It's the kind of morning so damp and grey that it feels like the day will never really break. The landscape here is flat and wide but horizonless; the mist blurs earth into sky. The ground itself has been scraped into raw brown furrows streaked with the green pointillist haze of winter crops. These giant brown-green planes are dotted with white seagulls and scored with the sharp calligraphic strokes of pylons and skeletal trees.
Its flatness is clear of any natural interruption as though it's been worked over by farming and industry, pummelled into total abstraction by the history of Northern France. The landscape is divided into the two-dimensional geometries of highways, logistics and ownership, inscribed with the reach and scope of machines. Out of this hazy flatness two gigantic black cones rise up. These are Europe's biggest slag heaps, remnants of the mining industry that once characterised the region. Their profoundly abstract shape and scale is of the kind that only unconscious industry can produce. The strange angular geometries of post-industry are now home to the Louvre-Lens. Built on the site of a mine that closed back in the 1980s, the new museum is a regional outpost of the grand Parisian Louvre. The project is perhaps the last of Europe's regional-scaled post-industrial cultural projects that began with the Guggenheim Bilbao. Here at the other end of that two-decade project, the Louvre quickly churns through the familiar arguments: tourism, culture as post-industrial salve, regeneration and regionalism. But there's something else at stake here: a reinvented iteration of the Louvre itself.
The building shares the low blocky massing and the glazed-metallic cladding of the industrial-agricultural vernacular that surrounds it. But SANAA's hyper-precision recasts this prosaic substance in otherworldly form, as though the geometric flatness of the landscape has risen into bodily form. From the perimeter of the site, the building's brushed-aluminium cladding appears as long, low rectangles of a smeary Gerhard Richter. The surface effect of the panels sucks all the gravity out of its substance, its mass evaporating. It is a building seemingly formed of arrangements of Pas-de-Calais mist.
The building seems to be formed of arrangements of the Pas-de-Calais mist
The curatorial statement tells us that this is in direct opposition to the organisation of the Louvre in Paris, where objects are grouped by department. Here, the intention is for the whole of human culture to play out in a continuum, for unexpected relationships to be forged across the boundaries of museological time and space. The ambition of the Galerie du Temps is huge: a single space containing all of human culture. There is something final about it too, like the closing scene of Kubrick's 2001 where Louis XIV furniture is bathed in a space-age white glow.
In alternative examples such as the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing, art history and oblique reference coexist. The Louvre-Lens gives us a single point perspective of history, and as such it seems entirely Cartesian, a space rooted in the French Enlightenment. It also seems to play to a certain weakness in SANAA's contribution to the project. If the studio's work could be characterised by one thing, it would be the ability to make matrix field plans of tremendous abstraction, a kind of hyperrelational field. Yet here, these gestures are left behind in other parts of the museum, in the bubble-plan pavilions of bookshops, cafes and restaurants, for example. In this great hall, we ironically seem to return to a hyper-formality, a space striated with meaning rather than ambiguity (where even every step means moving forward or backward in time).
Its contents are a superb greatest-hits package, a concentrated experience of high-grade cultural objects. Etruscan, Greek, Roman, Islamic and Renaissance sculptures and paintings seem suspended in the Galerie's atmosphere. These high-water marks of human culture seem to lose their earthly footing and float like the debris of an asteroid belt in a Walmart-sublime architectural apparatus.