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Poised mastery of minimalist spatial composition and building craft–with weathering steel plate as a major protagonist—is evident in every detail of the Soulages Museum, dedicated to the work of the French abstract artist Pierre Soulages and located in his hometown of Rodez, in southwest France. Evident too in the building, by RCR Arquitectes of Olot, Spain, is its sophisticated integration into its surroundings and its rapport with the artwork it houses, which was donated to the French State by the artist and his wife, Colette.

The museum becomes visible through the trees of the town’s main park, the Foireil Garden, first as a series of discrete, windowless gallery pavilions dressed in Cor-Ten steel. The five boxes create vertical accents along the horizontal volume that unites them. Between these forms, glimpses of the distant countryside beyond can be seen, a vista made possible by the town’s privileged hilltop position. RCR pushed the building to the rear of the park and partially buried it in a steep slope, inserting a stair between two of the boxes to connect it to the neighborhood below. From there, the north side, with the weathering steel volumes cantilevering over the hillside, the museum’s monumental scale is revealed, in contrast to its more subdued south-facing presence. “We wanted to find a site that interfered as little as possible with the park,” RCR partner Ramón Vilalta comments, “and to relate the project to the circulation around it.”

From a deep entry porch and lobby on the south, visitors descend to the gallery level via a staircase on one side, or they can access a bridge (which holds a small auditorium and leads to a café and restaurant) spanning the exterior stair. The low horizontal volume has two levels: a mezzanine housing offices and classrooms, and a large gallery space below it, which connects the pavilions of various sizes that are attached to it. This arrangement shapes what Vilalta describes as “an itinerary with a changing rhythm,” in which visitors weave in and out and around the gallery pavilions. While the low connector-gallery spaces are finished entirely in steel plate and daylit from north-facing window walls, the taller pavilions that interrupt them have contrasting walls of white plaster and receive indirect daylight from skylights above.

The architects worked closely with Soulages and his wife (the nonagenarian couple sat on the jury for the 2008 open competition for the project) to develop the galleries so as to meet the display requirements for different kinds of work and to create this varied procession. The horizontal exhibition space has a zone at its back protected from light, tucked under the mezzanine, where sensitive works on paper are shown. To the north, this connector space is interrupted by the three taller pavilions. These temple-like spaces form a high point of the experience, displaying particularly important groups of works: preparatory studies of Soulages’s stained-glass windows for a church in nearby Conques, his early paintings made with a walnut stain, and his large-scale works. A fourth pavilion is dedicated to temporary exhibitions. With their stark contrasts between dark and bright spaces and surfaces, and their serious, somber atmosphere, the galleries assume an elegant supporting role for Soulages’s work, in which single tones dominate—especially black on white—and where firm brushstrokes and solid color planes contain expressive gesture. There is an unmistakable dialogue between the building and the work it houses as they seem to whisper back and forth to one another, like partners in a dance.

The architects have built the museum almost entirely of coarse steel plate, inside and out, a material that they have worked with extensively, as in their Les Cols Restaurant in Olot (RECORD, September 2003, page 136). The Cor-Ten for the exterior is burnt in appearance, creating a mottled, painterly effect and echoing some of the battered, acid-etched plates for Soulages’s engravings. Vilalta also compares its reddish tones to the native stone of the town’s Gothic cathedral, which is visible from the park. For the floor-to-ceiling windows of the building’s low horizontal portion, RCR used deep fins of 6-millimeter-thick steel plate, following a 6-foot modular bay. Along the park-facing southern facade, exterior vertical louvers made of weathering steel screen the offices and teaching spaces.

Inside, RCR uses unpainted steel plate for every surface, with the exception of the walls and ceilings of the taller galleries. Floors have a waxed finish, which draws out the material’s varied colors. Walls and ceilings are varnished in a deep, more uniform hue (to hang the artwork here, the architects employed a magnet system). In contrast to the matte finish of the exterior, these surfaces respond to light with a burnished glow.

RCR has developed the restaurant space, run by local chef Michel Bras, with the same attention they dedicate to the galleries. Its exterior entrance offers one of many memorable experiences, leading visitors into a courtyard screened by a Cor-Ten steel grille, where a steel-slatted walkway crosses a reflecting pool lined with oversize basalt gravel— a sequence that reveals the influence of the architects’ travels in Japan.

In fact, a Zenlike, meditative calm and intensity can be felt throughout the building: in the architects’ use of material, texture, and rhythm; in the idiosyncratic organization; and in the exquisite, studied craftsmanship (realized with a tight budget of just $325 per square foot for the 65,700-square-foot structure, a feat that Vilalta attributes to the commitment of the entire building team). RCR’s refined sensibility is in harmony with Soulages’s artwork, which often has an Asian, calligraphic quality of its own, although the architecture always takes a backseat. The variety of the gallery spaces, with their dramatic contrasts of proportion and light, transform what might have been an overly uniform review of a single artist’s career into a coherent experience alive with surprise.


Communaut' d'agglom'ration du Grand Rodez

Communaut' d'agglom'ration du Grand Rodez

RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta Arquitectes, G.Tr'gou't Architecte associ' (RCR)
Cr. Fontanella 26
17800 Olot ' Girona (Spain)

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architect of record:
RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta Arquitectes, G.Tr'gou't Architecte associ' (RCR)

Associate architect(s):
Passelac et Roques Architectes (architectes associ's au projet)
Y.Lodey (architecte suivi de chantier)

Interior designer:
RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta Arquitectes, G.Tr'gou't Architecte associ' (RCR)

Grontmij, P.Laugier, P.Cariven (bureaux d''tudes tout corps d''tat)

RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta Arquitectes, G.Tr'gou't Architecte associ' (RCR)

Artec 3, M.Gines (concepteur lumi're)

Thermibel, F.Fourel (acoustique)

MAW, P.Maffre (architecte sc'nographe)


65,700 square feet

Construction cost:

$21.4 million

Completion date:

January 2014



Structural system
Steel: Vilquin
T'l. : 05 45 35 70 00
Fax : 05 45 81 78 87
M. Cuzin

M. Grill'res

Concrete: Lagarrigue
T'l. : 05 65 63 43 18
Fax : 05 65 63 93 37

M. Arnal

M. Frayssinet

M. Castes

Exterior cladding
Metal Panels:
T'l. : +34 972 27 50 01
Fax : +34 972 27 02 15
M. Dan's

Metal/glass curtain wall:
T'l. : +34 972 27 50 01
Fax : +34 972 27 02 15
M. Dan's

Metal frame:
Bellapart (Manufacture: JANSEN)
T'l. : +34 972 27 50 01
Fax : +34 972 27 02 15
M. Dan's

T'l. : 01 41 74 36 60
Fax : 01 48 08 06 45

M. Taleb

M. Le Gall

M. Villiers

T'l. : +34 972 27 50 01
Fax : +34 972 27 02 15
M. Dan's

Metal doors:
Bourdoncle (Manufacture: JANSEN)
T'l. : 05 65 63 58 59
Fax : 05 65 63 95 11



Fire-control doors, security grilles:
Bourdoncle (Manufacture: DOORTAL)
T'l. : 05 65 63 58 59
Fax : 05 65 63 95 11



Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings:
Bonnefous (special steel ceiling)
T'l. : 05 65 68 18 82
Fax : 05 65 68 77 84

M. Bonnefous

M. Ledall

Floor and wall tile:
Besombes (special steel floor)
T'l. : 05 65 42 31 74
Fax : 05 65 42 94 11

Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Scenography : Goppion
+39 34 03 34 53 62
Eugenio THOMAS d'AGIOUT thomas@goppion.com

Reception furniture:

Fixed seating:
Signature F
T'l. : 05 53 07 00 20
M. Maumarson

Silleria Verges
+0034 972 287 277
Fax.972 687 635

Esteve Verg's Picart


Interior ambient lighting:


Dimming System or other lighting controls:

T'l. : 04 99 51 29 70/
Fax : 04 67 17 97 20
M. Canton alain.canton@fr.otis.com
M. Gentet florian.gentet@fr.otis.com

Tel. (+34) 972 26 17 33 / (+34) 972 26 95 04 /
Fax. (+34) 972 27 30 30
Manel Lagares