The world’s most visited museum, the Musée du Louvre, has been attracting cultural pilgrims to Paris since the French Revolution. Responding to a call for decentralisation by culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon in 2003, Louvre director Henri Loyrette and colleagues decided to turn some of the traffic Guggenheimishly in the opposite direction and establish satellites at remote sites. Outreach to new audiences is always constructive, but centrifugal movement on the part of France’s cultural patrimony is no simple matter, it requires new ideas about museography and new buildings worthy of carrying the Louvre’s name.

In Lens, a city of some 250,000 in the département of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, a Franco-Japanese-American collaborative effort has produced an elegant, thoughtful design for the museum’s first branch. The Louvre-Lens, scheduled to open in 2012, has a chance to make good on political promises to repay a hard-bitten coal mining region, one whose contributions to the national wealth over many decades have come at substantial human and environmental cost. Putting its signature qualities of transparency, reflection, and restraint to constructive use, SANAA (along with partners Imrey Culbert and Catherine Mosbach Paysagistes) is giving the curators a well-tuned instrument for their programme and giving local residents a facility as purposeful as it is prestigious.

Reaching out, not down

Lens is a city of abandoned mines, battlefields, cemeteries and ecological damage. Many residents look to the Louvre-Lens as the key to the city’s redevelopment into a regional centre akin to Lille; express-train visitors will see art in a fresh context; locals will find the structure welcoming, inclusive, and resistant to the condescension that can accompany cosmopolitan/provincial contacts. The design team, working with museum staff and regional officials as dual clients, took pains to understand their audience. Education, accessibility, and respect for local memory are high priorities.

“The Louvre-Lens has a chance to make good on political promises to repay a hard-bitten coal mining region.”

The project expresses “a continuity of experience between exterior and interior,” says SANAA’s project architect Louis-Antoine Grégo. The Louvre-Lens sits on a former colliery pithead, now reclaimed by nature as a few anomalous acres amid urban density. Nearby, pyramidal slag heaps form what Grégo calls “huge artificial mountains”.

The site is elevated a few metres above colonne worker housing. Recognising that it rests on the product of the town’s industrial history, the single-storey museum joins its neighbours instead of towering over them.

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Keeping good company

SANAA’s global reputation rests substantially on its museum work. While sensitive to the particularities of each site and brief, SANAA has implemented consistent features: minimalist materiality, exceptional control of details, finely controlled use of light. The Louvre-Lens indicates this lineage confidently. Joining discrete box volumes at the corners, while softening orthogonal rigour with curved exterior walls, the building suggests riverboats nudging each other, bows to sterns, discrete yet connected.

The emphasis on continuities also applies to the blend of insiders and newcomers driving the project. Media coverage has focused largely on SANAA, but their partners Celia Imrey and Tim Culbert, who punch above their weight in prestigious collaborations, also did considerable heavy lifting. Landscape architect Catherine Mosbach brought sensitivity to the site’s industrial history and the dialectic between human uses and natural elements; Arup Lighting’s Andrew Sedgwick contributed extensive major-museum experience.

When French officials selected Lens to host the branch, Imrey and Culbert reassembled an old partnership with SANAA, reasoning that a spare aesthetic would contrast usefully with the competition. “We knew from the politics and knowing people in France that Zaha Hadid was a huge favourite for the Louvre,” says Imrey. “The Louvre, in its excess, is Zaha…. So when we were thinking, ‘Who can we partner with?’ we thought it could only work if we picked the exact opposite… the “anti-Louvre”, a completely other kind of Louvre, that’s so ‘other’ that they realise they have to have it.”

This Equipe SANAA proposal made the shortlist alongside Hadid and Rudy Ricciotti, then took first prize. With the region and city providing most of the funding and the central museum providing artistic guidance, Grégo describes the process as “a full collaboration” aimed at integrating the building into its community.

Clarification on reflection

The transparent entrance foyer, a space accessible from all four sides, maximises horizon views from within while, from without, curving façades create perspectives in which the five main pavilions (two transparent and three reflective) dissolve into the landscape. The building becomes an instrument for modulating views of natural space, not an intervention interrupting it.

“Many residents look to the Louvre-Lens as the key to the city’s redevelopment into a regional centre akin to Lille.”

Mosbach describes the plan as an inversion of the arrangement during mining operations. “The mining cities were turned to face the carreaux des mines (charcoal extract entrances) where people were working.

The splitting comes from the territories’ division by the infrastructures that were linking together the carreaux des mines, but which, at the same time, divided the territory by clearing elevations. Everything was done to keep the populations there for working, education and leisure.” Now, she says, “these cavaliers (rider seams) are rehabilitated as access paths shaped as soft links that join the populations of the suburban cities to the museum.”

Her plan includes almost no roadway, keeps parking away from the museum, and compels visitors to walk from the train station across the landscape, with long paths creating “a multiplier effect of the seating of the museum in its park”. Vegetation comes right to the edge of the building, with no intervening hardscape; grounds work mixes minerals and plants, emphasising fluidity in materials and movements. The nature / artifice border blurs and even before a visitor views any art, the building has begun training the eye.

In the same way, the inaugural exhibition will eliminate departmental separation entirely: a 120m-long Galerie du Temps displays 2,000 years’ worth of cultural productions along a single timeline. “Let’s say you’re at the point [of] 200 years after Jesus Christ,” says Grégo; “at the same time, you would be able to see what was happening in Japan, in the Netherlands, in Egypt, in France, and everywhere at the same time.” A Pavillon de Verre at the far end of the Galerie du Temps will present special themed exhibitions and contemporary works.

Open spaces, open collections, open connections

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of what Imrey calls “an unfolded Louvre” is that it opens up back-of-house activities, such as storage and restoration, to public view.

“The Louvre Lens opens up back-of-house activities, such as storage and restoration, to public view.”

The Introductory Gallery exposes a lower-level glass-enclosed space, demystifying curatorial activities. Equipe SANAA has emphasised didactic features for the general public, including generous civic space in the centre pavilion on the public side of the paid admission point. This design addresses the critical question for cultural infrastructure outside major cities: “If you build it, will they come?” Officials in Lille are betting heavily on local support. The Euralille precedent, says Imrey, helped secure the branch museum, a “daisy chain” connecting northern France to the other cultural cities of Northern Europe.

“You get a new Louvre Paris as well as a new Lens,” she adds, “because you have to rethink what the Louvre Paris is once you’ve gone to Lens.” The relation between cultural capitals and outlying areas thus changes: a place long defined by a filthy extractive industry will soon be associated with SANAA’s clean forms, assuming a role within a network of sophisticated post-industrial cities. A museum of this calibre is not the only factor in this type of urban evolution, but building it here is a step toward integrating France’s artistic heritage with the full range of its human and natural treasures.