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Starship Louvre-Lens


By Marc Kristal

The selection of December 4, 2012 for the inauguration of the new $150-million-Euro, 28,000-square-metre annex of the Louvre, set on a fifty-acre former mine yard in the city of Lens (in France’s northern Pas-de-Calais département), wasn’t accidental: it is the feast day of the Great Martyr Barbara, patron saint of miners – and, given the hopes that have been hung on the museum, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese office SANAA (in association with the American firm Imrey Culbert), as a catalyst for the resurrection of post-industrial Lens, the saint’s intervention would be, as it were, a blessing. It’s perhaps useful as well that Barbara also watches over artillery gunners, military engineers, and other professions involving high explosives, as the revival of the region’s fortunes has long been a somewhat volatile challenge – in the words of the UK-born Diana Hounslow, director of Pas-de-Calais Tourisme, “the one hot potato everyone chucked to each other – we just didn’t know, within tourism, what to do with the old mining area.”

That the Louvre has been called upon to carry a lot of freight, in a variety of ways, is indisputable. The good news is that it seems poised to do so successfully – on its own, as a public institution and a work of architecture, and in the context of a larger vision.

Louvre-Lens, France
Louvre-Lens, France

Lens’ situation is evident in what was, prior to the Louvre, the city’s principal tourist attraction: a pair of pyramid-shaped slag heaps, the largest in Europe (and a UNESCO World Heritage site). A major industrial city following the mid-nineteenth century, when coal was discovered, it’s said that Lens suffered both from having the mines within its midst and then – and perhaps worse – from not having them (not to mention the depredations of two world wars). Hounslow describes what was, prior to the last pit’s closure in 1987, a classic company town: by fiat of Houillères du Bassin Nord-Pas-de Calais, babies were automatically baptized at birth – “in case they died before leaving the hospital,” she explains – after which townspeople received free schooling, medical care, housing, and of course employment, until the mining company (unable to compete with more economical, open-pit mines) began gradually shutting down operations in the 1970s.

“Only a very small percentage’ of colliers found new employment,” Hounslow says, in part because of denial bred by decades of dependency. “A lot of people actually believed the mines would come back,” she recalls. “And so they sat and waited it out and got social security benefits.”

Compounding the problem was not only a lack of alternative employment but an absence of job training. “When the Channel tunnel was being dug, 80 percent of the jobs were promised to people from this region,”  Hounslow says. “But they just couldn’t find qualified workers.”

Nor was there much inclination to strike out for greener pastures. ‘

“In France, people are very family-minded, and stick to their original region,” she notes. “So they wouldn’t move, and it just became a stalemate, really – people receiving benefits generation after generation, out of work, and with nothing to offer them.”

Gallery in Louvre-Lens
Gallery in Louvre-Lens

As an antidote, both the Pas-de-Calais governing council and that of Nord, the neighboring département,  “have been working since the seventies to encourage people into education, sport and culture,” Hounslow says – so when the prospect of a new Louvre was floated about six years ago, the chairman of the regional council sought out Henri Loyrette, the museum’s director, and proposed Lens as the location. Loyrette embraced the idea, and actively lobbied for Lens over other cities throughout France – seeing it, not only as a chance to help invigorate a struggling area, but for the museum, as Loyrette put it at a pre-opening press conference, “to rethink its mission;” to both extend the nation’s great wealth of art and culture beyond Paris, and experiment with new ways of presenting the Louvre’s incomparable collection.

To create what Louvre-Lens director Xavier Dectot calls “a museum with a human face” – one dedicated to making the public in general, and the people of Lens in particular, feel welcome and at home – the new institution would incorporate, in Dectot’s words, “new forms of mediation,” including multi- and new-media technologies, and also encourage a greater appreciation of the Louvre’s inner life with transparent, on-view storage rooms and restoration studios. As well, while the ‘mother ship’ in Paris displays its vast collection in discrete galleries organized by department, school and technique, the new venue presented an opportunity to bring typically separated artworks together in provocative, mutually amplifying presentations. (There was also, for the museum, a financial incentive: in exchange for creating a Guggenheim Bilbao-style tourist magnet, 80 percent of the project would be funded by local and regional authorities.) As Daniel Percheron, president of the Regional Nord-Pas-de-Calais Council, put it at the press conference, ‘The Louvre is a chance for Lens, and Lens is a chance for the Louvre.’

Gallery in Louvre-Lens
Gallery in Louvre-Lens

Lens made sense for another reason: Nord-Pas-de-Calais itself. The area, just south of Belgium and, on its west coast, within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover, has much to offer historically, culturally, and touristically. It is a tapestry of significant sites from the 20th century’s great conflicts, among them the fascinating (and moving) Carrière Wellington, a network of tunnels from which 24,000 Tommies staged a surprise attack on the Kaiser’s army in 1917, and, at Étaples, the largest of British World War I cemeteries, the final resting place of 11,000 soldiers. The region boasts a surprising 48 national museums, the greatest concentration to be found anywhere in France outside Paris; and some exhibitions, such as an exceptional installation of 18th– and 19th-century carriages, sleighs and other royal vehicles drawn from the collection at Versailles, presently on view at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Arras, are well worth the brief train trip from the capital. Many of the towns and cities offer a variety of architectural attractions, some dating from the medieval period – the Flemish-influenced buildings in Arras, eclectic Grand-Place of Béthune, and fortifications of Boulogne-sur-Mer (where Victor Hugo discovered the real-life models for the protagonists of Les Miserables) are of particular interest; the abundance of soberly handsome belfries constructed over the centuries – 23 in total, many UNESCO-listed – are a hallmark of the region.

Nord-Pas-de-Calais remains physically beautiful as well, with an unspoiled nature preserve and 120 kilometres of sandy beach – the Côte d’Opale – above the piquant, once-very-English resort of Le Touquet, and the area beyond it, from the seaside village of Wimereux nearly to Calais, declared one of only ten Grand-Sites de France. Most surprisingly, the entire region is easily accessible: Calais is 55 minutes by train from the heart of London (and another 45 minutes or so to Lens), and only an hour and ten minutes of exceeding comfortable high-speed rail travel separate the Paris Louvre from its new satellite. Given what’s on offer, says Hounslow, ‘Nord-Pas-de-Calais is the ideal place to have a big project.’

Recognizing that all of the Louvre-Lens’ positives could be neutralized if its core audience – the community – didn’t accept it, the regional council and tourism office worked with museum officials to (as the L-L website puts it) “‘integrate the museum into the local fabric and encourage the inhabitants to make it their own.” “‘It was supposed to be a gift to the local people,” Hounslow explains. “But to begin with, all they could see was that Lens was going to be inadequate – “we don’t particularly want it or know what to do with it – what we need are jobs.”’ Rather than being perceived as a boon, says Hounslow, “the museum was like a big UFO landing in the middle of the city.”

A number of gambits were undertaken to prep the citizenry for the arrival of Starship Louvre-Lens. The museum organized a series of coffees to which people were invited to ask questions and air concerns; these, Hounslow believes, were only partly successful, as rather than bringing in those who live in the old mining houses around the site, “what they mainly got were the culture vultures from the area.”

Visitors at Louvre-Lens, France
Visitors at Louvre-Lens, France

The Lens team – led by the chairman of the Pas-de-Calais council, Dominique Dupilet, who created a dedicated ‘Mission Louvre-Lens’ office – took a different tack. First, they engaged the Aix-en-Provence-based consulting firm Nicaya to speak to a range of different constituencies and assess what Hounslow calls “the values of the region.” What Nicaya discovered was “a group of people who’ve been the underdogs, and are being offered a chance to get out of that, and it’s really hard for them,” Hounslow relates. Accordingly, the consultants encouraged the Louvre and Lens officials “‘not to criticize people for not being ready, to work with them to find solutions.” At the same time, the years of mining, with their attendant hardships, had given Lens a strong sense of fraternity, the ability to band together in challenging times. “We needed to create a series of events linked to the opening of the Louvre that would get people involved,” Hounslow recalls. “‘So we looked to the local associations, and what they wanted to do, and started supporting them and their projects.”

Once they’d wrapped their minds around the needs of the community, the council next focused on finding ways to make Lens attractive to outsiders. They engaged the Dutch-born, Paris-based trend forecaster Lidewij (Li) Edelkoort, whose previous clients included Coca-Cola, Gucci and Donna Karan, to identify aspects of Lens with global potential. The outcome startled and energized even the stodgiest of the city’s bureaucrats.

“She put together this cahier de tendence – it’s a style book – with the colors, textures and other things that came into her mind after she’d seen the Nicaya study, met a whole load of people, and had a look around,” Hounslow recalls. “And she said, ‘The family is highly important here – the message is, if you come to Lens, you’re going to be part of the family.’” She said, “’Whether you like it or not, your color here is black, the color of coal: coal has stained the buildings black, the slag-heap pyramids are the new Louvre pyramids – and they’re black.’” To local people, the rows of brick miners’ houses are an eyesore, a sign of poverty, but Li said, “Whatever you do, don’t lose that brick.”’ Edelkoort also observed the many vegetable gardens people kept and counseled a garden-to-table sensibility – “‘fresh vegetables in restaurants, straight from the garden, not fancy food.” And the trend-spotter recommended that Lens look to the Romantics for aesthetic inspiration. “It’s a period when people were saying, ‘oh, isn’t the past wonderful,’ but Li wanted us to look forward and bring that style into fashion and interior decoration,” Hounslow recalls. “She basically told us, ‘This could be the trendiest spot in the world in ten years.”’ Following Edelkoort’s lead, Hounslow and her associates put together their own style book, which they present to people working on hospitality projects as inspiration, and created financial incentives for entrepreneurs who work with stylists and interior designers from the region.

The mining days of Lens, France
The mining days of Lens, France

As for the museum itself, the requirements of both the Louvre and Lens were, not surprisingly, complicated, and in 2005 the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, the project’s official overseer, announced an international competition, which generated in excess of 120 schemes. SANAA principals Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa were, in a sense, an obvious choice: their Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art (which opened in 2006), an entirely transparent structure of lapidary elegance, set in a public park, and incorporating a working glass-blowing studio and exhibition galleries that were visible from without and drew in visitors like a beacon, was in many ways a perfect trial run (and calling card) for what the Louvre and its host city had in mind. And the outcome, in Sejima and Nishizawa’s formulation, “fosters an open relationship between museum, nature, city, and landscape.”

The design, composed of four rectangular structures extending in two directions from a large square central entry hall – characterized by SANAA as collectively resembling a curving line of river craft that have gently drifted together – is a quietly stunning essay in transparency and reflectivity. “It’s an important principle for us to create spaces that are open to the society, the town, and the people,’” Nishizawa observed at the pre-opening press conference, and the 3800-square-metre entry hall – enclosed almost entirely by soaring glass walls and with its programmatic areas set within glass cylinders (a gambit borrowed from Toledo) – is a sublime expression of this objective: as Dectot described it, ‘an “open” museum in every sense of the term.’

Leonardo da Vinci's "The Virgin and the Child with Saint Anne"
Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Virgin and the Child with Saint Anne”

At the same time, said Sejima, “We felt that this was a region with a very special light, and an exceptionally beautiful natural landscape, and the challenge was to build something that brought together this light, that beauty, and the [surrounding brick] miners’ houses, which represented the history of the region.”

Accordingly, SANAA clad three of the four rectangular volumes (containing the two major exhibition halls and an auditorium) in a softly reflective aluminum that transforms Louvre-Lens’ exterior into a vast and Turner-esque, ceaselessly mutable mural.

If the building at once invites the community in and mirrors it, the architecture carries the notion of inclusiveness a step further in the Galerie du Temps – the Time Gallery – which displays a diverse selection of the Louvre’s holdings going back roughly to 3500 B.C. Here, too, the walls are aluminum-clad.

“We have the reflections of works of art and the people looking at them,” observes Nishizawa, “and hope that this will be a brand-new, innovative concept of public space.”

It’s an impressive shell, and its holdings are even more so. In addition to the Galerie du Temps, in which the paintings, sculpture and objects will be rotated with others from the Louvre’s holdings every three to five years (with some 20 percent changed annually on the magic date December 4 because, observes Dectot, “if what we’re offering isn’t rich enough, it will become a problem very quickly”), Louvre-Lens incorporates an 1800-square-metre temporary exhibitions gallery (which debuted with a prismatic overview of the Renaissance). Beyond this space, the auditorium will serve as a multipurpose theatre that can create connections between the performing arts and whatever is on view in the exhibition halls; and appended to the Galerie du Temps is a smaller glass pavilion that will feature special exhibitions, including collaborations with the network of museums spanning the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.

The 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot observed that “theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing.”  While the idea that, by making architecture “transparent” and “reflective,” you will somehow foster an air of friendly inclusiveness is an appealing one, it is probably of limited use in the face of reality: If SANAA’s building is less (for lack of a better word) elitist than, for example, the Paris Louvre, it nonetheless remains a dramatic, even bravura presence, a hugely sophisticated work of world-class architecture, created by practitioners at the height of their powers; if you are inclined toward feelings of cultural inferiority, it will definitely give you pause. Equally, the Louvre-Lens idea of creating a  “dialogue” across periods in the Galerie du Temps is something of a cliché; and the notion that reflective walls, which bring visitors and artworks together in the same visual plane, will serve as agents of egalitarianism seems like even more of a theoretical fancy.

Yet SANAA and the Louvre-Lens mandarins have unquestionably achieved a unity between theory and existence. The aluminum exterior and interior surfaces take ownership of their surroundings rather than reflect them; but they also demonstrate how architecture and art can transform your perceptions of yourself and the world, by encouraging a new ways of looking at things, whether quotidian or rarefied. And if exhibiting artworks with superficial gestural, graphic or thematic similarities together amounts to something less than a dialogue, it nonetheless reminds the beholder that certain subjects are timeless, and artists return to them again and again, reinterpreting them in response to talent, temperament, human events, the character of an age, and countless other influences, themselves timeless as well. By creating an exceptionally beautiful, welcoming and, indeed, ennobling environment in which to absorb the special pleasures the arts have to bestow, the museum – and all those who worked to bring it to Lens – have done the region, and everyone who comes to visit, a service.

Meanwhile, in the trenches of Lens, the work goes on. Catherine Mosbach’s ambitious vision for the in-progress park surrounding the museum seeks “to make a link between the town and local landscape and the museum and what’s inside it,” says the designer.

“The idea was to keep things very pure and open, to encourage people to come in,” explains Hounslow. “Initially the Louvre wanted the park to be closed in the evening. And the mayor said, ‘I can’t accept that, I need it completely open, so that people, even if they’re walking their dogs, can come and look in.”’

“It’s a subtle, and hopefully not too subtle, approach,” Hounslow suggests. So far, it would seem, so good: as of the new year, the museum had received in excess of 120,000 visitors.

“Lens was a black hole,” says Percheron. “But through the Louvre, we’ll see the soul of an entire region.”


Visit Louvre-Lens for more information and France Guide for information on travel to France.


Marc Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor ofAIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.


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