he takes on each new commission as a fresh new exercise. He draws on an incredible reservoir of concepts and ideas, which he filters through the specifics of the site, the purpose, the form, the climate, and other circumstances of the project. As a result, each of his buildings is unique, but at the same time, uniquely recognizable as being from his palette.


Founded by legionaries of Augustus in 24 B.C., Mérida became the most important Roman city in Spain by the fall of the empire. Almost completely destroyed after the Muslim invasion, it began to recover under Arab rule. It has endured through the centuries, and today is a modest rural town in the province of Extremadura.


Archaeological excavations were begun in the late nineteenth century, and numerous monuments, statures, and other artifacts have been recovered. Today the theater and arena are impressive reminders of the town's past. Not far from these monumental relics is the National Museum of Roman Art, which is constructed over still-buried portion of the Roman town.


The primary goal was to build a museum that would offer people an opportunity to understand aspects of the town's Roman heritage. Without falling into a strict imitation of Roman architecture, Moneo adopted the Roman construction system - massive masonry-bearing walls filled with concrete. Other Roman building techniques, materials, and proportions were utilized as well, and prominence was given to construction as an expression of architecture itself. The materiality of the Roman brick wall becomes, finally, the most important feature in the architecture of the museum.


The main exhibition hall is traversed by a series of parallel walls that have been opened with towering arches. The perspective view through the arches reveals the scale of the building and expresses the continuity of the space therein. These walls also define lateral bays for the display of some of the most valuable pieces in the museum's collection. The walls function as partitions, on which are hung cornices, capitals, mosaics, and fragments of statuary. These surfaces are not considered to be mere neutral supports for the objects; rather, the translucent white marble of the relics may be seen in a dialectical interplay with the material presence of the brick walls. Natural light, another fundamental concern in the museum's design, enters through skylights above and windows set high in the facades. The constantly changing intensity and color of the light contributes to the dialogue between the works of art and the building itself.

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