In 1910, the Great Flood of Paris caused the French capital’s water levels to rise eightfold; archival images of the disaster even show locals riding down the city’s world-famous boulevards on improvised boats. With climate change increasing the odds of a similar calamity, and torrential rainfall causing the River Seine to flood in 2016, preventive measures have been top of mind for Parisian cultural institutions. Leading the pack is the Musée du Louvre, the world’s largest and most highly trafficked art museum, which sits a stone’s throw from the Seine and houses more than 380,000 items in its collection.
While the Louvre developed a flood-risk prevention plan in 2002 to safeguard its holdings, its estimated evacuation time likely wouldn’t allow for its enormous collection—spanning sculpture and decorative arts to Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities—to be saved. The museum approximates that 150,000 of its artifacts sit below grade, meaning that a rising Seine is a disaster waiting to happen. During the 2016 floods, for example, the Louvre closed for four days to protect artworks at the highest risk of damage. Since then, many items have remained packed to make sure they can be evacuated quickly.
In response to these looming fears, the museum recently inaugurated the Louvre Conservation Center that will safely store one-third of its collection. “First and foremost, it’s our duty to preserve this heritage for future collections,” Jean-Luc Martinez, director of the Louvre, said in a statement. “The DNA of the museum, its beating heart, is the art. All of this helps us get to know the collections that we’re entrusted with better.” He further explains that the mass relocation of hundreds of thousands of works is a herculean undertaking. It’s the biggest in the Louvre’s entire 200-year history, and perhaps that of museums everywhere.
The museum enlisted Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, helmed by Pritzker Prize laureate Richard Rogers, to mastermind the bunker-like building. Located in the northern French commune of Liévin, the $120 million facility features two acres of concrete-clad indoor space and six storage sites that include low-humidity areas for metalworks, a photography studio, workshop rooms, and a varnishing booth. It will also be equipped with a cutting-edge leak detection system that immediately notifies staff of water infiltration. And thanks to the building’s high thermal mass and subterranean design, the holdings will benefit from stable climatic conditions not impacted by the weather—a relief considering how even the slightest changes in air humidity can cause catastrophic damage to aging artworks.
According to French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the new facility makes a powerful statement by referencing French military bunkers. “The building is a modern-day fortress, protecting the art within using both the landscape and state-of-the-art conservation technology,” he tells AD. Situated atop a well-draining subsoil, the building will be double-waterproofed in the event of excess rainfall. From afar, the complex seems to resemble a hilly green parkland—more than 5,000 plants have been sown nearby. Its gently sloping green roof also creates a seamless connection to the nearby Louvre-Lens by SANAA Architects.
The facility also eliminates the logistical headaches arising from a highly decentralized collection. Previously, the museum’s holdings were split across 60 different sites within and outside of Paris. Many of these spaces haven’t been “optimized for the conservation of artifacts because of issues such as humidity management,” Brice Mathieu, director of the Louvre Conservation Centre, tells the Advisor. Accessing the holdings will be easy, too, thanks to a state-of-the-art system that enables easy transportation of larger items on a wheeled apparatus. These mechanisms also enable for more space-conscious storage solutions inspired by the technology used to stack vegetables high in warehouses.
Besides safeguarding museum holdings, the facility is slated to become one of Europe’s largest art research centers, as well as a hotbed for museum experts, academics, and conservators. “For the first time, some of our canvases that are rolled for storage due to their size will be studied through workshops,” Mathieu continues, noting that the relocation process allowed for the Louvre to study, photograph, and digitize every item in its archive for the first time. “This is only possible due to the new facilities at the Centre and may lead to future exhibitions that could never have happened otherwise. It’s important for us to make this place alive; we don’t want this place to purely be for storage.”