“There were details like clothing, hairstyles and the fragile objects that hardly ever survive for the archaeologist—musical instruments, bows and arrows, and body ornaments depicted as they were worn. … No amount of stone and bone could yield the kinds of information that the paintings gave so freely.”

― Mary Leakey, Paleoanthropologist

Before there was art, there were cave paintings. Anthropologists have always considered discovering cave paintings as the most significant finds for any group, culture or region. One such discovery was made with the Lascaux cave paintings, stumbled upon accidentally in 1940 by four teenagers and their dog. More than 600 wall paintings adorn the interior walls and ceilings of the Lascaux caves and are the combined effort of many generations, working for over or close to almost two millennia. With continued debate, the age of the paintings is now generally estimated at close to 17,000 years, so it was no surprise when the Lascaux cave was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and preserved in the original pristine beauty and sophistication and hence, are most often regarded as the prime example of upper-palaeolithic art and culture.

Lascaux IV by Snøhetta showcases the most recent replica of the Lascaux cave (Lascaux being the original, Lascaux II and III, the initial replicas). Built artificially as a public museum, along with a visitor centre and supporting installations, it flaunts the brilliance of prehistoric art and the lives of the people who worked on them. With several secondary installations, Lascaux IV also exhibits the preparation work that underwent for creating the elaborative replicas of the original cave that now adorn the galleries of this museum.

Lascaux IV: The International Centre for Cave Art by Snøhetta: Cave meets Concrete - Sheet1
Courtice, 2017_©Dan Courtice

Replicating 17000-year-old Stories

Some genius of the forgotten age once decided to start a tradition that would follow down generations, to make imprints from haematite and charcoal on the jagged and precipitous interiors of a cave in Montignac, France. He, or possibly she, sealed the fate of their entire band of wanderers and hunters the moment they had an epiphany to wander the caves and decorate them with depictions of aurochs, equines, horses and deer. For close to 2000 years, possibly several different bands used to gather at the same spot to finish what the ones before them had started, and meanwhile, exchanging their knowledge, tools and stories to create a shared consciousness about the world around them. Their vision had risen from the desert. Now they say it is a wonder of the prehistoric world.

The cave replica at Lascaux IV is called the Facsimile. Designed and curated carefully to the most minute details to replicate the Lascaux Cave. From the paintings themselves to the texture and down to the climate of the gallery. Everything has been carefully measured, drawn, fabricated and simulated for the best possible replication of the original caves. For anyone walking through the Lascaux cave 17000 years ago, the sight would’ve been breathtaking and almost surreal to behold. The humidity, damp air and stench of fat oil lamps would have filled the cave’s environment, and the rest, by the people of the upper-palaeolithic of that time and age creating stories and shared beliefs.

Lascaux IV: The International Centre for Cave Art by Snøhetta: Cave meets Concrete - Sheet2
Mann, 2017_©Casson Mann

Cave meets Concrete

There is an enigmatic quality in the spaces carved out by Snøhetta. As a result of which Lascaux IV feels monolithic and organic. For example, the orientation zone between exhibitions, where one can feel a singular emotion while standing under the triple-height volume with light leaking from the top, reminding oneself of standing at the bottom of a canyon or an open cave. Similar spaces have readily been modelled by the architect, with remarkable ease and precision. Looking at the floor plan, it becomes apparent how the architect wants the public spaces and forms to flow organically and feel natural and intuitive to guide oneself through them, like a river around a boulder, seamless and unbounded. Chaos and Order seem to be the guiding force behind the effectiveness of the layout. Quite similar to a rock symphony that builds up orderly to the chaotic climax, not even a single space can be defined as simplistic in any manner. Instead, they’re a collective sum of geometrical oddity stitched together by the constant stream of people visiting these spaces.

Lascaux IV: The International Centre for Cave Art by Snøhetta: Cave meets Concrete - Sheet3
Snohetta, 2017_©Snohetta
Lascaux IV: The International Centre for Cave Art by Snøhetta: Cave meets Concrete - Sheet4
Snohetta, 2017_©Snohetta

Scenographic Hues 

The scenography of Lascaux IV speaks volumes about the setting, the surrounding landscape, and the story of Lascaux as a whole. The exceedingly neo-modern approach to forms and materiality creates a metaphoric bridge that connects one to the 14000 years worth of history in less than 1400 paces of an experiential journey starting from the terrace of the visitor centre and ending in the final orientation zone. Everything that lies in the between is a story that one lives. The contrasting hues of the colourful landscape with the monotonic linear geometry, which is sculpted in concrete, sits together perfectly, complementing each other and bringing out the best of both ends of the spectrum. The playful approach to light and shadow and the stark contrast of geometry amongst the forms of Lascaux IV feels out of place from the surrounding town, yet somehow acts like the final piece of a puzzle that fits flawlessly, and suddenly everything makes sense.

Boegly + Grazia photographers, 2017_©Boegly + Grazia

References:

Courtice, D. (2017). Lascaux IV / Snøhetta + Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture. [Digital] Available at: https://images.adsttc.com/media/images/58e2/4906/e58e/ceae/b200/060b/large_jpg/2012119_OS_N232.jpg?1491224833 [Accessed 20 Nov. 2021].

snohetta.com. (n.d.). Lascaux IV: The International Centre for Cave Art. [online] Available at: https://snohetta.com/projects/322-lascaux-iv-the-international-centre-for-cave-art

Mann, C. (2017). [Digital] Available at: https://images.adsttc.com/media/images/58e2/4798/e58e/ceae/b200/05fb/large_jpg/2012119_OS_N250.jpg?1491224468 [Accessed 20 Nov. 2021].

‌Snohetta (2017). Floor Plan. [Digital] Available at: https://images.adsttc.com/media/images/58e2/4a70/e58e/ceae/b200/060f/large_jpg/2012119_OS_N215.jpg?1491225194 [Accessed 21 Nov. 2021].

‌Snohetta (2017). The orientation zone. [Digital] Available at: https://snohetta.com/projects/322-lascaux-iv-the-international-centre-for-cave-art [Accessed 19 Nov. 2021].

Boegly + Grazia photographers (2017). Lascaux IV / Snøhetta + Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture. [Digital] Available at: https://images.adsttc.com/media/images/58e2/47f5/e58e/ce48/a300/0318/large_jpg/2012119_OS_N307.jpg?1491224560 [Accessed 21 Nov. 2021].

Author

Priyansh is a multi-disciplinary architect + designer. A creative nerd who gets geeky about art would jump at the chance to skydive and in another life would like to travel the world practising Jiu-Jitsu.

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