Louvre for Lens in northern France

Image © Hisao Suzuki

The coal basin of Lens in the north of France was recently declared a World Heritage Site for its industrial history and is now also the site for the new outpost of Musée du Louvre, a project on 20 hectares of mining wasteland. It is now an architectural conversation with an industrial past.

Image © Iwan Baan

Image © Iwan Baan

Conceived in 2003 and now completed, the museum is the centrepiece of a rejuvenation plan of the wider commune called Euralens modelled on the Euralille project in an effort to transform the image of the region. Designed by Japanese firm SANAA, New York and Paris-based Imrey Culbert, landscape designer Catherine Mosbach and museographer Studio Adrien Gardère it is expected to attract 700,000 visitors in the first year with 500,000 per annum after that.

The mining town dominated by pyramidal slag heaps since the last mine closed in the 1960s, had been abandoned to deteriorate developing a high unemployment rate of 16 per cent and it’s associated social problems.

On December 12th before the opening of the complex, mechanical diggers were still churning mud around the minimalist building designed by the Japanese architectural practice who are renown for their ethereal architectural designs. The mining town’s heavy past is lifted and is ‘blessed’ with a new image – the past can be forgotten and the future is re-imagined while retaining the richness of its industrial past.

Image © Hisao Suzuki

Image © Hisao Suzuki

Daniel Percheron, president of the Nord-Pas de Calais region who led the successful bid to bring the €150m ($196m) project to Lens, wishes to follow “la rue Bilbao” - Bilbao’s “Guggenheim effect“ – and following in the footsteps of Paris’s Pompidou Centre modern art museum which opened a satellite in eastern Metz in 2010, the Louvre seeks to win over the local population.

From within its giant glass cube entrance hall visitors can glimpse the giant slag heaps at Loos-en-Gohelle, the largest in Europe, the Bollaert stadium which is home to the local football team and Racing Club de Lens.

Image © Iwan Baan

Image © Iwan Baan

A 3,000 square meter grande gallery will exhibit artefacts from the Louvre’s collection without partitions along its 120 meter length. The displays take in classical marbles, Islamic ceramics, Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens and Meissen china and concluding with Eugène Delacroix’s luminous oil painting, ’Liberty Leading the People’. Objects will be displayed for five years before the display is recreated with a new selection.

The architectural project is an easily accessible structure of steel and glass over five buildings. It is reminiscent of the Louvre palace with its wings laid almost flat and includes a slight inflection of the spaces to compliment the long curved shape of the site creating a distortion of the inner areas that is not too exaggerated to cause tension with the artwork. It features glass and brushed aluminium walls that appear to be straight but subtly curve avoiding strict rectilinear shapes that would have conflicted with the subtle character of the site. This creates a subtle distortion of the inner areas while maintaining a graceful relationship with the artwork. The building was broken down into several spaces which follow the gradual changes in terrain elevation to achieve balance with the scale of the site and it’s shape.

Floor plan  level 0 image © SANAA

Floor plan level 0 image © SANAA

The façades are in polished aluminium, in which the park is reflected, ensuring continuity between the museum and the surrounding landscape. The roofs are partially made of glass to bring light in for the exhibits and allow the viewer to see the sky from the interior  while ceiling shades protect the artworks. A large invisible two level space is buried in the fill from the site and is dedicated to the service functions for the public, available for storage and other usage.