Unless you’re a connoisseur of slag heaps or second division French football teams, there is little reason why you would have heard of Lens. The tallest of the former and the most enthusiastically supported of the latter are the primary attributes of this small town in the northern coal-mining heartland of France, which boasts a stadium with a capacity larger than the entire local population.
Towering Vesuvian mounds and the chunky backsides of football stands are the most obvious landmarks visible from the new addition to the town, which is hoped will put it on the map for good.
The €150m (£122m) satellite of Paris’s Louvre museum shimmers like an apparition on the raised plane of the former coalmine, looking down over streets of pitch-roofed miners’ houses, dotted with the occasional chip shop. The building is formed from a series of long, low-slung walls that fade in and out of view as the changing light dances over its surface – or as clouds of drizzle engulf it entirely in the wintry gloom.
Despite being officially opened by President François Hollande on Tuesday, the project is not quite finished. At present it sits in a churning sea of mud, with crisp sheets of aluminium and glass rising out of a vision not unlike the nearby battlefields of the Somme. The surrounding scene of hurried planting and mechanical puttering only adds to the impression that this is a cluster of great agricultural sheds.
But, as closer inspection reveals, these are not any old sheds. They are meticulously designed by Sanaa, the Japanese architecture practice that has won acclaim for creating buildings that are barely there at all.
“There is a theme that runs through all of our projects,” says Ryue Nishizawa, one half of the partnership with Kazuyo Sejima, “about how to open up architecture – to society, to the landscape – to form a seamless continuity between inside and out.”
It is a cliche that many architects peddle but few pursue with the rigour of Sejima and Nishizawa, whose office devotes months to stripping down and paring back until their projects are the thinnest and lightest they can be, membrane enclosures separating outside from in. The effect here in Lens is exaggerated by the fact that, although they appear to be rectilinear boxes, the walls of the museum are in fact all slightly curved, as though under suction from within, or like flimsy sheets buffeted by the wind. It is as close as you could get to a building made of cling film and tin foil.
Such fragility belies the fact that this glistening carapace houses some of the most precious artworks in existence, selected from the core collection of the 200-year-old Parisian institution. They are arranged in one vast top-lit hall the size of a football pitch, on freestanding plinths, forming islands and room-like clusters that allow you to walk around the work. Wandering freely among Egyptian carvings and Roman mosaics, Islamic ceramics and Renaissance oils is a liberating experience, with the artefacts given new life freed from the damask-lined corridors of their Parisian parent. It feels like a private view inside the museum’s out-of-town storage facility – with the concrete floors, metal walls and exposed beams to match.
“In the Louvre in Paris, everything is exhibited in rigid departments, like an encyclopaedia of art,” says Adrien Gardère, responsible for the exhibition design of the Lens outpost. “Here we are bringing sculpture and painting together, from different periods and geographical areas, to create fruitful confrontations.”
It is a radical curatorial approach that has not gone without criticism in the French press. Harry Bellet wrote in Le Monde that putting everything in one room risked it looking “like a bookshop where all the books are muddled up”. He might not have realised that this is precisely the attraction: you never know what you might stumble upon next.
Another move that has raised museological eyebrows is the continuation of the clinical palette within the gallery itself, creating a space somewhat reminiscent of an industrial abattoir – six millennia of art history lined up for the slaughter. Yet the material surfaces are always elevated above the utilitarian. The brushed aluminium walls, gently warped, create a ghostly backdrop of reflections, a blurry mingling of people and artwork. The concrete floor follows the sloping topography of the original site, a subtle move that reminds you where you are. The exposed steel roof beams, spanning the 25m width of the hall, have been slimmed to a miraculous 12mm thick, which allows natural light to wash over the space.
Beyond this principal Galerie du Temps, the building rises up into a glass pavilion for temporary exhibitions (currently filled with gigantic puppets from local street parades) with views across what will one day be a wild meadow landscape, designed by Catherine Mosbach. Here, winding paths follow the original haulage routes across the site, punctuated by grassy worm-like landforms, which serve a dual function as picnic spots and ram-raiding defences – an increasingly common coupling in the current climate of terrorism-driven urban design.
The pairing of glass box and metallic shed is replicated the other side of the complex, in the form of the central entrance pavilion and secondary gallery space, currently arranged as a more conventional suite of rooms. The glazed entrance block is populated by Sanaa’s trademark amoebic glass bubbles, containing bookshop, resource centre and members’ area, which gleam like a cluster of petri dishes on a lab bench.
This disorienting space of transparencies and reflections forms the central fulcrum from which the gallery wings extend, with an auditorium beyond the second exhibition hall. From the entrance, a spiral stair – reminiscent of the one in the Louvre pyramid – descends into the bowels of the building, where you can look down on the storage racks and see conservation work in progress. It is all part of the attempt to open up the museum to a broader audience, exposing this never-before-seen side of the institution.
As a means of breathing fresh life into the Louvre’s collection, and providing an overview of the history of art to a wider public, it is hard to fault this project. Sanaa’s architecture may seem materially alien to the site, but its combination of industrial utility and fragility is an apt reflection of the surrounding context – at once rugged and vulnerable (although perhaps slightly too vulnerable, in the brave choice of 2mm thick aluminium cladding).
Whether these shiny sheds will have the desired “Bilbao effect” on their depressed host town remains to be seen. Lens was originally chosen, from the six cities that bid to win the regional satellite, because of the ready availability of the open 20-hectare site, as well as its location on a major motorway to Belgium and Holland and only an hour from Paris by train. Geography alone should mean it will meet its target of 500,000 visitors a year – the same number that visited the much smaller, more remote Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate. Yet Margate also has the seaside, with its attendant attractions. It will be interesting to see what happens when a €150m art ship is floated into a town of 35,000 people that doesn’t even have a cinema.
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