The New Louvre-Lens

The New Louvre-Lens

It’s a shock to see the names Louvre and Lens side by side. The Louvre needs no introduction but, unless you’ve lived in France, you are unlikely to have heard of Lens. Situated deep in the coal-mining country of the Pas de Calais département in northern France, Lens’s only claim to fame has so far been its soccer team, France’s national champions in 1998. That year, Lens’s 41,650-seat stadium—a capacity larger than the town’s entire population—played host to the World Cup; it was a short-lived glory, and the team has since dropped to Second Division.

Reduced to a heap of ruins during World War I, and plagued with massive unemployment following the gradual closure of the mines, in 2000 Lens also lost its only cinema, the Art Deco Apollo Theater, where Josephine Baker had once performed. In short, the Second Division soccer team was all Lens had left to hang on to other than the unenviable national poverty record held by its département, the Pas de Calais.

But on December 4, 2012, the new Louvre annex in Lens was inaugurated, bringing with it new hopes and prospects. The date was chosen for a symbolic reason: it’s the feast day of Saint Barbe, the patron saint of miners.

Taking a cue from Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, which replaced the city’s metal industry as an economic engine, and following the Pompidou Center-Metz in Lorraine, with some half-million visitors per year since its 2010 opening, the directors of the Louvre-Lens are targeting similar numbers and hoping to regenerate the region’s economy.

Saint Barbe’s Day

The project was launched in 2003. Strangely, the Nord-Pas de Calais was the only region that responded to the Ministry of Culture’s tender for the proposed annex. President Jacques Chirac selected Lens because: a) the city had an available nearly 50-acre site within walking distance of the railway station; b) it’s centrally situated within the distressed region; c) it has excellent rail connections, and is only an hour from Paris on the TGV; and d) it had no museums. The response among ordinary people in the region, however, was mitigated. Some €88 million of the €150-million project will be supported by the region—taxpayers’ money that local people thought could be better spent. But on Saint Barbe’s Day 2012 they visited the new museum in droves, and celebrated it after nightfall with a display of fireworks and, it’s said, some 600 tons of French fries.

Architects worldwide were immediately more enthusiastic, and sent in more than 120 applications. The project chosen was that of the Japanese SANAA agency, whose principals, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, won the coveted Pritzker Prize in 2010 and are currently engineering the conversion of Paris department store La Samaritaine.

In Lens they carried minimalism to the extreme, producing a luminous masterpiece of glass and aluminum so transparent it looks as if it might disintegrate and melt into air. The aim was to open up the building to the outside and bring in the light, creating a seamless continuity between inside and out, between the museum and the recreation park surrounding it. Vestiges of a former mine have been integrated into the landscape—the haulage routes, for example, are now the park’s winding paths.

From the inside looking out, the museum countryside and its mining past—rows of little red brick houses and two UNESCO-listed slag heaps that look like dark twin volcanoes. The structure itself is simple, basically a succession of boxes with subtly curved walls that create a fluid effect. Two rectangular wings run in opposite directions from the central hall, which contains La Grande Galerie, the backbone of the museum, and a smaller gallery for temporary exhibitions.

Seducing the audience

Adjoining them are the Glass Pavilion and an auditorium, La Scène. From above, the box-like sections look like glistening pieces of a domino game, delicately floating on the fragile soil above the town. Henri Loyrette, the Louvre’s President and CEO, insists that this is “the new wing of the Louvre”, the latest in the long succession of wings grafted onto the illustrious monument over the centuries, starting with the original medieval fortress (now part of the Sully Wing) and ending—until now—with the museum’s underground entrance beneath I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid.

Now the far-flung “wing” in Lens carries over the transparency of the Pyramid, a transparency that’s also conceptually driven. In order to embrace and seduce the audience, nothing is hidden from the eye, whether it is the “bubbles” in the main hall (one of which contains the bookshop) or the glass-walled conservation area and restoration workshops down in the basement. Lens is probably the only museum anywhere that offers visitors continuous behind-the-scene views.

The 32,300-square-foot Grande Galerie—long and narrow at 393 ft by 82 ft—provides a single, uninterrupted space awash in natural light filtering through the perforated aluminum ceiling, with more diffused light reflected by the polished aluminum walls. The effect is glorious, everything shining and white, enhanced by the blurry reflections of artworks and visitors on the walls.

All the works on display come from the Louvre’s collection. The initial selection is scheduled for five years, with a yearly rotation of about 20% of the content. Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People, for example, will be replaced after the first year. The rotations will take place on December 4, to keep the symbolic date alive.

The first theme chosen for this semipermanent collection is time, so for the next five years the Grande Galerie is also La Galerie du Temps. From the entrance, visitors journey through some 5,000 years of art history, starting around 3,500 BC and ending around 1850 (the cutoff date for the Louvre itself, beyond which the French national art collection takes up at the Musée d’Orsay).

Delighting the eye

Along the route are 205 sculptures, paintings, drawings and other works of art—each magnificent on its own and all magnificently displayed on freestanding plinths or in roomlike clusters of panels. The eye delights in the eclectic choices, representing all the Louvre’s departments and all the periods, territories and techniques in its collections—ancient sculptures, Roman mosaics, Islamic ceramics and paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco, Goya, Georges de La Tour and so many others—including Fragonard’s famous portrait of Diderot, which recently made headlines when, after all these years, it turned out not to be Diderot.

Da Vinci and Dürer

Unlike the Paris Louvre, where works are confined to their respective departments, the uninterrupted space here makes it possible to compare and confront works from different eras and civilizations, an innovative approach reflecting our increasingly globalized society.

Somewhat smaller—19,400 sq ft and 262 ft x 74 ft—the temporary exhibition gallery will host two shows every year. The first, The Renaissance: Revolution in European Arts 1400–1530, illustrates once more the desire to bring down barriers and explore art horizontally. With over 250 artworks organized around 13 themes, it embraces all the revolutionary and innovative aspects of the Renaissance. The Mona Lisa didn’t make the trip to Lens, but Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin, the Infant Jesus and Saint Anne is a superb substitute. Botticelli’s Venus looks ravishing after three years of restoration, just for this exhibit. Dürer’s Triumphal Arch of Emperor Maximilian I, a single monumental image divided into 191 woodcuts, each nearly 9 ft high, is usually presented in separate albums but is assembled here on one wall.

These and all the other gems on display dispel the fears that Louvre-Lens might be a poor man’s version of the one in Paris. Furthermore, the subject matter of future temporary exhibitions aims to place Louvre-Lens in the center of Europe, with hopes it will draw international visitors, especially from near neighbors Britain, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and Germany. Scheduled for summer 2013: Rubens and Europe.

Day tripping

The temporary exhibit schedule is also set in collaboration with the region’s plethora of excellent museums—there are 46 in the Nord-Pas de Calais—and samples of their collections will be displayed in the temporary exhibitions and in the Glass Pavilion. Rather than compete with the surrounding area’s museums, it is hoped that Louvre-Lens will serve as a new spearhead for the mutual benefit of all.

Beyond culture and education, museums today are an economic venture, generating jobs and tourist traffic. Thanks to its central position in northwest Europe, the quick and easy access from neighboring countries and major cities—not least Brussels and London—is likely to add to its appeal. There is every reason to believe that the Guggenheim effect will take off.

The city’s hotel infrastructure is also being improved—among the projects underway is the conversion of the Art Deco Apollo Theater. For the time being, with Lens only an hour from Paris on the TGV and the new museum’s pleasant scale, a visit can be handled in a leisurely day trip. Many might prefer it to the exhausting queues outside Pei’s Pyramid and the overcrowded, noisy atmosphere underneath. Here’s wishing the Louvre-Lens a grand future. Let’s hope it won’t become a victim of its own success.

Practical information: Rue Paul Bert or Rue Georges Bernanos,

Opening times: Open daily except Tuesdays, from 10 am to 6 pm (to 10 pm on the first Friday of the month except July and August)

Entry fee €9; Free admission to the Grande Galerie and Pavillon de Verre through 2013

Thirza Vallois is the author of several books on Paris and France. Find them in the France Today Bookstore

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of France Today

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