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MUSÉE DU LOUVRE BY SANAA, LENS, FRANCE

Despite its trophy architecture, the Louvre’s new provincial outpost raises questions about its wider mission of decentralising high culture

This provincial outpost of the Musée du Louvre in Paris stands on the outskirts of Lens, a dreary ex-mining town with a good football team and the highest slag heaps in Europe. It is an unlikely place to discover masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci or Delacroix, or to inspect antique Roman statues and Islamic ceramics, and it represents a daring exercise in decentralisation and cultural out reach.

In theory the Louvre Lens will in turn generate economic gains for the town and the surrounding region of the Nord Pas-de-Calais. A certain paternalism is here combined with calculations that were surely influenced by the Bilbao effect. As it happens, the new building opens its doors at a moment of acute crisis in which hundreds of jobs a day are being lost from the industrial sector in France. The shining vision of SANAA’s silvery minimalist sheds floating over a reconstituted landscape on top of a disused mine represents a gesture of extreme optimism in the face of dark realities confronting the post industrial economy. The people may or may not want art but they certainly need jobs.

Text_2_01From the air, these black pyramids dominate the landscape. The museum’s series of delicate pavilions is a conspicuous presence amid an urban texture of repetitive residential units

The Louvre Lens is disposed in five roughly oblong pieces strewn across the flat landscape rather like boats at anchor in a stream which tugs them in slightly different directions. The moment one rises from the road up a slope between walls of rough earth and pebbles one grasps how the building is conceived as part of the plateau. The foreground established by the landscapist Catherine Mosbach includes meandering paths recalling the geometry of mine shafts while the small hummocks of grass and curved cuts in the concrete anticipate the free plan curves inside the transparent parts of the structure.

The two main exhibition sheds are clad in partly reflective aluminium and this catches the vast northern sky while successfully diffusing the light. I first saw these walls in rain and they reacted sensitively to the grey atmosphere.  The public route towards the glazed public hall and main entrances is clearly signalled by the pattern of pathways. The exterior concrete surface continues on the interior as a smooth floor. One flows easily into the lobbies with their slender white pilotis and curved glass partitions containing bookshop, restaurant, information centre and the like. Nothing new about this: it is the usual SANAA recipe which in fact represents a fusion of Miesian transparency and the Corbusian free plan.

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The shimmering aluminium facade delicately reflects the grey northern sky

The glazed lobby area feels as if it belongs to the wider landscape, an effect redoubled when humps in the surrounding park seem to rhyme with the artificial mountains of slag heaps in the distance. On some subliminal level one is touched by the contrast and interaction between metallic materials and natural minerals. The choices of internal circulation are spelt out by the architecture. Either one turns right into the closed and top-lit hall for temporary (paying) exhibitions, or one filters off to the left into the (un-paying) great ‘Gallery of Time’ (‘Galérie du Temps’) in which the objects loaned from the Louvre in Paris are on display.

The temporary exhibition hall is an entirely adequate shed for showing works of art and objects of all periods, materials and sizes, especially since its scale is broken down by temporary partitions working as a secondary system of compartments linked along a route through wide openings. Currently there is an exhibition about the Renaissance which is beautifully installed to reveal works, objects and treatises to their best under a mixture of  artificial light and natural light filtered through ceiling louvers between slender steel cross beams. The exhibition designer has also used colours such as Pompeii red and deep blue in combination with greys and off white to establish a sequence of perspectives which enhance the objects on display while enlivening the overall space and luring the visitor from one section to another. Near the entrance is a lateral slot with benches which allows one to inspect closely Leonardo’s astounding Madonna, Child and St Anne at one end, Titian’s magisterial portrait of François 1er at the other.

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Floor-to-ceiling glazing illuminates the circulation spaces of the museum this creates an interplay of reflection and transparency with the aluminium panels of the gallery spaces, and an externally legible division of function

By contrast, the vast ‘Gallery of Time’, over 125 metres of uninterrupted exhibition space bridged by thin steel beams and flanked by the same sort of aluminium surfaces as are used outside, raises a lot of doubts concerning both the architecture and the museum installation.  The official line promoting this ‘museum without walls’ is that this is a universal corridor of history in which works can be compared laterally with ones contemporaneous with them from other societies.

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Long sections of the building

Henri-Loyrette, President Director of the Louvre, likes to quote the French author Charles Péguy: ‘the long and visible progression of humanity’.  This sounds alright in theory and there is even a line on the wall marking the millennia and the centuries from ancient Egypt all the way to Delacroix, a sort of potted version of the history of art in several easy steps. But even this chronological model breaks down when one reflects that ‘time’ in history has different meanings in say the western and Islamic worlds, or in Ancient Rome and Mesopotamia, including different starting points, myths of origins, destinies and cosmologies. The fact that three works are all produced around 800 AD for example, is not necessarily a sound basis for meaningful comparison.

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The Gallery of Time is a Malrauvian ‘museum without walls’, essentially a space in which objects on loan from Paris are jumbled together without regard for the specificity of their origins

The idea of a museum representing ‘humanity’ of course derives from the French ‘Lumières’ or Enlightenment but this rhetoric also comes in handy as a way of covering up the role of past French (and indeed European) Imperialism in the acquisition of objects, for example from Egypt, Ancient Greece and the Middle East. The shadow of Napoleon still falls over the Louvre just as the shadow of Elgin falls over the British Museum.

In reality one experiences the works in the great space as a sort of jumble of individual incidents in which totally arbitrary connections are made between foreground and background. Far from conveying a grand historical progression, the installation suggests a post-modern arbitrariness. The visitors wander around with audio-guides close to their ears listening to potted explanations, and the written tickets are full of Geneva talk about the unity of people around the Mediterranean and such like fictions.

What you end up with is a sort of tele-zapping version of visual culture and a politically correct Europackaging. In this ‘universal’ version of the history of art East and South East Asia hardly figure at all. No wonder, for in the dividing up of cultural territories (and spoils!) in Paris, China, Japan, South East Asia etc are the primary concern of the Musée Guimet rather than the Louvre. There is a forlorn window-shading screen or ‘jali’ in red sandstone from a building of the Mogul period in India, and there are some beautiful objects from Persia, but otherwise the historical centre of gravity is pretty far west and north. Another casualty of the linear presentation of time is the phenomenon of renaissances, historical revivals and returns. The director of the Louvre might do well to reread a great French art historian of the past, namely Henri Focillon, who suggested that “The principle which gives support to a work of art is not necessarily contemporary with it. It is quite capable of slipping back into the past or forward into the future. The artist inhabits a time which is by no means necessarily the history of his own time.”

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Skylights diffuse this cold glow through a gauzy false ceiling in the entrance lobby, where a restaurant and bookshop are housed in glazed pods

The stands themselves in the great hall have been quite skilfully designed by Studio Adrien Gardère which has a lot of experience of chic museum interiors and they are supposed to interact with the larger space around them and above them. They are subtly floated off the smooth concrete floor by means of gaps and are varied in size according to the objects on display. Collectively though this does not really come off as the vast hall neutralizes differences between works by its sheer overhead size and volume, and its uniformity of lighting. One desperately hopes for some kind of partitions like the ones which work so well in the temporary exhibitions space, in order to respond to differences of scale.

SANAA have sloped the floor to follow the terrain, and the walls themselves are ever so slightly curved, moves which ought to activate the space, but these understated devices get lost in a haze of silver reflections along both sides. Somewhere or another I read a text by a curator or a designer claiming that these blurred reflections of art works and people would enhance the experience and even suggest the absent works still back at Louvre HQ in Paris!  Talk about wishful thinking: in my view the silver aluminium side walls are a disaster which denature the objects and convey the overall atmosphere of a suave luxury goods store in an international airport or an upmarket mall. There was a split second when I thought I should be looking for the price tickets of the objects on sale.

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Curved glass partitions define seating alcoves in an airport-esque sort of way

Almost in spite of themselves SANAA produce the high fashion effect in their buildings. Luxury goods, makeup and perfumes account for a profitable commercial bridge between France and Japan these days (no accident that SANAA designed the Dior building in Tokyo, truly an example of minimalist chic). Did I also get the feeling for an instant in the ‘Gallery of Time’ of moving through a Kenzo ad? Nor should one forget the hook up between cultural institutions, plutocratic collectors and the art market in France, which has led to aberrations such as a Jeff Koons show at Versailles, and the installation of a trendy Indian installation artist in the once sedate galleries of the Guimet. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, with its kitsch flying saucer dome floating over a Kasbah-6 star shopping mall (another of Jean Nouvel’s stunts) is also packaged in a whole lot of universalising rhetoric but is surely also about globalisation and big oil money.

There are interesting questions here about how buildings communicate through association. The organizers of the Louvre Lens want to have it all ways: high culture and low, elegant yet populist. There is a hilarious video installation in the lobby by Ange Leccia called ‘L’amour Louvre’ which is projected onto the curved glass partitions and which moves suavely and effortlessly between old black and white photos of miners, pit head gear and sooty houses, and airbrushed versions of Renaissance female faces by well known artists. This is certainly a top down version of society made more for the posh visitors from Paris, Brussels and London, than for the present day working class population of Lens.

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The aluminium facade morphs with the colours of the sky and juxtaposes with the colours of the ground

 Of course curators and museum directors love indulging their pet aesthetic and social theories in their museum spaces as one has seen for example with the Serota hangings in the Tate Modern according to vague genres such as ‘Landscape’. As a result one of my favourite Mondrians is completely overwhelmed by larger installations and is poorly lit low down on a high wall. In the Quai Branly Museum in Paris Nouvel has succeeded in trivialising magnificent objects from diverse world cultures by inserting them in a Tarzan jungle scenario with about as much allure as a discotheque plunged in semi darkness.

SANAA’s silvers sheds could in fact serve better to show off large modern pieces such as Richard Serra’s brown steel ‘Torqued Ellipses’ or even machine parts from a high grade engineering firm. Somewhere along the line the architectural and artistic messages have got scrambled in this daring endeavour. One of the most misleading features of the ‘Hall of Time’ is the notion that both terms ‘time’ and ‘art’ are unambiguously universal. On some levels maybe, but on others it is differences of culture, meaning, site and yes even aesthetic intention, which count. One wonders too if the approach is not too ‘art for art’s sake’. Perhaps there could be areas here and there which cordon off individual works and explain their original context and function? ’Art’ means different things in different places and at different times.

One slides out of the Gallery of Time past Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ over the barricades. This is presented unambiguously as the culminating point of roughly 5 and a half millennia: Vive La France! Vive la République! One then emerges again in the light of day in another transparent pavilion with three cylindrical volumes set down into the free plan, though in this case they are not made of glass but have white painted walls. Inside there are more exhibits alluding to notions of time, with works from different civilisations dealing with days, weeks, months and years through various frameworks of meaning. Again one has the feeling that this parallel treatment of works by themes is a little too cute and overdone. 

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The curators lead the people to Delacroix’s famous (and recently defaced) image of La Liberté, apparently the culmination of all history

Back to curator land where exhibition organisers have to keep reshuffling the same cards into entertaining new packs – Picasso and his women, Picasso and the colour blue, Picasso and Malaga, or whatever. All this keeps the wheels of the PhD machinery turning with oversized catalogues weighed down by tedious specialist’s articles squabbling through their footnotes. For the moment the Louvre Lens has avoided this with quite a lucid guidebook which if anything suffers from being simplistic. Finally one can leave the museum parts of the building altogether to find the fifth pavilion at the other end which contains a spacious auditorium for lectures and evening events.

So where will all this lead? It is obviously far too early to assess the impact of the Louvre Lens on its town and its region. One of the best moments for me was when I came across a school group in front of the Leonardo, looking hard and even listening to their very intense teacher who spent at least fifteen minutes analysing the work in several ways and teaching the pupils how to see. Museum goers have different attention spans and there are always those unexpected moments of inspiration.

The word ‘museum’ after all suggests both the Muses and amusement. For the moment the museum and its park are rather cut off from Lens and there is the risk that visitors may circumvent the place altogether. A person may arrive by train from Paris (a little over an hour for the few direct connections) or from Lille which is less than twenty minutes away and with fast train connections to London, Paris and Brussels. A small bus transports the tourist from the station to the park in which the long, low buildings of the museum are situated, a journey of roughly twelve minutes (although there is usually a wait). Of course others arrive by car from the network of northern auto-routes and park as best they can, but whatever their means of transport, the visitors have little contact with the town and commerce of Lens.

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The vertical steel mullions of the facade blend with the slender trunks of the existing trees

At present, there is relatively little to attract them, despite several local efforts at the ‘muséification’ of the former world of miners and mining. These days difficult histories including those of war and social conflict (both part of this region’s past) undergo a sort of aesthetic camouflage to suit manipulated ‘memory’.

As I sat in a dreary restaurant opposite the railway station staring down into the soothing brown surface of my Leffe beer, I could not help reflecting upon all the different types of museums, from palatial heaps in capital cities, to linear ensembles in landscape, to unified spaces and great halls. The SANAA solution to the Louvre Lens is based upon a more or less linear arrangement with vast exterior surfaces easily accessible from the surroundings, a point which raises concerns of security. The building seems fragile given its weighty contents. On the other hand, the two large, top lit halls can be modified at will, except for that problematic shiny aluminium wall inside the Gallery of Time. 

As it happens the openness and lack of protection of the works in the Galérie du Temps also present severe security risks. At the time of writing (8th February, 2012) the news has just come out that yesterday evening the Delacroix ‘Liberty Leading the People’ was vandalised by someone who scribbled the enigmatic, probably political message ‘AE911’ on it in indelible ink. That is bad enough, but supposing it had been the Leonardo and a maniac with a cutter? We live in violent times and some of this violence is directed against artistic patrimony, whether it is blowing up rock cut Buddhas, destroying ancient tombs, standing idly by as museums and archaeological sites are looted (as in Iraq), or burning manuscripts and national libraries to destroy identity and memory. Maybe it is time to ship the masterpieces back to Paris where they are possibly safer? The cultural mission of decentralisation is already looking rather shaky. As for the larger social and geographical thinking behind the Louvre Lens, one inevitably poses the question: why Lens of all places, this nosedive of a town? Who would want to hang around in the town centre more than the time to pick up a snack, and in this area much gastronomic progress has to be made.

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Despite all the talk of decentralisation, maybe Lens is still too close to Paris after all, especially by modern transport? And how appreciated will this institution be, given that it is unclear how it will enhance the local economy? Why not put it in a major provincial city like Toulouse, for example, which could gain from such a cosmopolitan endeavour and which has an immediate catchment of over three million people?

Why not place it somewhere in the agglomeration of Nice (like the Fondation Maeght at St Paul-de-Vence), with its five million people and its truly international airport, the second most important in France? And if the ‘neglected north’ is the political strategy, why not stick it in Lille? Minutes later the TGV for Paris swept in and I settled back into my seat as the flat landscape shot by at 300 kilometres an hour. In a flash, my mind shifted to Britain, with its creaking, overpriced trains, its jammed roads, its infected hospitals, its shut public libraries, its over expensive universities, and its zero cultural budgets in major cities. Despite all the quibbling, the endeavour of Louvre Lens seemed worth entertaining after all.

FACT FILE

Architect: SANAA
Project: Musee Du Lourve
Photos: Hisao Suzuki, Iwan Baan, Roland Halbe and Chancel

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