Built on a former mine in the industrial town of Lens, Sanaa’s new outpost of the Louvre brings some of France’s greatest treasures to one of the country’s poorest areas
Even were it of no great architectural merit, the Louvre’s new outpost in the northern French town of Lens would have to be counted as one of the more remarkable buildings to have been built in Europe in recent years. Costing €150 million, this is a very grand projet indeed, realised at a time when spending cuts have seen public buildings of even a tenth of its budget in short supply. Its unlikeliness is made all the greater by the nature of the place in which it has been built. Following the opening of a satellite of the Centre Pompidou in Metz in 2010, the Louvre-Lens represents the latest product of an ongoing policy to disseminate the holdings of Paris’s major cultural institutions to the regions.
Lying a 40-minute train journey from Lille, Lens is one of the poorest towns in France: a one-time mining community whose industrial base was eradicated in the second half of the last century. The overwhelmingly flat landscape here is still dominated by the volcano-like presence of two spoil heaps on the edge of town, the only other significant feature being the stadium of the local football team. Pretty much all else is scrappy terraces of two-storey brick workers’ houses. The sense is rather as if the National Gallery had established a branch in Barnsley.
The site is a former mine, which the project has transformed into a 20ha linear park. In a town that doesn’t enjoy much in the way of public space — its main square is scarcely more than a parking lot — this represents a hugely valuable resource which has been knitted into a larger masterplan for Lens’ development drawn up by Christian de Portzamparc and Michel Desvigne. Mining activity raised the ground level here above the roofs of the surrounding houses with the effect that the new building maintains a modestly acropolis-like relationship to the town.
Won in competition in 2005, against a field that included submissions by the likes of Zaha Hadid and Steven Holl, it is the work of Tokyo-based Sanaa. Much of the firm’s work can be readily classified as belonging to one of two categories — tall buildings which adopt, rather in the tradition of New York’s Downtown Athletic Club, unusually varied sections (Zollverein, the New Museum, the Dior store) and low-lying, expansive structures that strive for a landscape-like permeability (the Rolex Learning Centre, the Museum of the 21st century, De Kunstlinie). Conceived less as a building standing within the park and rather as a territory that, while enclosed, is effectively congruent with it, the Louvre Lens belongs firmly to the latter group.
Its external image is studiedly unemphatic. Six volumes of differing rectilinear footprint sprawl across the site, linked at their corners. There is a picturesque dynamism incipient in this rangy plan but it is held in check by the uniformity of the section. With only a single — if very generously dimensioned — storey presented above ground, the building maintains a constant roofline across its more than 300m length.
Sanaa’s work has always been characterised by a rejection of any architectural promenade
Spare material choices consolidate the diffident expression. Alternating between full-height glass and polished aluminium cladding, the jostling volumes conjure a distinctly agroindustrial air. Close looking reveals refinements such as the ever-so-slight curvature of walls that on first glance appear to run straight — a gesture that lends them greater responsiveness to changes in light conditions — but, however chicly detailed the building may be, one can still rather too easily imagine visitors mistaking it for a complex of greenhouses and packing plants.
In time that impression should soften as the architecture’s neutrality has clearly been conceived as a foil to the yet to be completed park. Designed by French landscape architect Catherine Mosbach, this promises to offer a considered transition between the “built landscape” of the museum and the mature woodland that characterises much of the site’s edge.
The topography is being adjusted only lightly. A network of primary routes (which correspond to the lines of the old haulageways) and secondary paths (which chart more frenetically wiggling lines) extends across the park in white concrete. The proportion of hard surface to soft rises as the paths approach the museum and as it does so the concrete starts to be colonised by an increasing density of incidental features: wobbly rings of moss, amoeba-like patches of black mining deposit, constellations of red uplighters and grassy bunds of kookily croissant-like form. Sharing a busily graphic character, they boisterously counterpoint the sheer, impassive surfaces of the museum.
Source: Hisao Suzuki
A large square-planned volume in the middle of the ensemble houses the entrance lobby, its connnection with the park enforced by full-height glazing, the continued use of white concrete to form the floor, and the location of doors on all four frontages. Happily, the resultant sense of permeability has been supported by the decision to allow visitors free admission.
These qualities may be characteristic of many of Sanaa’s past buildings but one of the Louvre-Lens’s other key requirements presents a less obvious fit with the practice’s distinctive sensibility. The building’s chief attraction is the Galerie du Temps, a display of 200 objects displayed in chronological order so as to present a crash course in art history from antiquity to the 1840s — the span of the Louvre’s collection. One can think of architects who could turn this highly teleological curatorial conceit into the motor for a building; it would marry very readily, for example, with Le Corbusier’s 1939 design for the spiralling Musée à Croissance Illimitée.
And yet Sanaa’s work has always been characterised by a rejection of any form of architectural promenade. They are buildings without circulation, or rather buildings in which the circulation is typically dispersed to form an open terrain in which areas of repose are located as freestanding enclosures like islands in a sea. It is this spatial model that guides the design of the lobby — the bookshop, café, a médiathèque and education space are each sited inboard of the external glazing and encompassed by their own glass enclosures of ovoid plan. That diagram is also at play in the small glazed gallery that forms the building’s eastern terminus — the Pavillon de Verre, in which three enclosures have been hung with work from different periods on a thematic basis.
However, the 120m long Galerie du Temps — which bridges between the lobby and the Pavillon de Verre — presents a more conventional spatiality, which won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who has visited Foster’s Sainsbury Centre. The walls — again faced in polished aluminium — remain free of exhibits while light filters down through a ceiling of continuous louvres supported on steel beams that have been pared down to a startling 12mm thickness. Beginning with a Mesopotamian statue dating from two millennia before the birth of Christ and concluding with Delacroix’s icon of the French revolution, Liberty Leading the People (1830), the artefacts are presented on plinths and freestanding walls in an open but highly axial field, the unspooling years being registered by a timeline that extends down the length of one wall.
French art critics have not been entirely won over by the greatest hits display strategy. “The works exhibited in the Galerie du Temps are in no way connected,” Didier Rykner, the editor of La Tribune de l’Art, has complained, adding that “the Louvre’s policy of assigning hangs to the provinces with the sole ambition of lining up [high profile] works means that the museum management feels the inhabitants of Lens are not capable of understanding something a little more demanding intellectually”. That noted, judged in its own terms, the Galerie du Temps has to be deemed a success. The display — 20% of which will be refreshed each year — is replete with front-ranking treasures and Sanaa has made a very beautiful room to show them in. From an architectural perspective, however, the suspicion remains that what we are looking at is a tremendous set piece that lacks foundation in the kind of overarching spatial logic that has characterised the practice’s best work. Sadly, those doubts present themselves more forcibly still on entering the building’s third exhibition space — a gallery for temporary shows that lies on the opposite side of the foyer.
Its shell comprises a scaled-down version of the Galerie du Temps but the designers of the present exhibition, which is drawn from the Louvre’s renaissance holdings, have quite understandably felt the need to carve it up into a conventional arrangement of rooms in order to provide sufficient wall space to hang everything on. More often than not, this is surely the kind of condition in which visitors will find the room presented.
The other major public space is an auditorium, housed in the westernmost of the building’s daisy-chained volumes — a choice of location that means it is only accessible by walking down the length of the temporary exhibition hall or by its own designated door to the park. It is an eccentric piece of planning to put it mildly. Indeed, throughout the building one is conscious that the spatial dividends unlocked by Sanaa’s refusal to establish a conventional circulation system have not come without cost. A tour of its full holdings demands visitors journey to the end of one of the two spurs, retrace their exact same steps and then perform the same procedure in the other wing. Intuitive, it is not.
These quibbles aside, the Louvre Lens does feel like a building that works — which is not always something that one has been able to say about Sanaa’s projects. A couple of months after the Rolex Centre in Lausanne opened, the librarians had been sufficiently terrorised by the open plan that they had barricaded themselves in with pot plants. In New York’s New Museum, a dominant impression remains the queues of visitors clogging up each gallery as they wait for a solitary beeping lift to spirit them to the next floor. This aristocratic disregard for the awkward complexity of human behaviour is certainly in evidence in the Lens building but to a notably diminished degree.
A pragmatism has crept in, for which the museum’s curators will certainly be thankful, but the resulting building feels like one of the practice’s less emblematic projects as a result.
Gallery design Imrey Culbert
Landscape design Mosbach Paysagistes
MEP and structural engineers Betom Ingénierie
Energy and comfort concept Transplan
Environmental design engineers Hubert Penicaud
Structure concept consultant Sasaki & Partners
Structural engineering and facade engineering Bollinger & Grohmann
Artificial and natural daylighting Arup Lighting
Pictures by Iwan Baan and Hisao Suzuki