04 January 2010

Bilbao Redux: The ground breaking of the Louvre-Lens Museum

In typical year-end ritual, we are seeing internet postings and mainstream press announce the worst dressed buildings to date: apparently Libeskind's ROM has been nominated twice as the "ugliest"1 of the decade. We can forgive him; the responsibility lies more with the generous philanthropist who made it possible, and for any museum professional, or elected officials that gave even an ounce of support for such a flawed building.

The ROM is hopefully one of the last museum expansions planned under the banner of the Biblao Effect, relying on form giving to lure a public into Escheresque spaces, where art plays second place to architecture. Gehry's phenomenal Guggenheim deserves to have generated far better progeny then we have seen, from Qatar to Queens, Manchester to Manhattan.

Our design for the new Louvre satellite in Lens, falls into the same predicament, in that the local elected folks have used the tired Bilbao term to effectively win over their local constituents, to bank a large portion of the $115 million new museum (The mayor of the Metz-based Pompidou Center by Shigeru Ban, which opens this May, has unabashedly referred to the project as their very own Bilbao).

Hopefully we will succeed where ROM and other similar projects have failed. As the winning design and the outcome of an international competition in 2005, our design for the Louvre-Lens is an exercise in restraint and visual simplicity, besting a few noted formalist of this last decade Hadid, Holl, Ricciotti among others;.

How did we succeed, with our two counterparts - Sejima and Nishizawa - who had never set foot in the Louvre Museum prior to our winning the commission? Perhaps by using that very handicap to maximum effect: without any "patrimony baggage" we withheld any reservations about creating huge empty spaces with no hierarchy, on one level, (nicely dovetailing with the featureless, flat character of the landscape, a former mining site) and using to certain affect a feigned ignorance of the art that the galleries could hold.

As in many competitions, the Bilbao Refrain remains alive, largely because the winning scheme is frequently based on a political wish-list for local revitalization - thus the star power of the architecture- to the detriment of real programmatic solutions. Of the 5 invited museum competitions we have participated in lately, only one gave a program for the art collection and museographic intentions of the new wing or expansion (an archeological museum in Nantes, France, which we won last month in a competition with DPA, was a rare exception).

The Louvre-Lens competition was no different in this respect. And perhaps wisely so: who, after all, had not visited the museum or was intimately familiar with the Louvre's collection from Taichen publications to framed posters in Tokyo sake bars.

Well, actually, our two Japanese partners hadn't. This gave us some advantage over Hadid and Riccotti, already earmarked to design the Islamic galleries in the Sully Wing, with Holl maintaining his stance as the sole practicing architect who considers art first (he is married to an artist and claims this podium frequently in his conferences). Ourselves, having lived more then a decade across the Seine from the Louvre prior to the Pei Pyramid, we held an original claim as frequent visitors - not so by any of the other 6 competing architectural firms (the two firms from France in the line-up were based in Bordeaux and Marseille).

Thus Sejima and Nishizawa's most effective contribution to the team, was one of actual and partially affected ignorance of the museum's western art. A rare species that required special handling - a task fallen to us - to shield this potential embarrassment from the Louvre as well as from the paying regional counterparts (the museum is being built with funds from the EC and the Regional Government and none from the Louvre itself or the State). It was up to us, then, to give this weakness some place in the scheme we designed together and more importantly to articulate the project design in a oral jury to the French Senate (Sanaa never made it to France to be present at this last ditch effort to win the commission; it was at this oral that we firmly bested Hadid for first place).

It had also been our role to define the building volumes and how an untypical visitor, expecting to visit the Louvre 2 in a familiar classical vein, would navigate such a straight forward building, linked so perfectly at corners where long immense spaces, entirely skylight, would be joined. It was our firm, then, that gave the Louvre-Lens its future and defining aspect: non-hierarchical spaces as a counterpoint to the frustrating and stilted connections of the Louvre's Palatial wings (Sanaa would give it its materiality, or absence of it, with an almost joint less facade of polished aluminum).

To this, we added, finally, in reversal of the Paris Palais where the myth of hidden treasures in the basement is a constant refrain (there are almost none - all or most of the Louvre's collection is on display, and eventually on loan to Abu Dhabi or Dallas, both great windfalls for Henri Loyrette, the Louvre President, keen on financing investments that have little to do with bettering art and content display, contrary to what his two predecessors had done for two decades) - a large visitable study-storage, viewable from the generous entrance pavilion. In this way, the core responsibility of the museum - to preserve and conserve art for future generations - would be given a new visible priority at the center of the building.

This is now a process that is 4 years in the making - in design work, in design battles over money and political opportunism - that only this last month of the decade has seen the first symbolic shovel of dirt scattered at the construction site. This is good news indeed, despite the delay, as we can now be certain that the project will be built.

Last month's site ceremony was widely covered in the French local press, in part due to the attendance of Jack Lang and current Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, the nephew of the former President who originated the agenda of decentralizing art and culture from the overreaching centrality of Paris, for which this project is a direct beneficiary.

At the December ground-breaking under gray Nord Pas-de-Calais skies, despite having invited Sanaa in a joint RFP, shepard the project from team creation to final jury presentations, from concept design to construction documents, our firm remained conspicuously absent from any credit lines, press announcements or articles on the event. Our time would have been better spent at the Serpentine Gallery, also clad in polished aluminum.

Sanaa's rise to stardom over the last decade and the opportunism of the Louvre's director, were forces to compete with that we had underestimated (as was the press's new found interest in the Louvre 3, planned for Abu Dhabi and designed by Jean Nouvel). Our focus on the design vision and dialog with museum conservators, had left us less than vigilant on the politics of architecture and public commissions.

The project, at the start of construction, will now take on its own life. With an aimed completion for 2012 - three years late - and the depressed industrial region preparing for the influx of visitors from neighboring Belgium, it will be hard not to expect the Louvre-Lens to be seen as another example of the Bilbao Effect.

The writer is a co-designer of the Louvre-Lens Satellite Museum now in construction. The opinions above, do not reflect those of his firm Imrey Culbert LP/Architectes SARL.