When the bid to create a new wing of the Louvre was won by the gritty northern town of Lens, Nord-Pas de Calais, there were those who were concerned that the new museum would be a poor relation to its Paris cousin.
The building of a brand new gallery to showcase masterpieces from the packed to the gunnels Paris Louvre has cost €150m and taken several years from design stage to completion; it opened to great fanfare in December 2012.
Far from trying to emulate the classical looks of the former royal palace in Paris, the Japanese architects, Tokyo based Sanaa, chosen to design the new Louvre in Lens, came up with a plan for something radically different – in a very good way.
Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa’s glass and polished aluminium building is a masterpiece of understated and yet bold architecture. If you are seeking for a link to the Paris building you may find a passing resemblance to the Pyramide but that is all – otherwise this is a very nouveau departure.
The Louvre-Lens is built on the site of an old mine that was operational from 1884 – 1916, in an area which was once home to a thriving coal mine industry. Since the closure of the last mine in 1990, Lens has undergone a time of economic hardship and decline and the aim of bringing the Louvre here is to inject new life and bring tourists to the area as well as bringing major artworks to the people of the region of Nord-Pas de Calais.
The Louvre building has been erected in a residential district and the remit for the architects was to create something “modest and discrete” says Bruno Capelle, press officer at the Louvre-Lens. Despite its size and striking glass structure – the building does in fact fit the brief and sits comfortably in its surroundings whilst also delivering an immense visual wow factor.
A single storey building, reaching 6m at its highest point, on a single level – there are no steps. There is an underground area which is home to the restoration and storage area and that too is an innovative design since the glass walls allow spectators to view behind the scenes – an eerie and strangely thrilling experience. Rows of paintings, tapestries and sculptures laid out ready to be worked on by the museum experts and curators.
In the main gallery which is free until the end of 2013 (and possibly longer – it is under consideration) there are no windows, nothing to disturb the view; the burnished metal walls are very neutral, the lighting is absolutely perfect and the 205 major artworks from the Louvre are arranged in an innovative fashion. Ranging from Antiquity up to 1850 in chronological order this is known as the “Gallery of Time” or the “Grand Gallery”. Unlike the 8 departments of the Paris Louvre, these exhibits can be seen in one huge great arena and the effect is a visual feast, the styles from different times and zones can be clearly differentiated and it offers a unique perspective on style, skill and technique. The Paris Louvre has 3,600 artworks on display in its hallowed but huge halls – it is impossible to see them all in one day and would probably more than a whole week to see them properly. At the Louvre in Lens though, you can see everything – up close and personal – in all its glory. It feels liberating to be able to walk around exhibits and view them from every which way, somehow making you feel closer to the art.
Each year on Saint Barbara’s Day (the patron Saint of Miners) the main exhibition will renew 20% of the artworks from the Paris Louvre so that every five years the complete display will change.
Major temporary expositions are also to be held here with artworks from the Louvre and other museums around the world – Renaissance, Rubens and in 2014 art dedicated to the period of World War I.
There is a theatre in the Louvre-Lens and theatrical displays. For the Rubens exhibition for instance at certain times musicians would roam the gallery playing music that Rubens would have heard, dressed in period costume and singing opera of Rubens’ day such as Othello. For the Renaissance exhibition Baroque music was performed; Karaoke has been laid on with professionals planted in the audience to surprise and delight the audience, there are dancers and dance classes. This is art with a difference.
There is contemporary art too – a huge interactive digital clock – place your hand on a pad and the clock face flashes you a message “sois cool”, “reposez vous” it had the onlookers laughing, talking to each other, engaging in a way not often seen in a museum of this calibre.
An audio visual guide is available in several languages and with different options – tour the artworks by painting, sculpture, timeline – easy to understand, clear and full of interesting facts.
There is a cinema, multimedia area, teaching areas, children’s workshops – this is not a stuffy museum – it’s a museum that has a soul.
There is an indoor picnic area or a rather funky restaurant where you can get an excellent three course meal for a reasonable price.
Plenty of parking for those who drive, a free shuttle bus from Lens station for those who arrive by train.
This is the Louvre for the people and an undeniable success.
Practical Information for visiting the Louvre in Lens
Allow 3 hours plus for a full visit. Open Daily (except Tuesday) from 10.00 – 18.00; Open until 22.00on first Friday of each month, September to June
The building has a restaurant, cafe and shop, free cloakroom with lockers, large lifts to all levels and each floor is fully accessible by wheelchairs and pushchairs. All visitors and their bags are screened airport-security style at the entrance, so leave all sharp objects behind or they’ll be confiscated.
By train: Lens stations is served by TGV and there is a free shuttle bus from the station to the museum and return.
By Road: Major motorway networks link to Lens and there is free parking available at the museum.
A flurry of hotels and restaurants have opened in the area and there is a good choice for both as well in the lively town of Lens where there are some great shops.
For more information see the Lens-Louvre website