Could you imagine the diametric opposite of the Louvre in Paris? No need to try too hard – it has just been built. If the Louvre is regal, solid, historic, urbane, placed at the gilded heart of old, genteel Paris, its first outpost is none of these things. It is ethereally modern, shimmeringly transparent and placed in a landscape of post-industrial desolation slowly being reclaimed by nature. It could hardly be further from Paris’s aristocratic centre. The new museum is on the edge of Lens, a coal mining town where the mines disappeared decades ago and nothing has come to replace them. Brick terraces and modest municipal buildings populate a streetscape entirely lacking the traditional clichés of the French picturesque.
The building was designed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, working together as SANAA. Their minimal, glassy work is an architect’s architecture, the kind of clear, lightweight, almost Zen modernism other designers wish they were allowed to do. From New York’s New Museum to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, they have wowed many critics and convinced both institutions and the public. But not all critics. There has always seemed to me something slightly charmless about their brand of perfection; it is an architecture of abstraction in which the building appears almost like an essence but not a real thing in itself.
Louvre-Lens seems to fit neatly into their oeuvre. A free-standing, €150m structure of undeniable elegance, its polished aluminium and glass walls allow it to absorb the grey northern French sky and disappear into the horizon. If it wasn’t for the ridge of trees rising up behind it, the building might be almost invisible, melting into the clouds.
The architects say their design is intended to avoid the traces of the old mine workings – the entrance to the pit and suchlike. Indeed the buildings are not straight-sided: their walls curve almost imperceptibly in subtle concave lines. But all this seems pure conceit to me. There is no evidence left of the workings: this is just any post-industrial, overgrown landscape. If the walls are curved, it is because the architects like it that way.
The interior is, however, extraordinary. The lobby is a glass box populated by a collection of “bubbles”, irregularly distributed glass cylinders containing the bookshop, ticket office and café. Architects talk a lot about transparency but usually forget that glass does not necessarily bring transparency as a building material. In most urban situations it becomes a blank barrier, a sign of corporate anonymity and exclusivity. Here, though, it looks ethereal and exquisite.
None of this quite prepares you for the main exhibition hall. Suddenly, anchored by the fragments of 6,000 years of art, the architecture becomes the most generous, the most gorgeous frame you could imagine. This is one of the most beautiful and most satisfying exhibition spaces I have seen.
The space is absolutely huge, a hangar 120m long. Called the Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time), it is governed by a timeline inscribed in notches on the wall. The exhibits, most of which are semi-permanent (being here for five years or so), are drawn from the Louvre collections and run from early antiquity to the 19th century (at which point the Musée d’Orsay takes over). These are not leftovers but a carefully curated selection of artefacts from one of the world’s great collections. In the first year, for example, visitors will be able to see Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, perhaps the single most-loaded representation of Frenchness in history.
At the beginning, the timeline is widely spaced so that, in the words of exhibition designer Adrien Gardère, “you are striding through history” and it starts to compress and intensify as it reaches the Renaissance, where the conversation between objects seems more alive and vibrant. The contents are kept away from the walls, which are of the same polished aluminium as the exterior.
The gallery is on a slight incline to follow the topography of the site, so that on entering you see history receding before you, beneath the powerful perspective created by the delicate T-section metal roof beams. The roof is glass, with a series of louvres that allow natural light levels to be controlled. Some of the objects have additional lighting at a lower level but this is, most unusually, a naturally lit space and the light is gorgeous, tinged with that distinctively northern blueness. It is easy to navigate, beautiful to look at and mesmerising to be in.
Another major exhibition space is broadly similar but smaller and, for the moment at least, subdivided by temporary walls to create a more conventional display for a show on the Renaissance. At the other end of the building is another glass box, this one intended to contain an exhibition of more local history, though this was not yet installed when I visited.
Finally there is the descent into the building’s bowels. A delicate, white-painted steel sheet twists around a spiral stair that leads into a roomy subterranean mezzanine overlooking the museum’s storage and restoration department. This area is free to access and the views of the restorers, at work on anything from Roman marbles to Renaissance canvases, are fascinating. Unshowy and sparse, this is, in effect, the museum’s education space but it does not feel didactic; rather it gives a sense of ownership over the works, a sense that this is what the French like to call a cultural patrimony.
Of course, that is what this project is all about: the redistribution of cultural wealth. This project is being presented – as all such projects have to be – as an attempt at regeneration. Art for art’s sake or beauty for beauty’s sake is no longer enough. But this is a curious kind of regeneration. There is no hint that this might be the beginning of something bigger. The building is a brisk 25 minutes’ walk from the town centre and the small-scale miners’ houses and schools nearby are hardly appropriate for metropolitan-scale reuse. There is nothing here to key into, no significant civic space.
If Louvre-Lens’s mission was to regenerate, I would suggest it might be a failure. If, instead, it was intended to create a museum of sublime, sparkling beauty, it is a stunning success.
Louvre-Lens opens to the public on December 12, www.louvrelens.fr