Like me, you have probably never, or perhaps only recently, heard of Lens; a little provincial pocket of France thrust recently and violently into the tourist consciousness, yet still beautifully unaccustomed to its latest role as the home of the newest Louvre outpost designed by SANAA (a recession-respecting snip at a mere €140m), and the main reason for us arriving into nearby Lille last Friday morning for our annual office trip.
Working for an architectural firm means that thankfully office trips don’t mean cheap, vacuous weekend benders to Newcastle, but generally are programmed around an initial visit to a building/site/area of architectural interest. This is of course supplanted by an obligatory messy Euro-trash evening in a sweaty disco, before back to the cultural appreciation the following day, it taking a little more time to focus on exhibition guide text at that point.
Lille struck me instantly as far less industrial than I had probably unjustly and certainly unfoundedly, imagined it would be. Although an established eurostar terminal, it may be that it is more regularly used as I have used it in the past, as a changeover point to get to Brussels or Germany. It was certainly sans the mountains of tat which swarm over the streets of most tourist areas, threatening to engulf guided tours under lethal tsunamis of flag-emblazoned crockery. As I was served a beer at 11am with extreme nonchalance and without even a disapproving glint sweeping across the eye, I decided I liked it already.
The journey to the Louvre-Lens consisted of a 40 min train ride, during which a large number of grown adults (myself included) repeatedly exclaimed our amazement and happiness that the train was double-decker, a situation which I’m sure endeared us to our fellow French passengers and was undoubtedly compounded by the intermittent squeals of excitement and roars of laughter about the newly invented and utterly fabulous ‘shouty shouty tradey card game’ (patent pending). We enjoyed it, anyway.
Lens itself is a pretty little town, the insertion into its outskirts of an internationally important museum collection reminding me of the recent Tate Turner Contemporary constructed at Margate. Indeed an applaudable attempt to drive valuable visitor traffic to a place which currently has little. Would we have gone there otherwise? We arrived at the building after a very European 7 min walk (more like 15) and a touching welcome to France shouted from a window consisting of ‘fuck you bitch’ in redeemingly good English. A long, low and understated metal shed rose suddenly from behind some strange landscaped mounds in the immediate vicinity which were reminiscent of tellytubby land. They must’ve spent €120m on the inside, then. Well, yes and no. Aside from my facetiousness, you can see from the plans that the basement occupies the same long, low space as the building itself, providing extensive (and expensive) archive space for the Louvre’s immeasurable collection. It has also been carefully designed and specified (apart from the roof, which I’m told, in terms that a non-architect can understand is, well, not very good). We were not able to see the touring exhibition space as the Rubens show had finished only days before, much to my joy, viewing one of his waxy grimacing spectacles in the permanent collection was quite enough.
The main exhibition hall is beautiful and distinct, its vast expanse clearly influenced by Tate Modern’s momentous and celebrated Turbine Hall with a rather new take on museum curation; pieces displayed on individual floor panels and plinths, in chronological order and measurable by the timeline etched into the metal of the right hand wall.
The attached pod area, or ‘garden pavilion’ is tacked onto the back of the main hall with the intention, I imagine, of bringing the visitor back into the here and now after the artificial lighting and whistlestop history tour of the shed. It achieves this effect sharply, vast floor to ceiling windows sucking in light greedily, scattering light-saber beams around the space through translucent floor to ceiling blinds. Shadows of light and dark pierce the (generally unpopular) scuffed floor surface like swords of good and evil, in the kind of detail drama that makes a photographer’s dream.
After a thorough exploration the general verdict was positive; although perhaps a little too ‘in vogue’ for my taste, the brushed metal shed vibe starting to feel slightly nauseatingly trendy, it did feel coherent, well-designed and was a pleasure to experience. But it was Lille and Lens which ended up being the real winners, both turning out to be places I would visit again after initially being places I would never have chosen to go. We still haven’t managed to discover why a town so far inland appears to have seafood as its staple restaurant offering, but a quest to find out gives me a good excuse to go back!