The recent defacing of Eugène Delacroix’s iconic painting “La Liberté Guidant le Peuple” reminded me to post some thoughts on my recent visit to the new Louvre-Lens in Northern France. The gallery, deigned by Japanese architects SANAA, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, opened in late 2012 and is the first outpost of the Louvre Museum outside Paris.
As well as Delacroix’s painting the gallery contains a range of exhibits from the Louvre Collection which are all displayed in one continuous gallery. The gallery does not separate the exhibits on the basis of regions or styles, in the more conventional gallery layout, but places all the exhibits in an enormous architectural timeline. This results in an interesting juxtaposition of works, objects that one would not usually find adjacent to each other, demonstrating the uniqueness of some cultures and continual progression of others.
Upon approaching the gallery its huge scale becomes immediately apparent. From a distance the building has a ‘warehouse’ quality and could be mistaken for a typical out-of-town French supermarket if it had an oversize neon sign on top. At the time of my visit, which was in early January 2013 when the building had been open for a few months, the landscape works had not been completed which further added to the business park quality. It is only once the visitor gets up close to the building that the detail becomes apparent and quality of the building reveals itself.
The facades are subtlely curved, which cannot be read from a distance, the curtain walling is handled with a very light touch and the blurring effect of the brushed aluminium cladding gives the building an oblique connection to its site; a great feat considering the alien nature of its materiality and Miesian sparsity.
The entrance space is huge hanger-like volume holding a number of circular glass pavilions which contain various utility spaces such as the shop, café, ticketing area and member’s room. The arrangement of the spaces, as a series of solids and voids, gives some awkward junctions which are, on the whole, very well resolved. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the placement of the pavilions within the larger space as the large crowds of people flow effortlessly through it despite the unusual geometry. The crowds of people were also vital in adding the only colour to an otherwise entirely white space.
The main gallery space is itself beautifully detailed. Again, it is predominantly a palette of white and grey; this time the exhibits also adding colour whilst drawing the visitor through the space and along the timeline which is delicately etched into the brushed aluminium walls. The structural lightness of the building is revealed in the ceilings which let a filtered and consistent natural light into the room. Another ususual feature is the reappearance of the aluminium cladding on the inside of the external walls which contain no hanging space.
The Louvre-Lens is a brave building, particularly in its context of terraced housing and slag heaps from the once thriving coal industry of the area. It seemed to both excite and disappoint. My overall feeling was this is an ‘architects’ building, where those that know are able to marvel over the rigorous and beautiful detailing whereas others may not pick up on this subtlety and could be left feeling cold by the architecture but excited by the exhibits. Perhaps that’s the point… in creating an anti-icon the architects may have managed to put the emphasis on the collection it contains rather than creating a building that shouts “look at me”.