The Louvre-Lens in Northern France


The Louvre-Lens
The Louvre-Lens takes an innovative approach that allows visitors to walk freely around the works.


It’s entirely fitting that the first temporary exhibit at the Louvre-Lens focuses on the Renaissance. A town’s renaissance is just what the Louvre is betting on, as it opens its first satellite in a former mining region in northern France. As the world’s most popular museum (9 million visitors annually), the Louvre in Paris is an institution that carries cultural cachet globally. The second Louvre is an ambitious project more than a decade in the making, its goal being to decentralize the French national museum and enlighten an impoverished region that was abandoned when the coal mines closed in the late 1980s, leaving behind Europe’s tallest slag heaps, cone-shaped mountains that dot the landscape that was also ravaged by World War I. The $195 million Louvre-Lens is an undeniable catalyst for economic development and tourism growth.

Hans Holbein
Erasme by Hans Holbein

Travel Agent attended the press preview last month, one day before French President Francois Hollande officially inaugurated the museum. International journalists buzzed about the “Bilbao effect,” as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum transformed Spain’s industrially scarred city into a touristic beacon. In its first three years of existence, the Guggenheim generated between 5,000-9,000 jobs, and $782 million were injected into the local economy. High hopes are thus pinned on the Louvre-Lens. “The opening of the museum is not only important for the inhabitants here, but it’s also important for the mission of the Louvre: to get outside the framework of the Parisian palace,” said Henri Loyrette, president of the Louvre. “Lens is a laboratory for the Louvre.”

The undisputed godfather of the project is Daniel Percheron, president of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and a passionate patron of the oft-forgotten north. Addressing the crowd of rapt journalists with humor and wit, Percheron declared, “the end of winter in the poorest arrondissement of France.”

Off-the-radar Lens may not be an obvious choice, but its geographic location at the crossroads of Europe is expected to prove a boon in attracting international visitors from Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Only 75 minutes from Paris by TGV, the Louvre-Lens aspires to have 700,000 visitors in the first year, followed by 500,000 in subsequent years. Admission to the permanent collection is free.

In a symbolic gesture, the building itself sits on an old coal mine. The creation of this beautiful cultural hub will poetically repair the damage caused by war and industry. Clad in aluminum and glass, the low-lying structure was designed by Japanese architecture firm Sanaa to follow the natural topography of the site. There is nothing show-offish about the museum; it’s subtle, understated and simple. Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, Pritzker Prize-winning architects, spoke of the region’s special light—a soft, diffusive light—as an inspiration. “We sought to create a harmony between the light, the site’s exceptional natural beauty, and the history of the region,” said Sejima. “Our second goal was to create a space that allowed visitors to encounter the Louvre masterpieces in a new way.” Nishizawa added, “An important theme in our projects is the idea of open spaces—opening up architecture to the people, to the city, to encounters.”  

Key to Growth

Unlike the historic capital of Metz, the home of the second Centre Pompidou, Lens was almost a black hole, said Percheron, before this “miraculous” event. In attracting the world’s attention to France’s North, the Louvre’s opening provides a chance to forever “modify the DNA of our region, instilling pride in the population.” Percheron affirmed that tourism is key for long-term growth. While Lens plans to renovate its buildings, the Louvre is working with local tourism offices to create itineraries for visitors.


With slight curves and fluid lines, the museum follows the natural topography of the site. (The park is being transformed into a verdant meadow by landscape architect Catherine Mosbach; 8,000 trees have already been planted.) Windows allow natural light to diffuse through the museum, illuminating the masterpieces that encompass 9,000 years of human civilization. Outside, the shimmering aluminum exterior reflects the landscape, while inside, the aluminum walls reflect both the art and the people gazing at it. These mirrored reflections are an integral part of the museum-goer’s experience.

The Galerie du Temps displays more than 200 works chosen from the original Louvre, including masterpieces like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, arranged chronologically in an open-plan space. Unlike the Louvre in Paris, which is “like an encyclopedia of art history,” the Louvre-Lens takes an innovative approach that allows visitors to walk freely around the works. (Thomas Crown alert, there are no alarms to trigger.) It’s a democratizing and freeing experience; visitors are also invited to go behind-the-scenes to see the storage rooms and conservation process in the museum’s downstairs rooms. Hence, the Louvre seeks to pave the way as a 21st-century museum with a human face. “Our grand ambition,” said Louvre-Lens Director Xavier Dectot, “is to put the public at the heart of the museum.”

Frites and Finery

In traveling through Pas-de-Calais, Travel Agent found interesting sites, genuine hospitality, and a rich gastronomy in a department often overlooked for its tourism attractions. Not far from Lens, we recommend La Chartreuse, a historic mansion transformed into an elegant four-star hotel that’s frequented by an international business clientele. The restaurant, Le Robert II, surprises palates with terroir-inspired cuisine; meals are finished not only with an enormous cheese chariot, but also with a decadent dessert cart wheeled to your table. Thirty minutes from Lens, the town of Arras has a UNESCO-listed square lined with gingerbread houses and a popular Christmas market. Underground, a labyrinth of WWI tunnels—connecting ancient quarries—was built into an underground city , the Wellington Quarry, by the Allies. The town of Bethune was leveled in WWI, but its magnificent belfry, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains standing. Climb the bell tower for lovely views over the town square, rebuilt with Art Deco gems. Don’t miss a stop at one of the frites trucks, as the region is known for its fabulous French fries, washed down with local artisanal beer.

Arcimboldo Giuseppe
L’Eté by Arcimboldo Giuseppe

On the coast, Le Touquet Paris-Plage was a fashionable seaside resort in the early 20th century for celebrities and royals (like the Prince of Wales). In the period between the wars, it raked in more casino gambling revenue than Monte Carlo and the French Riviera. Today it remains a popular destination for water sports, equestrian activities, and thalassotherapy. The Hotel Westminster provided luxurious digs for the likes of Winston Churchill, Sean Connery and Marlene Dietrich. Behind its landmark pink-brick facade awaits a Michelin-starred restaurant and a spa by Nuxe.

The coastal road north to Calais winds through a dramatic landscape of green, windswept hills emerging from the brilliant blue sea. We recommend La Sirene for a delicious lunch overlooking the English Channel with the famous white cliffs of Dover gleaming in the distance. 

Calais, once Europe’s lace capital, is a major passenger port for ferry departures/arrivals from England. Even for non-fashionistas, the Cite Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode—housed in a 19th-century factory converted into a contemporary, glass and steel museum—provides a fascinating look at lace manufacturing.


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