When I tell people my daughter lives in France, their first thoughts are of Paris. When I say the south of France, they think of Cannes, Nice, and Marseilles. Actually, she lives two hours east of Bordeaux in a beautiful region known as the Dordogne.
Buried amongst the stately chateaus and castles is a collection of artwork that has captured the imagination of the world—the cave paintings of Lascaux.
Discovered in 1940, these prehistoric works of art were created more than 17,000 years ago in Montignac, France. At first, the caves were open to the public, but were closed in 1963 when it was discovered that humans exhaling carbon dioxide were damaging the artwork. Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original, opened in 1983, and is located 600 feet away. But, even still, human traffic was damaging the original. Subsequently, in 2012, Lascaux III was created as a traveling exhibit and it is currently touring Asia.
To bring this whole fascinating story back to life, after it had been closed to the public for over 50 years, a design competition was launched in 2011 to create Lascaux IV. Its mission was to bring this world heritage site out of the darkness and back into the public’s eye, to provide access to the Dordogne region of France as an international cultural and scientific attraction, and to create a greater understanding of the history and meaning that spawned this Paleolithic cave art.
The design competition attracted many of Europe’s leading firms, including Mateo Arquitectura, Auer+Weber, and Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Ultimately, in 2013, the jury selected the design team led by Snøhetta, of Oslo, Norway, working with local firm Duncan Lewis and interior-exhibition designers Casson Mann of London. Jury member Bernard Cazeau, a senator representing the Dordogne, said, “From the point of view of the scenography—which was, in our eyes, an essential factor—it’s the most successful project.”
Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, one of the founding architects of Snøhetta, explained that “during the process of copying, you discover new information. It was a huge research investment.” The architects and exhibit designers learned how the ancient artists thought and acted. Those painters would draw multiple heads on a horse to simulate movement as the horse swam across a river.
The building and its multiple exhibitions work beautifully as an integrated sequence of spaces. Snøhetta is recognized for its integration of landscape and architecture. The Lascaux IV Museum is masterful in this regard. The museum forms the edge of a sloping forest adjacent to a broad field. “The building is an insertion,” Thorsen explained, “a negotiation between the forest and the agriculture.” It is possible to walk from the entry plaza up a slope to the top of the building, not unlike Snøhetta’s design for the Oslo Opera House. “The building is not an abstract,” Thorsen said. It brings the museum experience to a new reality, reminding us we are all part of a 20,000-year continuum.
Many people, including this writer, were skeptical about the value of a museum with copies of the cave art. I had visited the original cave paintings in the nearby French town of Rouffignac and have been trained to value original artwork. So how would this team of architects and exhibit designers create a place that could teach us new things, touch our hearts, and move our minds? With imagination, innovation, and technology, they created a whole new world worth every hour of your time and then some.
I envisioned a fake cave and a gift shop, but as I approached this bold incision in the landscape, set against the forested hillside, I realized there was much more to this museum than I had imagined. The building is partially buried in the hillside near the original caves. The sequence of spaces skillfully takes the visitor from outside to inside and back outside again. There is, of course, the re-creation of the original caves; with a change in light, acoustics, and humidity, you feel like you are entering down into the cave as the artists did more than 17,000 years ago. Your eyes adjust to the dim light, and the paintings come alive. Over 50 artists and sculptors from the Perigord Facsimile Workshop labored for three years to reproduce the shape and texture of the cave, and, using the same materials as the original artists, captured the color, shape, and form of over 600 animals, 400 signs and symbols, and one human with a bird’s head. The gentle curvature of the cave walls was used to simulate the curvature of the animals’ bodies. It’s impossible not to wonder about who these Paleolithic people were and how they lived. And why did they spend the time and effort to tell us their stories?
After exiting the caves, you enter a series of additional exhibition halls and theaters. Pieces of the cave are re-created and suspended from the ceiling. Digital images, projected on the paintings, explain how the artists created layers of meaning over time. Thorsen explained that “the cave has a meaning in its own right. The cave is itself an artifact.” Three mini-theaters trace the history of discovery in the caves since 1940. Then, a separate space, framed by multiple suspended digital monitors, explores how the cave paintings have influenced contemporary artists.
Museums have a dual function: first, to display the art within in a visually stimulating way that allows visitors to learn, to grow, and to explore. And second, to create an architecture that engages the community and makes a design statement of its own. Snøhetta achieves both with a deft hand and a keen eye. The image of the building against the forest at dusk is a dramatic sight, expecting to draw nearly half a million visitors per year.