“MAKING ART ACCESSIBLE TO ALL”. With this intention in mind, in 2003, the Louvre decided to create a new, off-site museum – an ‘away-from-base’ Louvre, where an innovative approach could be developed from scratch.

Lens, an old mining town in northern France, which suffered heavily during both world wars was chosen as the ideal location. It represented a new responsibility for an age-old museum: committing to a region’s socio-economic revival through culture and education.

The design, first conceived as part of an international competition in 2006, was created by SANAA, a Japanese firm led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Some features of their work are simplicity and transparency with minimal interventions, where every element contributes to the experience of the space. The material choices and the joining of two different materials all play an important role in the over-all result. 

Louvre Lens Museum by SANAA -Sheet1
Louvre-Lens, mine becomes museum_©Inexhibit

The museum is placed on a former mine to participate in the conversion of the mining area, without losing the richness of its industrial past. The contoured site guided the division and staggering of the long museum into five different parts- which also allows for more visibility to the outside. 

A 20-acre wasteland that was formerly a coal mine before the 1960s now houses the 360-meter-long steel and glass building. From one end of a translucent glass central foyer to the other, the complete 28,000 square meter structure stretches over 360 meters. The Louvre’s contents are mostly kept in two structures to the east of the entrance: the Grande Galerie and the Glass Pavilion. The temporary exhibition gallery and La Scène, a large new-generation theatre featuring activities directly related to the exhibitions, are located to the west of the entrance. The museum also has a sizable, unseen, two-level chamber that is submerged deep within the site’s fill. This area will be used for service activities for the public but will also house the storage and logistic functions of the museum.

Louvre Lens Museum by SANAA -Sheet2
Louvre-Lens plan_©arquitecturaviva.com

When the architects visited the site, they were inspired by not only the landscape but also the quality of the soft natural light that this region received. The light is diffused, which inspired creating something that could emphasize the light and blend into this environment.

The exterior of aluminium and glass creates a blur reflection of the museum in its surroundings- the land and the cloudy sky. It makes it seem as if it’s caught moving with the changing atmosphere. Not just the weather, but also the position of the spectator greatly impacts the view of the museum. While the metal stands out against the softness of the site, this reflection creates a notion of it fitting in. The sharp intersection of two polished aluminium walls at the corners creates multiple reflections and shadows making it difficult to distinguish which one is real and which one is virtual. 

The aluminium wall, at its junction with the glass wall, seems to continue inside the space because of its reflection. This illusion is however broken due to the reflection of the sky above the walls in the closed space. The exterior does not aim to hint at, or hide the interior space, but is captivating enough in itself to draw away all the attention. Here, the building and the environment work together. The visitor’s silhouette in the blurred reflection makes him a part of this dialogue. 

Louvre Lens Museum by SANAA -Sheet3
Louvre-Lens exterior_©Jing Yang
Louvre Lens Museum by SANAA -Sheet
Louvre-Lens exterior. Inntersection of aluminium with glass ©Jing Yang

The entrance to the museum is through glass doors of human scale, contrary to the statement entrances that most museums boast. On entering inside, the vastness that is felt because of the white walls is shocking. The architects create this atmosphere of emptiness with precision. The anodized aluminium interior walls dissolve the boundaries of the gallery space and create a ghostly backdrop of reflections. The reflective aluminium also expands the space, creating a veil of ambiguity and mist, against which the art seems even more prominent and clear. The whiteness creates a sense of flatness, a space with depth but it also brings about a sense of calmness which allows one to stand still and be in the present, without the next interesting thing beckoning attention. It is strange how a sense of vastness and emptiness is realized more in the white-walled space than in the glass pavillion where the entire surrounding expanse is visible. 

Louvre Lens Museum by SANAA -Sheet5
Louvre-Lens Interior_©JIng Yang

The roofs of the space are partially in glass, bringing in light, for exhibiting the works and for being able to the sky from inside the building. Natural light is controlled with a concealment device in the roof and interior shades forming the ceiling. 

This museum speaks of its time and place but also respects the landscape that stores memories and brings harmony between the two. 

“Architecture obviously deals with a lot of things, including a lot of mundane aspects, but the final result is highly emotional.”  – Paul Rudolph. The structure is a living manifestation of these words.

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Author

Mahek is a pluviophile, in her final year of architecture school and strangely fond of emojis. She believes architecture is most about generating experiences using both- form and function and is convinced it has the power (and the responsibility) of making a change in the world.

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