Terrils turn spotlight on Louvre

LENS, in northern France, has several claims to fame. Its railway station is unique and the only branch of the Louvre, outside Paris, has been established in the town.

But the most conspicuous feature of Lens is the extraordinary landscape of spoil-heaps, known as ‘terrils’, in which it’s placed. Some are perfectly shaped cones, one of which is the largest man-made mountain in Europe. Once considered eyesores, these are now cherished; those who want to demolish Poolbeg’s twin chimneys please note!

Lyon Airport’s Gare de Saint-Exupéry TGV station, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is shaped like an aeroplane. The concept of this 1994 building seemed revolutionary at the time but it wasn’t; the Gare de Lens, built in 1926, took the form of a steam locomotive. This Art Nouveau building sports a 23m high ‘funnel’, a driver’s ‘cab’ and ‘wheels’. Mosaics, evoking the area’s coal mining past, decorate the interior.

Deep seams of coal, formed over millions of years, run under the English Channel from Kent into Northern France. In 1682, a small coal-mine opened near Boulogne-sur-mer. During the early 18th Century, prospecting for the ‘black gold’ began in earnest. Soon, 100,000 miners were working in the Pas de Calais region. Emile Zola’s novel, Germinal, about a coalminers’ strike in Northern France in the 1860s, depicted the hardships the men endured. A century later, demand for coal declined. The last pit, located a few kilometres from Lens, closed in 1990.

The ‘terrils’ in the vicinity of Lens are mounds of waste rock, hacked by miners and brought on wagons through tunnels and shafts to the surface. The ‘11/19’ spoil-heap, called after two numbered mine-shafts, was formed between the 1920’s and 1960. At 168m, it’s the highest manmade mountain in Europe.

Nothing, you might think, could be as sterile and lifeless as these great heaps of discarded debris but the resilience of nature is astonishing. Grasses poppies birch and pine trees have colonised the artificial hills. The locals claim that the spoil still produces heat, helping the plants to grow. Birds are singing, butterflies flit about and rabbits have established warrens in the flatter areas.

The rehabilitated habitat is now a prime recreational resource. Walks and trails have been established. You can climb to the top of 11/19; the hike takes about an hour. I must confess I didn’t do so, but the views from the top are said to be spectacular. A nearby ‘terril’ has been converted into a gleaming white Kilternan-style ski-slope.

Dublin’s twin chimney stacks have been an inspiration to artists. The environmental renaissance of the ‘terrils’ also has an artistic dimension. There has been a long standing complaint that too many art collections are held in Paris, accessible only to the privileged few in this nation of ‘égalité et fraternité’. In 2003, the Ministry of Culture responded by calling on the country’s 22 regions to submit proposals for a satellite museum of the Louvre. Despite competition from giants such as Lyon and Montpellier, Lens won. The Japanese firm Saana was awarded the architectural contract.

The ‘minimalist’ ultra-light glass-roofed structure, with polished aluminium walls, sits on top of ten million tonnes of spoil; the 600m deep pit under it closed in 1960. In complete contrast to the giant ‘11/19’ mound, the Louvre-Lens building doesn’t intrude on the landscape; the architects have made as inconspicuous as possible. The bright pavilions have an open unobtrusive quality, so as not to distract the visitor from the works on show. On the 4th December 2012, the feast day of St. Barbara patroness of miners, the new museum opened to the public.

Paintings and sculptures from the Louvre, including some famous ones, are exhibited in rotation on stand-alone panels. I have never seen artworks more beautifully displayed. There’s a separate area for temporary shows and a ‘behind the scenes’ section explaining the work of a great art museum.

For information on visiting Lens, see [http://www.tourisme.lenslievin.fr/]HERE[/url] and [http://www.rendezvousenfrance.com/]HERE[/url]


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