Texts of presentation in Venice
Naga, the southernmost of the ancient world’s most notable sites, is located around 150 kilometres to the north-east of Khartoum in Sudan. From 300 B.C. to A.D. 200 the ancient city flourished as an outpost of the capital of the kingdom of Meroë, the southern rival of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Naga was the gateway opening the heart of Africa to the states of the Near East and the Mediterranean. The architecture of this strategically and commercially important location took inspiration from its African neighbours, from Egypt and the Hellenistic world.
At the foot of the Jebel Naga mountain and situated near a wadi, a dry riverbed in the desert, Naga was a religious centre during the Meroitic Empire to which the remaining temples bear impressive witness. With the exception of an artesian well where Bedouin herders bring their animals to drink, a small watch house and a temporary archaeologists’ building, the area now appears completely unspoiled.
The site, which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011, can only be reached via sand tracks following a two hour drive, a large part of which is across apparent unmarked open desert with no visible sign of life. The visitor arrives disorientated and detached both in the physical and temporal sense. This is a timeless and abstract place described only by the flat desert plain, its brittle dry scrub and low trees and the dominating escarpment. The scenery of this land is enhanced by the silhouette of the uncovered temples and remains. The enduring quality of the scene is further exaggerated by shepherds, goat herds und camels appearing out of the scrub to water at the well that has presumably operated since the days of the ancient city itself.
It is expected that buildings classified under the rather uninspiring title “visitor centre” take up a certain posture and detachment from their subject; the subject normally being by definition something of importance and worth visiting, more often than not, a man made or natural wonder. Required practical and supporting buildings that assist the growing numbers of visitors and in turn their growing demands, find themselves on the same stage as their subject but must find an appropriate modest presence and identity. This task is always full of contradictions, as their proximity is essential but they must remain discreet,they should not challenge the setting but at the same time they share a common place. We found these issues to be especially explicit in our considerations for a supporting building for the historic site of Naga and the activities of the
The ongoing excavation of four temples by a team of the Egyptian Museum Munich, supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the German Foreign Office and the Qatar Sudan Archaeological Project, has brought forward a great number of statues, reliefs, architectural elements and pottery. In accordance with the UNESCO recommendations, these finds are to be stored and exhibited in situ in the Naga Site Museum. The client’s requirements for the museum can be grouped under two tasks, firstly the protection of the excavated objects and secondly to create a centre to receive visitors and introduce them to the site.
All of these considerations pushed us to design a building of protection, reception and explanation not as a building modestly and embarrassingly discreet from its ‘subject’ but rather engaged in the place and its dominant physical conditions: heat so extreme that the work on site is suspended for half of the year, a rain season so heavy that the site becomes inaccessible, sandstorm so strong that glass cannot survive and the threat of theft that requires the buildings to be secure. These considerations and those concerned with explaining the site to the visitor generated the form and placing of our project. A site was chosen at an appropriate distance from the Temple of Amun so as not to interfere with the pristine setting of the temple ruins rising up from the sand. As the excavation spreads over a large area, it is difficult for the visitor to comprehend. We discovered however that a slight rise in elevation of approximately 1.5 metres allows a good view over a flat plain.
We therefore developed the building into the form of a gentle stepped ramp concluding with a loggia, providing sweeping views of the excavation site. The entire structure, with the exception of the precast roof beams that will be brought in from Khartoum, will be made of in-situ, compressed concrete made from local sand and aggregates. Security will be achieved with steel gates, there will be no windows and the dry air will cross ventilate the building while the mass of the building structure will provide a small degree of comfort.
The placing and the design of the building take a strategy of engagement with the place its climate and its history. In doing so it aims to create a continuity, sharing the concerns of our ancestors and emphasising the important fascination of the achievement of our ancestors not as something dead and buried but as part of man’s continuing desire for civilisation.