landscape design Catherine Mosbach
museum display design Studio Adrien Gardère
photos Iwan Baan, Philippe Chancel, Mondadori Portfolio/Leemage
text Alessandro Rocca

On the site of a coal mine that closed in the 1960s, the new art museum of Lens is a work of architecture that constructs the landscape without failing to reflect the size and presence, with respect to the place and the city as a whole, of an institution of international renown like the Louvre.

The building is located in a sort of green island, of hesitant and recent nature, surrounded by tract houses where the miners once lived, and probably still live today. For the Louvre this is quite a leap from the center of Paris, the Tuileries, the city palace of the king of France, to the flat landscape of Pas– de–Calais, the rainy coal mining region on the border near Belgium, marked by rows of working class houses and the dark hills created by heaps of mining slag, the socalled spoil tips. The project, with the distinctive imprint of Kazuyo Sejima, organizes the various rooms of the museum according to the logic of the cluster, a grouping of separate buildings that are connected according to topological modes, in relation to the spatial characteristics of the place, rather than geometric grids or arrangements based on typological models. The escape from geometry can also be seen in the form of the three larger pavilions, where the walls bend to follow a slight curvature: “The project – Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa explain – avoids the rigid rectilinear forms that would have been in conflict with the delicate character of the place, while it also avoids free forms that might have hampered the functioning of the museum. The slight bending of the spaces jibes with the oblong, curved form of the lot, creating a subtle distortion of the internal areas, while always complying with the needs of the exhibits”. The visit itinerary starts from the square pavilion at the center of the cluster, which contains the main services for the public: bookstore, cafe, info point, picnic area and separate rooms. All the walls of the building are completely glazed, crossed by the pattern of slender pillars, and the unified space of 3600 square meters is like a covered plaza, easily accessed from three different entrances. This hall can be crossed to reach the other side of the garden, or visitors can choose between two main exhibition spaces, the room for temporary exhibitions and the Grande Galerie, a continuous space completely clad, inside and out, in anodized aluminium, an illuminated by the light that enters through the sequence of metal beams. The room has a length of 120 meters, for a total area of 3000 square meters, and it contains the Galerie du Temps, a semi-permanent exhibition of works lent by the Louvre in Paris. The layout has been organized by the studio of Adrien Gardère, who called in by SANAA in 2009, decided to eliminate every internal partition, gathering the works in homogeneous groups based on geographical, historical or stylistic criteria: “The furnishings of the museum – Gardère says – consist of a system of platforms, tracks for the hanging of the paintings, and plinths that are always well detached from the aluminium walls, whose slight reflection effect produces an ethereal, refined image. The materials of the furnishings have pale matte tones that enhance the magnificent colors of the works on display”. One fundamental contribution to the balance of the new museum comes from the design of the garden, perfectly blending with the architecture and including spontaneous growth that appeared on the site during the years of abandon, in a project of regeneration. As the landscape designer Catherine Mosbach explains, there are “areas defined by grassy borders and small isolated monoliths, picnic areas, pedagogical indications, gardens of memory that remind us of the cycle of coal, fields of tall grass in bands, oriented to match the long side of the lot, crossing in avenues of mown lawn, grassy rises and formations of moss, with young plants everywhere to form a layer of underbrush”.