A great global art shed
Paul Finch, 22 October 2019
When the Louvre decided to move its main storage facility from Paris, because of fears of catastrophic flooding, there was really only one location that made sense, writes Paul Finch.
If you visit the recently completed Louvre Conservation Centre in Liévin, which will be possibly via organized tours, you are certain also to be visiting the Musée du Louvre-Lens, a few minutes away. The latter, designed by SANAA with Adrien Gardère, opened in 2012; it immediately became apparent that it would make more sense to continue a programme of decentralisation than trying to retain the collections in Greater Paris.
In retrospect the choice of architect, Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, seemed equally inevitable. There was, of course, the relationship between Richard Rogers (and Renzo Piano) to the cultural life of Paris via the Centre Pompidou. But more important was the work the practice had completed for the British Museum, under the leadership of practice director Graham Stirk.
The World Conservation & Exhibitions centre, which opened in 2014, is similar in size to the Louvre project, the former 18,000 the latter 20,000sq m, and includes many similar functions, particularly in relation to logistical arrangements and the needs of conservator; the former houses 200,000 items, the latter 250,000, though the BM collections are mainly objects while the Louvre is mostly paintings.
An extraordinary difference in the cost of each building (£135million in London, 35 million Euros in Liévin!) is partly the result of one being on a tight urban site in the middle of a capital city, while the other is on an open site formerly used as part of mining industry operations in the area. There is no major exhibition centre in the Louvre building. In London planning permission conditions forced the architects to put one of nine storeys underground, which added to cost; in Liévin the site gradient has allowed the architects to get natural light at one end of the building while building into the site at the other.
Perhaps most significantly, at Liévin the basic building material is concrete, while in the conservation context of London, it was steel frame and Portland stone. The architects describe the design approach and materials choice as seemingly simple choices:
‘Taking advantage of the natural slope in the terrain, the building emerges seamlessly from the landscape, defined by two pairs of concrete walls, reminiscent of the French military architecture of Vauban. Its green roof forms a gently-sloped visual extension to the Louvre Lens park, and a link in a green arc connecting Liévin to Lens itself.
‘The entire conservation and storage facility is located on one level, with building materials chosen for their simplicity, resilience, and sobriety. The simple and elegant concrete frame provides a highly efficient structure and stable environmental conditions. It is equipped with a 400m² delivery bay, with spaces dedicated to packaging artworks located immediately next door.
‘A broad corridor will serve as the backbone of the building. Dubbed the “boulevard of the artworks”, art will pass efficiently through it from the delivery bay en route to the areas dedicated to conservation and treatment.’
That linking circulation spine is similar to Stirk’s diagram for the British Museum, but in France comes with a more generous sense of space, volume and natural top-lighting – this is a secular cathedral (no stained glass), with huge volumetric capacity, art storage occupying about half of the building in eight distinct spaces, each catering to a specific type of work or conservation needs.
Conservation and study activity take place along the western façade of the building, with offices for staff located at a mezzanine level. This is the ‘industrial’ equivalent of the conservation work displayed at Louvre-Lens at a lower-ground level, allowing visitors to begin to understand the collections as more than simply display objects, but part of a cultural treasure trove which needs nurturing for future generations.
Given the nature of the Liévin site, the architects have been able to exploit the environmental possibilities of the megastructure; heat pumps are helped by geothermal energy, while a flowering meadow unfurls across the curving roof, sown with 27 species, and relating to the park aesthetic of Louvre-Lens. One might make a further comparison here, the ‘green’ roof of Graham Stirk’s Macallan distillery project in Scotland, another shed form blending into its immediate landscape, in its turn informed by the architect’s winery designs in Spain.
He describes the Louvre building as relating to the tradition of great French fortresses, but unlike them, the strength of the architecture lies in what is concealed, or half-concealed, rather than what is evident. The analogy is entirely accurate, however, in terms of the safety the building will provide its art and archaeology ‘inhabitants’, which are now located in a single space instead of 68 separate locations which inhibited analysis of the collections as a whole; those 250,000 paintings and objects will be introduced to the new facility over the next five years.
As for the British Museum, it too has decided to go in for some decentralisation, with a new facility in Wokingham, Berkshire being designed by architect John McAslan. It will be a relatively modest project by comparison with its RSHP facility in central London; as for the Liévin project, this – allied with Louvre-Lens – will be one of the world’s great cultural hubs, transforming the future life of a redundant mining community.
And keeping one of the world’s great art collections from the risk of flood.