Fearing Climate Change, the Louvre’s New Conservation Center Will Hold One-Third of the Museum’s Entire Art Collection

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In 1910, there was the Great Flood of Paris: Excess rainwater raised water levels eightfold. Photos from that time show locals riding down streets in makeshift boats. With global warming, there is a 40% increase in the chance of a similar flood happening nowadays. So if that does happen, in a city chock-full with culture, what will happen to the art?

The Musée du Louvre in Paris is home to one of the most valuable art collections in the world, including famed artworks like the Mona Lisa and The Winged Victory of Samothrace. With it comes a great risk of water damage. The museum has created a new venue to store its valuable art—the Louvre Conservation Center in Liévin, in the north of France.

This $120 million project, which opened in October, was designed by British architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Over the past few months, 141 semi trailers have been driving more than 100,000 artworks from the museum to the new center (it will house over 250,000 art objects).

“First and foremost, it is our duty to preserve this heritage for future generations,” Jean-Luc Martinez, director of the Louvre, said in a statement. “The DNA of the museum, its beating heart, is the art.” The works stored underground at the museum are vulnerable to flooding that tends to happen every decade. Let’s not forget the flood of 2016, which saw high floods for the first time in decades. And while some say that art can’t survive climate change, this new center suggests that indeed, it could.

They’re storing some of their most valuable pieces—like the Venus de Milo—in the warehouse in case the river Seine in Paris overflows. And the museum will continue to transport the art during the pandemic, according to Néguine Mathieux, the director of research and collections. “We are happy to have been able to pursue these transfers, to protect as many artworks as possible from the risk of flooding of the river Seine,” Mathieux tells AD. “By mid-2021, all the objects at risk will be transferred to the conservation center.”

While only 36,000 artworks are on view at a time at the Louvre, its collection boasts over 620,000 pieces, so this new center will be home to one-third of its entire holdings. The new center has six storage areas, including dry, low-humidity areas for metalworks, a photography studio, workshop rooms, a varnishing booth, and study space. The center has large windows for natural light, and the rooftop garden features 27 seed varieties. More than 5,000 plants have been sown around the building.

“The use of simple, elegant forms creates a powerful language of great French fortresses that retrains a large, inclined park, which protects the works of art below,” said Graham Stirk, a senior design partner with RSHP. The center has a team of 15 who are managing the artworks, maintenance and safety of the building, and administrative affairs. Since opening last fall, the pieces that have been shipped over include Roman and Etruscan antiques, as well as those from Egypt and Greece.

The museum won’t be moving some of the most delicate archaeological findings (which are in fragments), or some of the drawings, prints, and manuscripts that are too fragile to be exposed to light (they’re in the museum’s Cabinet des Dessins, in a safe area protected from flooding).

Even though the museum has a flood-risk prevention plan, that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be enough time to protect all the artworks. The museum is hoping the location will become one of Europe’s largest art research centers, sprawling over two acres of indoor space, as it’s more than just a storage space but a research facility for museum experts, conservators, and academics.

The Louvre’s art collection is kept in 68 different sites both in and out of the museum. “All of this helps us get to know the collections we are entrusted with better,” said Martinez. “It’s going to be a hive of activity,” he adds. “It’s the biggest move in the entire history of the Louvre, and perhaps that of museums everywhere.”

Other museums are catching on: The British Museum is currently building storage spaces in Shenfield, just 50 miles from London, while the Rijksmuseum is helping develop the Netherlands Collection Centre in Amersfoort, 30 miles from Amsterdam.

From the outside, the conservation center looks like a Bauhaus-era bunker, yet the entranceway calls to mind an underground metro. Everything is very concrete and clean, to keep artworks protected from a flood. “The building is sited on well-draining subsoil; chalky sand over a layer of chalk bedrock,” says John McElgunn, RSHP’s project partner. “Everything is sized to deal with rainfall well in excess of the current historical records and future rainfall projections for the area.”

This building is double-waterproofed. “The upper layer is equipped with a leak detection system from Progeo in Germany, which can pinpoint the location of any leak over the surface of the roof for immediate and straightforward repairs,” says McElgunn.

It looks like an elliptical hill in the heart of a green parkland. “We placed it under a continuous landscape to create a free height that the Louvre required to house large and small artifacts,” says McElgunn.

This incognito center takes its cues from military bunkers, indeed. McElgunn says the exterior walls are reminiscent of design by French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. “They make a powerful statement,” he explains. “The building is a modern-day fortress, protecting the art within using both the landscape and state-of-the-art conservation technology.”

Gallery: More Inside an English Georgian Home That Resonates With Personality and Magic (Architectural Digest)

  • Slide 1 of 16: In the living room, a central ottoman opens up to reveal the family’s stash of jigsaw puzzles and games while an upholstered fender offers a fireside place to perch. Says Graham: “They are such a great piece of furniture because not only do they make the room a lot more flexible and you can fit more people in but they're a great opportunity for adding fun and character into the room.”

  • Slide 2 of 16: With children running around, keeping the house tidy is important. In the breakfast room, the cabinet serves as a breakfast bar; table by Rose Uniacke, lion portrait by Kate Boxer.

  • Slide 3 of 16: The home's pooch holds center court.

  • Slide 4 of 16: In the breakfast room, the sofa is upholstered in Qajar Stripe by Soane and the walls are painted in Milk White by Paper and Paint Library.

  • Slide 5 of 16: A freestanding island anchors the kitchen, where an Aga range mingles with Milagros tiles, Jamb globe pendants, and an arrangement of decorative plates.

  • Slide 6 of 16: “A painted floor is a great option because it is practical and you can go wild with the colors,” Graham explains of the children’s bath. Striped wallpaper by Farrow & Ball and midcentury Tom wall lights from Hector Finch bridge the formal architecture with a family-friendly feel.

  • Slide 7 of 16: Displayed in a hallway is a Jack Milroy artwork with French bird papercut books perched behind Perspex.

  • Slide 8 of 16: In a ground-level bathroom, wallpaper by Ottoline and mirror by Balineum.

  • Slide 9 of 16: A bedroom with a sitting nook with a view to the outside.

  • Slide 10 of 16: A child's room.

  • Slide 11 of 16: In the living room, a central ottoman opens up to reveal the family’s stash of jigsaw puzzles and games while an upholstered fender offers a fireside place to perch. Says Graham: “They are such a great piece of furniture because not only do they make the room a lot more flexible and you can fit more people in, but they're a great opportunity for adding fun and character into the room.”

  • Slide 12 of 16: The dining room is furnished with a mix of family antiques and contemporary pieces. “When people are moving into older family homes, there’s often a lot of brown furniture,” says Graham. “We love using it in schemes as it anchors a room and gives a sense of depth and history.” Here, the Georgian dining table has been given a skirt, as have Salveson Graham chairs. Walls are painted in Lichen by Farrow & Ball. The fireplace is original to the house.

  • Slide 13 of 16: The 1950s Swedish rug from Robert Stephenson was the starting point for the primary bedroom, which is outfitted with Décors Barbares fabrics. The Russian folklore–inspired textiles appear throughout the house.

  • Slide 14 of 16: Claire Vero, founder of the pioneering probiotic skin-care line Aurelia, at home in the British countryside; to decorate the house, she enlisted the London-based design studio Salveson Graham.

  • Slide 15 of 16: A tub stands ready within a sitting room.

  • Slide 16 of 16: The Georgian house was built in 1800 with a Victorian wing added later. It is located on nine acres of land, including formal gardens, orchards, and paddock.

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