The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
A journey to the new Louvre, in Lens, northern France, requires one to travel through the landscape in which it is situated, known as the bassin minier (mining area). It is a 12 mile wide band running 120 miles east west. It was mined for coal over a period of 300 years, the last of the pits closing in 1990. The most imposing remains of this industrial past, visible even to those who are simply whizzing past by car or train, are the huge terrils (slag heaps) dotted across the area. They come in a wonderful array of shapes, sizes and colours. A classic example would be a dark grey cone, but some have flat tops, others are long and narrow, some are entirely greened over. They create a distinct horizon in this otherwise flat part of the country, and render visible deep timeless geology, reminding us that we have made our civilization from what we have found in the ground. Other remains are everywhere: mine shafts; machinery; infill lakes; workers housing; schools; churches. In 2012 this fascinating landscape, considered a very complete example of coal mining and its associated urban planning, was given UNESCO world heritage status.
The new Louvre sits in a 20 hectare park on the site of an old mine. In this short essay I wish to focus on this park, designed by the landscape architect Catherine Mosbach, in close collaboration with SANAA, the architects of the museum. The park is the space that makes the connection between this revered cultural institution and the surrounding de-industrialised landscape.
This exterior space is composed of the ground (and all that is fixed to it or planted in it); the facades of the buildings; the sky; and the views across and beyond the site to the horizon. On the two afternoons that I spent there (one sunny, one rainy), I felt that the combined effect of these elements was quite magical. I felt that it had stories to tell, about geology, industry, time and place. The simple volumes of the museum, low enough that one can see the treetops beyond, have a quiet, unimposing presence. The façades alternate between transparent and reflective surfaces; that constantly blur the limit between inside and outside. We are either offered a view right through the building including all the people and activities inside, or a fuzzy reflection of the park, the horizon and the sky. Perhaps what I am trying to say is that if the park is attempting to make a place for the museum, the museum also seems to create a space for the park.
The paths leading to the museum follow the old haulageways that connected the mine to the main rail network. While the old tracks have disappeared (we walk along smooth white concrete) the paths seem to carry the atmosphere of old railway lines; running through woods and past the back gardens of red brick terraced houses; raised up on embankments or low down in cuttings. Whether one arrives by a low path or a high path, it is apparent that the park is on a plateau, five or six metres higher than the surrounding area. The site is in fact a flattened slag heap.
The glass and aluminium volumes that form the museum are strung loosely across the centre of the park; one has to cross the landscape to enter the building. A clover meadow gives way to a rougher surface of stony earth being gradually greened over by pioneer species and wild grasses. The entire park is dotted with low, crescent shaped grassy mounds; that recall, without recreating miniatures, the terrils in the landscape around. Oval shaped concrete platforms dotted in the grass alongside the concrete paths get denser eventually merging to form a plaza in front of the museum entrance. This in turn is dotted with uneven rings sandblasted into its surface, and now being colonized by grasses and other small plants. In fact the uneven circle is the defining element of the landscape, even the galvanised steel ventilation grills on the ground have been cut into rounded shapes. This loose patchwork of concrete, rough earth, grasses, wildflowers and mounds forms a richly textured surface that contrasts with the ethereal quality of the architecture.
Up close the building reveals a geometry more complex than one might have first noticed. The façades are almost imperceptibly concave in plan, creating a gentle distortion in perspective that softens the austerity of the volumes. The rectilinear geometry that organizes the exterior massing gives way inside to a fluid organization of circles and curves. Within the glazed entrance volume all the functional spaces (library, café, shop…) are pulled away from the façade, delimited by curved glass. These interior walls reflect the park outside, reinforcing the presence of the landscape within the building.
The park is not a perfect space; there are occasional cracks in the concrete and the lighting (translucent bollards with clumsy black plastic bases screwed into the ground) appears ill thought out. But these elements can be repaired or replaced, and their imperfection does not detract from the atmosphere or meaning conveyed within the landscape. The craft of the architect or the landscape architect goes beyond ensuring perfect execution; it lies in the ability to compose materials and spaces in a way that creates some kind of meaning beyond their own existence.
The park immediately struck me as an abstraction of the wider landscape with which it sits. The mines and slag heaps dotted across this part of the country follow the invisible logic of geology. In a similar way, the new park lets itself be structured around the elements already present - the railway tracks, a mine shaft entrance, black locust trees… The park was imagined from the outset as a continuation of the museum, it has become a museum in its own right, telling the story of the landscape and history of the bassin minier.
1 September 2014