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Louvre Lens museum
Photo Iwan Baan © Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA, Tim Culbert +Celia Imrey / IMREY CULBERT, Catherine Mosbach

Louvre Lens museum

SANAA / Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa as Architects

« Louvre-Lens… Two names separated by a hyphen.


One part is the Louvre, a palace that has followed closely the history of France since the middle ages. The Louvre, which became a museum in the middle of the French revolution and quickly became a model, the museum of museums, as it was often referred to in the 19th century.


The other half of the expression: Lens, in the heart of a coal region, a city that has been through all manner of crises and wars, a city located in what is now the youngest region of France, the Nord-Pas de Calais, a region reputed for its exceptional cultural vitality and the density of its museum networks. Lens, ideally situated at the crossroads of Europe, near Belgium, Great Britain and Germany. Lens, its face cast resolutely toward the future.


Lens, the Louvre: two names connected from now on, nearly merged, and called upon to fulfill a common destiny to serve the public, art and beauty. This superb idea was conceived in 2003 and today has become a reality. This dream takes root in the early calling of the Louvre, which was conceived during the French revolution as a national museum whose collections and expertise serve the entire nation. Even at the start of the 19th century, Chaptal evoked that «sacred portion» the Louvre should give to the regions. We wanted to think of this new museum as a renewal and revivification of the bicentennial tradition bolstering the Louvre’s national cultural mission by rotating in treasures of the Parisian palace for exhibitions.


The Minister of Culture put out a tender for sites throughout France: of all the regions, only Nord-Pas de Calais responded as a candidate, offering five cities, from among which Lens ultimately was selected by the President of the Republic. More than one hundred twenty candidates from the world over participated in the architectural design competition. The project selected in September, 2005 was that submitted by the Japanese architect SANAA, offering a decidedly contemporary building of glass and light that was both easily accessible and close to the ground, in harmony with the charming and fragile land of the site. The result is before us, exceeding our initial hopes and expectations. The Louvre-Lens is a place of beauty, a source of pride. After having seen it on paper and dreamed of it so long, with Daniel Percheron, the President of the Nord-Pas de Calais region, I can unreservedly state that, now in its material state, it is in my view one of the architectural masterpieces of the new millennium. It is a contemporary Louvre, built around a central pavilion, with wings, as is the Parisian palace. It is a contemporary Louvre, which subtly and delicately takes possession of the site, a magnificent piece of landscaping conceived and built by Catherine Mosbach.


The establishment of the Louvre-Lens is an opportunity for the Louvre to rethink its vocation, to consider its collections and to step outside of its walls and look at itself from a little distance. An opportunity to experiment with things that are not possible within the restricted envelope and organization of the Paris location.


It is also an opportunity to test our social and artistic missions on new ground, emphasizing the importance of mediation. This is why the collections will be exhibited temporarily and across the board, unlike what in Paris is separated into departments, schools and techniques. In sum, the Louvre-Lens is a museum of the 21st century, a museum that assumes all of its roles, artistic, social and educational; a museum that brings to light what is normally hidden and relies on the most modern information techniques. This « other » Louvre, this museum of glass and light, set deftly atop a former mine works, Shaft 9-9b of Lens, is not simply an annex of the Louvre, it is the Louvre itself. It is the Louvre in all its dimensions and all its components, in its geographic and chronological breadth, a universal museum. An amalgam in harmony offering new possibilities to visitors, such as going behind the scenes to find out about all the facets and professions of a museum, observing the restoration of art works in progress, going into the storage areas, understanding the guiding principles of conservation and museography.


The way the works are exhibited is also totally unprecedented. The Galerie du Temps, the backbone of the Louvre-Lens, displays that « long and visible progression of humanity », which for Charles Péguy characterizes the Louvre, providing new keys to understanding for visitors. It is another manner of discovering the works, which closely spaced and decategorized, opens a different channel to the world’s methods. The Louvre-Lens is the new wing of the Louvre where everything is possible. This is a chance for Lens, but also for the Louvre. An opportunity to shine and for renewal. A museum in the city, a place for enjoyment in the heart of Europe that exhibits and explains masterpieces from the past to help us understand the present and to imagine the future.


When I entered the world of museums thirty five years ago, they opened in the morning and closed at night, where involving visitors was scarcely a priority. Since then, museums have undergone considerable change, in their architecture, in their museography, but above all in the development of their vocation. Naturally, conservation and increasing collections remain the fundamental pursuits, but issues that were before considered only superficially or not at all, such as physical and intellectual accessibility are now core considerations. Now a museum must not only receive visitors who come to it spontaneously, but it must also take in hand those who, living apart from cultural experience, perceive it as removed and inaccessible. It must revisit the past, but it must also elicit the desire for contemporary creation and perspective, it must incorporate the latest developments, adapt to emerging new audiences and to the emergence and propagation of new technologies.


In this, museums take on a social and educational role, and their message must reach both the connoisseur and the neophyte, the child and the erudite, the foreigner and the man on the street. Museums are no longer a world apart, timeless or concentrated solely on times long past. They participate in the life of a city, its economic development, its tourism, sustainable development processes and they play an artistic, social and educational role. All of these considerations, these ambitions, these dreams guided us in creating the Louvre- Lens. The future of the Louvre is now in Lens. »


Louvre Lens

Musée du Louvre-Lens as Other

A PARK MUSEUM Providing a huge exterior area for a museum is an integral part of the Louvre project in the regions. The Louvre-Lens, designed in close coordination between architects and landscapers, presents an unprecedented relationship and dialog between the museum and the landscaped setting surrounding it. This porous relationship between architecture and setting is often reflected in the term «Park Museum». Despite its impressive size, the museum is harmoniously and subtly embedded into its surroundings, the former coal mine taken over by nature, whose fragile beauty and entire breadth have been preserved.


»» The Architectural Design The choice of placing the museum on a former mine illustrates the intent of the museum to participate in the conversion of the mining area, while retaining the richness of its industrial past. The Louvre-Lens site is located on 20 hectares of wasteland that was once a major coal mine and has since been taken over by nature since its closing in 1960. The land presents some slight elevation, the result of excess fill from the mine.


The Japanese architects from SANAA, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa wanted to avoid creating a dominating fortress, opting instead for a low, easily accessible structure that integrates into the site without imposing on it by its presence. The structure is made up of five building of steel and glass. There are four rectangles and one large square with slightly curved walls whose angles touch. It is reminiscent of the Louvre palace, with its wings laid almost flat. The architects wanted to bring to mind boats on a river coming together to dock gently with each other. The facades are in polished aluminum, in which the park is reflected, ensuring continuity between the museum and the surrounding landscape. The roofs are partially in glass, reflecting a particular advantage to bringing in light, both for exhibiting the works and for being able to the sky from inside the building. Natural light is controlled by means of a concealment device in the roof and interior shades forming the ceiling. Designed as an answer to the vaulted ceiling, the surface retains in its light the change of seasons, hours and exhibitions.


The entire structure of 28,000 square meters extends over 360 meters long from one end of a central foyer in transparent glass to the other. The buildings located to the East of the entrance - the Grande Galerie and the Glass Pavilion - primarily house the Louvre’s collections. To the West of the entrance is the temporary exhibition gallery and La Scène, a vast «new generation» auditorium, whose programs are in direct relation with the exhibitions.


The museum also includes a large, invisible, two level space, buried deep in fill from the site. This space will be dedicated to service functions for the public, but will also be used for storage and logistical functions of the museum. Two independent buildings house the administrative services, to the South, and a restaurant, to the North, thus establishing a link between the museum, the park and the city.


»» THE LANDSCAPING DESIGN The park is an essential component of the museum’s identity and it helps to make a visit to Louvre-Lens an enriching and wide reaching experience. It combines a diversity of places and fixtures, to include a forecourt, a clearing, pasture areas, grasslands, terrace, a small lake, a pioneer forest, gardens, paths and an esplanade, serving a variety of functions:


• Orient and guide visitors to the museum. From the station, the various parking lots and the surroundings, featuring no fewer than 11 entrances into the park, will guide visitors along walking paths to the museum entrances.


• Extend the museum outside of its walls, through cultural and show events such as concerts, screenings and shows. The museum park is set up to be able to greet a large group of people, especially the North esplanade and the meadow to the East of the park.


• Promote the adoption of the museum by all inhabitants of Lens and its region: The park is also intended to be a place for life, relaxation and leisure. A nearby garden, ideal for walks and meeting up with neighbors.


The park will furthermore provide a strong link between the museum, the city and the surrounding territory: This place has been designed to highlight the memory and history associated with the site. The designers used the vestiges of the mining operations on the site, known as « Shaft number 9 » for inspiration. Thus the paths follow the course of former paths, rails that linked the pits to the station for moving coal dug out of the mine. The historical site and mine entrance have also been preserved and incorporated as benchmark elements of the project.


From the park, the qualities of the entire territory hold the place of honor through view points over the urban landscape and distant horizons. Vegetation also received particular attention through the preservation of rare species on site and planting of native species as well as non-native plants, intended to set the conditions for a sustainable landscaped environment that infuses the museum with long-term vitality. Access to the park is free of charge and it will be open outside of museum hours. Work on the park was completed through a gift by Veolia Environment.


»» Presentation of the project by SANAA architects: Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa


« In keeping with a desire to maintain the openness of the site and to reduce the ascendancy of this large project, the building was broken down into several spaces. Through their size and layout, which follow the gradual changes in terrain elevation, the buildings achieve balance with the scale of the site and the shape of the paths, landscape features evoking its mining history. In order to visually and physically open up the site, the main glassed area features a hollow in the core of the building. This delicate glass box serves as an entry hall to the museum and is a genuine public space for the city of Lens. It is transparent and opens up to several directions of the site, and it can be crossed through to get to different quarters of the city.


The project avoids the strict, rectilinear shapes that would have conflicted with the subtle character of the site, as well as of free shapes that would have been overly restrictive from the perspective of the museum’s internal operations. The slight inflection of the spaces is in tune with the long curved shape of the site and creates a subtle distortion of the inner areas while maintaining a graceful relationship with the artwork. The spaces are contained by a façade of anodized, polished aluminum that reverts a blurred and fuzzy image of the sites contours, reflections that change as one strolls by depending on the landscaping and available light. The main exhibition buildings flank the entry hall, the Grande Galerie on one side and the temporary exhibition hall on the other. The entrance hall leads to a lower level that contains storage space and artwork restoration areas. The museum thus opens its rear areas to the public.


In the park, two free standing buildings house the administration offices and the restaurant, linking the museum to the city. The entry to the museum is located at the center of the former pit and is the historical access to the site, rising gently from Paul Bert street. The transparent areas in the building provide views of the surrounding wood and the city of Lens. This entry point provides a perspective of the entire building and of the panorama over the park reflected in the glass and aluminum surfaces. The entry area was designed as a void that is part of the landscape and visible from everywhere. It takes in visitors arriving at the museum from the main North entrance, as well as from the grassy areas to the East and the wood from the West. This large, transparent area of 68.5 X 58.5 meters is an ample space within which diverse functional areas exist for the museum’s visitors. There is a bookshop, a cafeteria for meeting friends, a place to obtain information about the exhibitions; or one can simply cross the hall to go from one side or the other of the park or the site. The glass «bubbles» are 3 meters high and seem to float within the interior of the hall. They are primarily for publicrelated functions and provide areas for individual experiences.»


Access to the first lower level of the building is at the center of the hall, inciting visitors to enter the art storage area and the services area containing washrooms and dressing rooms. Also on the first lower level may be found the group meeting area, providing a specific greeting location without interfering with the normal flow of individual visitors. Staff areas have their own entrance and are located in the center of the museum, also on the first lower level. The sitting room is located to the south of the hall, in one of the glass bubbles. Although it is closely connected to all museum activities, it is still a more intimate space apart. The floor of the hall is a layer of concrete with a light colored finish.


Slim steel columns painted white support the metallic roof structure. Openings overhead reflect the geometric themes present in the hall, to the right of openings in the slab that direct light to the lower level. The ceiling is covered with sheets of perforated aluminum of a very light color, reflecting natural light and drifting over the entire underside. The facades are large, full-height glass bays that are double insulated. A system of roll-down shades provides protection from the sun.


»» Presentation by Catherine Mosbach « From as far as the view carries from the four horizons of the Loos-en-Gohelle hills, visitors follow the former paths under locust trees. The Louvre-Lens museum park occupies a horizontal hillock resulting from the storage of mining operations waste that attains elevations of up to 4 meters above the adjoining « garden cities ». The terrain is joined to the four points of the compass over several kilometers by what remains of the paths: rail infrastructure installed for transporting coal to stations and ports. Through this the Museum Park profoundly irrigates the surrounding land, just as the garden cities naturally come up through these gentle paths to the threshold of the Louvre-Lens exhibition galleries. Here is where rhythms oscillate between light and shade contrasts of the forest edge and the glare of the clearings. The vectors of the five principal paths wind through the parallel to visitor service routes. Alongside the main routes, which are direct paths, an array of smaller paths invite people to less purposeful strolls, slower paths, to visit the garden and the flat show areas.


The oblong shape of the park that traces its industrial goods flow logic softened the way the land was landscaped. The abandoned railways were the first enclaves for vegetation to flourish, resulting in a volunteer forest to the west and flora and fauna laden corridors on the borders of overgrown pathways. The critical mass of this spontaneous, flourishing vegetation as well as that of the adjoining garden cities is a major advantage for this urban setting. What was needed was to connect the original vegetative vitality to the attractiveness of the terrain and the cultural dynamics of the museum itself, to the show platforms and the gentle slopes of the paths that are a vestige of the mining base. In other words, the park revives the living memory the cycle of plant materials to coal transformed into an economic resource, then in inverse symmetry, from coal to plants that becomes an heritage resource.


Among the reception facilities are rest areas, hemmed grassy areas around relaxation spots on the forecourt, or monoliths in hollows backing silt garden beds. These provide picnic locations, pedagogic aids associated with the temporary gallery exhibition, memorial gardens calling to mind the plant to coal cycle or simply nearby green spaces with full southern exposure. The area of the cleared park is anchored by prairie formations surrounded by wood borders: high grassy fields going from East to West peppered with mown grass avenues, miniature gardens near the residential quarters, grassy couches and mossy halos near the center, a cortege of young plants everywhere as undergrowth.


The contours of the project mix exterior with interior, open to the paths of the populations like the work of time, water, vegetation, forming to produce landscaped areas and the work of people in real time. This is neither a public park nor a peri-urban forest: It is a museum in a regenerating natural park. »


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