A new cavernous art storage building in Liévin, France, adopts a powerful architectural language and boasts a massive roof meadow
Words by Herbert Wright
The north side of the vast new Centre de Conservation du Louvre, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), is an impregnable concrete wall. At one end, a half-ellipse of concrete extrudes horizontally out, forming a canopy over stairs to a glass entrance. Standing beneath it, the 200m-long wall seems almost endless, an illusion that’s enhanced because it reduces in height towards the vanishing point to the east. Graham Stirk, lead architect of the project, compares the building in Liévin, northern France, with the ‘powerful language of great French fortresses’. Indeed RSHP’s competition proposal, which won in 2015, cited the fortifications of the Marquis de Vauban, 17th-century military engineer to Louis XIV. But the structure is just half of it.
The project is also, as Stirk says, ‘a large inclined park which protects the works of art below’. The trapezoid roof of the gently sloping building will support 17,500 sq m of meadow.
A long, double-height passage known as the Artworks Boulevard draws you deep into the building. Photograph: Joas Souza
Roughly 250,000 of the Louvre’s artworks will come to Liévin, and the building’s mission is to store, conserve and study them. As early as 2002, there had been warnings about the flood risk to the Louvre in Paris, where 10,000 sq m of storage is below ground. In response, storage was dispersed to over 60 locations. The new building in Liévin, inaugurated in October, offers consolidation. The Louvre says that ‘a large part’ of their €34.5m (£30.3m) contribution to the €42m (£36.9m) construction budget came from the Louvre brand licence that Abu Dhabi paid for its Jean Nouveldesigned 2017 museum (Blueprint 355).
The lobby presents two ways to go. Before heading into the impressive doubleheight passage straight ahead, let us descend a spiral staircase to the side, into a doubleheight events space. It is filled with light from the western facade’s glazing, and the exterior cornice curves out to carry aluminium brises-soleil. Mounted inside is a commissioned conceptual artwork — From Vermeer to Veronese (2019), by Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain — comprising 109 joined empty golden frames.
17,500 sq m of meadow will spread across the whole trapezoid roof of the gently sloping building. Photograph: Joas Souza
But it is the long passage that draws you deep into the building. Accessed from the lobby by stairs, it extends to the south, some 150m from the entrance. Its ceiling continues the half-ellipse arch of the entrance canopy, almost a barrel vault, but it is split by stretches of linear skylight. Ever since it was first sketched, it has been known as the ‘Boulevard des Oeuvres’ (‘Artworks Boulevard’).
This is the spine of the facility, dividing the functional spaces either side. They lie under parallel ceiling strips with the same arched profile, made by concrete panels on beams spanning columns that are in an 8m x 10m grid across the building. The modular approach using prefabricated elements makes it ‘a very efficient structure’, Stirk notes. Asked about concrete’s sustainability, he responds that ‘it depends on the lifecycle’ — this building should last centuries, he offers.
A spiral staircase descends into a double-height events space. Photograph: Joas Souza
On the internal boulevard’s western side is 1,300 sq m of workshops and studios for conservation and study, as well as offices, all illuminated by the glazed western facade. At the boulevard’s end are loading bays. It will take four years to fill the facility with the treasures from Paris, and lorries arrive daily, for which there is space for three at a time. ‘There’s no alternative to road haulage because of security issues,’ comments RSHP partner John McElgunn.
The building’s height slopes down from 11m to 3.5m on the eastern side, so that the only corridor off the internal boulevard shrinks in height with depth. It cuts into the 9,600 sq m of storage areas, full of racked storage with 3m-, 4.5m- and 6m-high clearance. This racking, supplied by Bruynzeel Storage Systems, cost about €3m (£2.6m). Vibrant red panelling, which RSHP designed, bookends each row of storage. It visually electrifies the storage spaces as if they were a massive data server facility, and is the only element that echoes the practice’s trademark colours of their early projects.
The spacious events space features a golden artwork by Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain. Photograph: Joas Souza
Around 100 trees already stand round the building like lines of police, but the rest is just starting to grow. Above the ceilings and the smoke ventilation in the voids made by their vaulted arches, soil to a depth of 600mm spreads across waterproof roof panels. Over them, the landscaping by Mutabilis Paysage et Urbanisme will create a flowering meadow, biodiverse with 27 wild species. This green roof is a thermal mass insulating the building like a blanket, and also a managed water sponge that keeps it dry. It’s, literally, a massive part of the Centre de Conservation’s inbuilt sustainability, which also includes geothermal energy supply meeting a third of its energy needs.
For security reasons, the sloping park will not be publicly accessible, but it visually extends the linear park which connects to the SANAA-designed Louvre Lens (2012), just ten minute’s walk away. That, too, features long straight walls, albeit ethereal ones of glass and metal. Asked to compare their forms, Stirk says the new Centre de Conservation’s is ‘landscape building rather than pavilion’.
Vauban built fortresses of stone to defend power, but RSHP has built a technological facility to defend culture. Today’s assailants are led by climate emergency, but the Centre de Conservation has nature as its ally.