This article was originally published on May 4, 2015. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
Arches have long been used to mark the greatest achievements of Roman civilization. Constantine, Titus, and Septimus Severus built them to commemorate their military victories. Engineers at Segovia and Nîmes incorporated them into their revolutionary aqueducts. And fifteen hundred years after the Fall of Rome, Rafael Moneo gave a modern touch to the ancient structure in Mérida's breathtaking National Museum of Roman Art, located on the site of the former Iberian outpost of Emerita Augusta. Soaring arcades of simple, semi-circular arches merge historicity and contemporary design, creating a striking yet sensitive point of entry to the remains of one of the Roman Empire's greatest cities.
Moneo's commission for the museum came in 1979 as part of the Spanish government’s celebration of the bimillennial anniversary of the founding of Emerita Augusta. Replacing an 1838 museum on the same site, it was built in the middle of one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities in Western Europe, immediately next to an amphitheater and one of the most spectacular surviving ancient theaters in the world – the Roman Theater of Mérida.
Moneo, a native Spaniard who at the time was enjoying a wave of publicity following the completion of the Logroño City Hall and the Bankinter building in Madrid, was an obvious choice for the project, which opened to great fanfare in 1986.
Occupying the lot across the street from the theater, the bulk of the museum is contained within a lofty, above-ground building where space is articulated by a series of soaring brick arches. This part of the building is a modern take on the basilica type, with upper-story exhibition spaces replacing clerestory balconies along an open, amplified central “nave.” Natural light pours in from skylights above the thin arches and fills the space with a warm glow. Beneath the ground level, a subterranean “crypt” immerses visitors into a pristine Roman-era excavation of the old city, allowing the museum to simultaneously conserve and exhibit the archeology of the site while interpretively replicating its architecture.
Thin, elongated brickwork, distinctly non-Roman in its shape and perfect uniformity, gives the museum its trademark appearance. Walls, columns, and arches are made of the same material, but the appearance is far from monotonous; patchworks of gold and red hues paint the walls in pixelated clusters of color, lit afire by the dramatic overhead lighting. For Moneo, whose body of work displays remarkable stylistic variation, it is perhaps this careful and deliberate control of daylight that makes this building characteristically his. As Robert Campbell wrote in a Pritzker retrospective of the architect, “the handling of the interior daylight is masterful, here an ever-changing golden wash. The light contrasts with the ghostly paleness, therefore the pastness, of the antiquities on display.” 
In this spectacular texture of vertical elements, Moneo articulates a strong polemic on historicity and modernity by freely borrowing ancient motifs and contemporizing them in a way that is neither blindly imitative nor satirically reductive. The triple-banded arches are allusions to the brickwork of the Roman theater across the street, engaging the entirety of the archeological site in a continuous dialogue while asserting a character all their own. The bricks are precise, rhythmic, and beautifully scaled to evoke a sense of refinement only conceivable in a modern project, particularly when partnered with the sleek iron railings and floating concrete slabs of the upper floors. Yet, there is something fundamentally timeless about the simplicity of the structures and their clear invocation of Roman precedent. Form and material belong neither to the present nor to history, allowing the design to straddle the gap between the two in a manner uniquely befitting of a modern-day archeological museum.
The interplay of the modern and the ancient exists at even the most conceptual level of the museum's architecture, which carefully balances curated museum exhibits with physical immersion into untouched archeology. In the museum "crypt," the excavation of the ancient city is rhythmically punctuated by the ordered column grid supporting the structure above, a bold yet sensitive superimposition of two disparate historical conditions. Nearby, a complete Roman road runs its jagged course through the middle of the museum, breaking from the regimented orthogonality of Moneo's design as if to assert its unscripted authenticity and unmovable presence in the face of modern civilization. A subterranean tunnel further engages visitors with the greatest landmarks of Emerita Augusta, ushering them directly into the Roman theater and amphitheater across the street. These are elements of a design driven entirely by the unique conditions of its site, demonstrating a commitment to deliberate purposefulness that prioritizes program and thematic integrity over unnecessary architectural noise.
The cavernous above-ground exhibition spaces appeal to history in another way still, appropriating the enduring power of architectural ruin. The iconic image of dereliction—a field of freestanding columns that have long outlived the roof they once supported—is hauntingly evoked in the main galleries. Massive structural arches that seem capable of supporting a weighty roof are capped instead by a light, glassy covering, creating an interior condition that feels entirely exposed to the outside world, as if time has slowly worn through the protective covering of architecture. As a result, the space is burdened by none of the oppressive weightiness of a traditional roof and the immersive experience within the archeological site feels all the more authentic.
In an era in which museum commissions too often represent opportunities for architects to pursue personal agendas with little sensitivity to the objects they are intended to display, Moneo’s museum in Mérida is refreshingly self-aware of its purpose as an exhibition space for the city's ancient past. The architecture, independently spectacular though it is, serves not to shamelessly promote itself, but to dramatize the achievements of Roman culture without overshadowing them. It is a masterful negotiation of the ancient and the modern, the inventive and the referential, and a successful rethinking of the museum typology through thoughtful contextualization.
Architects: Rafael Moneo
- Year: 1986
- Photographs: Flickr user James Gordon, Flickr user Manuel Ramirez Sanchez, Flickr user Tomas Fano, Flickr user : Guzman Lozano, Flickr user Daniel Sancho, Flickr user Magnus von Koeller, Flickr user Alvaro Perez Vilarino, Flickr user Fernando Carrasco, Flickr user Rafael del Pino, Flickr user Sarmale / Olga, Flickr user Rafa Perez, Wikipedia user Xauxa
 Campbell, Robert. "Thoughts on José Rafael Moneo." The Pritzker Architecture Prize Website. Accessed 28 Oct. 2014 from http://www.pritzkerprize.com/1996/essay.