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Art house: Louvre-Lens by SANAA

The concept behind an offshoot of the Louvre may have followed in the footsteps of the Tate and the Centre Pompidou, but the final product is altogether different, writes Joseph Rykwert

I had not heard of Lens, an industrial centre in the Pas-de-Calais (three-quarters of an hour or so south-west of Lille by car or train) until a few years ago when startling rumours about a proposed branch of the Louvre there began filtering into the press. The region had come in for some attention about the same time, since Lille had been named European City of Culture for 2004.

Despite the desolate, windy, new Euro-Lille terminus, the city centre still has dignity and retains much of its Vauban fortifications. The monumental Palais des Beaux Arts has a famous collection - but a branch of the Louvre in the region was unexpected.
Yet an analogous decision had been made in January 2003 by the Centre Pompidou to open a branch in Metz, the capital of Lorraine. A showy timber-and-fibreglass affair designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, it relies on spectacularly opulent temporary exhibitions.

The Metz’s decision, - like that at Lens - were, in a sense, emulations of the Bilbao effect. The building of the magical titanium-clad palace by Frank Gehry certainly had a tonic effect on the depressed Basque town, and the Guggenheim became the first museum to brand itself a ‘franchise’. Since opening 15 years ago, however, it has had 10 million visitors (very few of whom bother to look in at the very well furnished and old-established Museo de Bellas Artes nearby). The effect on Metz is not yet so evident.

Lens was a much more arresting choice than Metz, anyway. It had been a battlefield through the 16th and 17th centuries but destruction was even more savage in the First World War (when it lost half its population - Vimy Ridge is nearby), and again between 1939 and 1944.

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Much of the town proper was built in the second half of the 19th century to house the miners who worked there until the exhausted coalfields finally closed circa 1990, leaving a vast double cone of spoil - reputedly the largest in Europe, which Unesco declared a ‘cultural site’.

Although a branch of the local university was planted in the abandoned mine offices, Lens only had one other institution, the football stadium, built for a public larger than the entire town’s population; the local team became very prestigious and even beat Arsenal one glorious year.

The Louvre had long nurtured the ambition to plant a mission in the provinces, although the decision to ‘decentralise’ was only taken in May 2003. The primary - explicit - aim was to colonise an otherwise fallow terrain and was only incidentally economic. Once the decision was made, however, events moved quickly. Six towns (including Arras and Valenciennes) were considered for the exercise. Lens was ‘named’ by the then prime minister in November 2004, and the competition for the building launched six weeks later. A shortlist was established quickly and the SANAA team (with whom the New York Studio Imrey Culbert, landscape architect Catherine Mosbach and museographer Adrien Gardère were associated) was chosen. The first stone was laid in December 2009 and three years later, by December 2012, the museum was open to the public.

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In the UK we are familiar with the notion of a museum ‘seeding’ itself - even if more modestly - in the provinces. The Tate Gallery has had branches at St Ives and Liverpool for years and now the Victoria & Albert Museum has handed its Dundee offshoot to another Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma.

At Lens the intention seems to have been loftier than at such British examples or even at Metz - and almost the opposite of Bilbao, where the town’s decline was to be reversed through a spectacularly showy building and a policy of constantly changing exhibitions of new work. Lens enshrines a choice of major masterpieces from the Louvre in its main gallery, the Galerie du Temps, to be diversified every five years; in the other, smaller space, temporary six-monthly thematic exhibitions are planned, for which material will be drawn not only from the Louvre, but also from other collections and museums.

The long, irregular site lies between the town’s two landmarks - the monumental slag heaps and the football stadium - and rises above its surroundings, strung, more or less from east to west over the hogback made by the working of the mine on the southern edge of the town. The five main pavilions stretch over some 300m as a single-story building, transparent at the centre at the north end, opaque everywhere else, presenting a shimmering surface of glass and anodised aluminium, which is applied in standard honeycomb panels. The silvery tonality of the aluminium is echoed by the smooth pale concrete, polished on the interior, transforming that pale grey into a consistent background that enhances the polychromy of the exhibits in the clear but gentle toplight. 

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The schematic rigidity implied by the continuous roofline and the choice of surface is enlivened by the irregularities of the plan: few of the walls are orthogonal to each other, and many are curved - notably all four sides of the entrance hall. Moreover, the floor levels are varied from one pavilion to another, although the idea of a promenade is deliberately avoided by the way the sections are joined to each other at the corners and the visitor percolates from one section to another. The various ancillary functions - reception, shop, offices - are each screened in circular or oval islands in the entrance hall. The cylindrical glass restaurant (still unfinished) stands proud of the main building to the north, by the site entrance, while the administration has a modest separate building on the south edge of the site, some distance from the museum.

At the centre of the entrance hall a circular staircase leads down to the lower ground floor, which houses (besides the cloakrooms and a small auditorium) two other important and integral parts of the museum: the glazed and open ‘reserve’ (where the material is not displayed, but stacked and shelved, although it has also been opened to the public) and another innovation - the laboratory-like restoration workshop.

The centrality of the entrance to the plan divides the accommodation into two wings: to one side is the main gallery museum, its interior clad in the same aluminium panels as the exterior so exhibits may never be hung on, or attached to, the walls. They will always be disposed freely in a more or less temporal sequence, which currently begins with a statue of Gudea, King of Lagash circa 2130BC, and comes to a climax with Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, which commemorates the revolution of 1830. As you wander through the roughly chronological - roughly, because there is no direct sequence - works, you meet such treasures as Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione or the life-size Roman high-relief of Mithras killing the bull (newly restored) from the parent Louvre.

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The other side of the layout is the hall for temporary exhibitions, where the installations are to be more conventional in that each exhibition will have its own ephemeral screening. The current Renaissance exhibition has in its main room Leonado da Vinci’s unfinished and newly cleaned The Virgin and Child with St Anne, facing Titian’s haughty portrait of Francis I.

I mention such paintings only to illustrate that the Louvre really has sent out its best and grandest on this mission. And it seems to have paid off - visitor numbers are well above expectation, in spite of the wretched train service and the absence of the usual amenities from the town; hoteliers and restaurateurs, it seems, are holding back to see how the tourist traffic will grow. And it looks as if it will indeed grow: as the Centre Pompidou revivified the Beaubourg quarter, and the Guggenheim did Bilbao, it now looks as if both Metz and Lens will benefit.

The French, we are told, are hungrier for ‘culture’ than we benighted islanders. Well then. And the cultural mission? That graffito assault earlier this month on Delacroix’ treasure is not just a fleeting news item but one more witness to the magnetic power of the most secluded masterpieces.

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