In 2004, the French Ministry of Culture drew up a shortlist of cities to host a new outpost of the Louvre. Thanks largely to then Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s policy of France d’en bas (grassroots France), the most elite institution of the metropolitan centre had decided to open a regional branch office in the depressed North. Amiens, with its World Heritage-listed cathedral, was culturally the richest candidate; there was Boulougne, the seaside resort town passed its prime; Calais, flattened during the war but surviving as a transit point; then Arras, Valenciennes, and Lens, in descending order of prosperity, with bitter World War histories and declining heavy industries. It was Lens, famous only for its football team, which was eventually selected - for the very reason that it had nothing else going for it. The charms of Lens, sniffed Le Figaro, “don’t necessarily explode in one’s face.” Lens’ new Louvre, designed by SANAA with Imrey Culbert LLP and landscape architects Mosbach Paysagistes, is to be set on an overgrown, debris strewn coal mining yard in the centre of town.
Something big is happening to the structure of the French arts, suddenly more expansionist, more decentralised, and more open to private money and international influence than ever before. Besides Lens, the Louvre will occupy an annex in Atlanta’s High Museum until 2009, and is extending collaborations into Iran, Syria, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and the new member nations of the European Union. It has accepted 17 million from a Saudi prince to open up a badly needed Islamic arts wing in Paris, and 150,000 from American Express to translate the wall texts of popular exhibits into Spanish and English. Private money now accounts for 10% of the Louvre’s $150 million budget, where before it accounted for zero.
Nor is it alone. The Pompidou is also on the march, prepared to use its extensive battery of works in storage (about 56,700 out of its 58,000 pieces) as envoys for French culture at home and abroad. The museum has controversially entered a joint venture with the Guggenheim - the originator of the museum-as-franchise - to create a museum district in West Kowloon, Hong Kong. And in some strange coalescence of the cultural winds, the Pompidou too is building an outpost in northern France, this time in Metz, near the German and Luxembourgian borders. The Pompidou-Metz, designed by Japanese veteran Shigeru Ban, will open next year; the Louvre-Lens a year after.
But the twinned museum projects are being approached quite differently. The Pompidou-Metz is more obviously an architectural showpiece; the Louvre-Lens is more subdued. This has much to do with where they’re being sited. The new Pompidou will be beside the Metz TGV station on the edge of the city centre, part of a re-energisation project for the district; the Louvre will not only be in the centre of Lens, tightly encircled by housing, it will be raised slightly above the town on a hill once rich in coal. So while the Pompidou can afford to be eccentric, the Louvre would risk being domineering, castle-like, if it over-egged its cake.
So the SANAA team’s new Louvre is low, open, and spare, laid out in a meandering line like an abstracted version of the Louvre Palace with its wings pinned back. A square entrance pavilion is at its centre; on either corner are the two rectangular gallery spaces, gently curved and clad in brushed aluminium. The slight curvature of the structures will create blurred, distorted reflections of the landscape, dissolving them, according to associate architect Imrey Culbert, into their natural setting. The main galleries will be lit from overhead with partially glazed roofs, shaded and protected by variable-angle louvres and an inner membrane forming the gallery ceilings. The 130 metre galleries are the frigates of this drifting fleet of structures; sliding past them are small luggers framed completely with glass and opening out onto the grounds. Rough woodlands, walks and formal gardens surround them.
The reframing of the Louvre collection in this setting is a chance to radicalise curatorial practices. Works from each of the eight departments in Paris will be displayed, but out of their usual disciplinary slots, and in non-hierarchical arrangements. There will also be greater visibility of the gallery’s functions from the inside and outside. Taking the stairs from the massive, 3800 square metre glass entrance pavilion to the basement, visitors will be able to look into the storerooms and watch restoration and display preparation work.
Shigeru Ban pitches the Pompidou’s tent higher, taking the form of a Chinese hat he found in Paris and turning it into an irregular wooden marquee peaking at 77 metres high. Designed in a team with Paris-based Jean de Gastines and London-based Philip Gumuchdjian, Ban’s Pompidou is technically ingenious. The 90-metre wide roof, an undulating hexagon, is constructed from glue-laminated timber beams spaced 2.9 metres apart. Much of its span is self-supporting. This is because the beams, like the cane of the Chinese hat, form interweaving hexagon units of great strength and integrity. Four conical pillars and a central metallic spire will keep it aloft as it balloons upward over the main galleries. According to the team, which included the engineering skills of Arup, the roof structure is one of the largest and most complex built to date.
The structure is protected from the elements by a white fibreglass membrane and a coating of teflon. This waterproof material creates a controlled and naturally temperate environment, to help ensure the works of art displayed in the most< uniform conditions possible.
Below it, retractable glass panels and vast picture windows bring the garden surrounds within the marquee. A 1200 square metre nave, rising eighteen metres, will immediately confront the visitor with epic displays of some of the more exceptional works from the Pompidou collection. However the galleries themselves will not be subject to - and put in the shade by - the spectacle of the roof, as the galleries in the overwhelming Guggenheim Bilbao arguably are. Instead, Ban pushed three enclosed concrete tubes horizontally through the structure, layered on top of each other in different orientations and poking through the hat structure at three points. Built with similar technology to that used in bridge building, these tubes require no pillars to stabilise their eighty metre spans. Picture windows at each end, looking over the gardens, provide daylight.
For Jean-Marie Rausch, the Mayor of Metz and the Chairman of the Metz Metropole, museums are the coal mines and car plants of the post-industrial landscape. “Culture has become,” he insists, “an essential factor for the development of a city.” As well as (he might add) for the development of presidential reputations. But should we - dare we - care, when the spectacle, provided here by some of the world’s greatest architects, is so seductive? +
Previous.The Pompidou Centre as it will appear from the front square.
Second. Exterior of one of the two central galleries, finished in brushed aluminium.
Third. A south view of the Pompidou-Metz, showing the rectangular gallery spaces poking out the sides.
Fourth. A rendering of the forum space beneath the peak of the Chinese hat. Thanks to its picture windows, this magesterial hanging space will be visible from the garden.
Bottom. A view inside the main nave, rising from a height of nearly 6 metres to 18 metres.
Images courtesy of SANAA, Imrey Culbert LLP, Mosbach, CA2M, Shigeru Ban Architects Europe and Jean de Gastines, Artefactory