Photo by Boegly+ Grazia, courtesy of Snøhetta.

Recreating the Lascaux Caves in Rural France

Snøhetta simulates a hidden treasure that can no longer be visited.

by Michael Webb
Feb 23 2019, 2:43pm

Photo by Boegly+ Grazia, courtesy of Snøhetta.

One of the world’s greatest art galleries is hidden within a forested hillside overlooking the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. There, as far back as 17,000 years ago, cave dwellers worked by flickering lamplight to paint every surface with vividly colored animals. Using sticks and natural pigments, they created images of extraordinary power and beauty. Two boys, retrieving their dog from a fissure in the rock, discovered the caves in 1940. They were opened to the public in 1948, and, within a few years, the breath and body heat of visitors caused fungi and lichen to disfigure art that had remained intact for millennia. I was lucky enough to see the caves before they were closed to the public in 1963, and the experience still haunts me, but it's now clear that they should never have been made accessible. The damage done in those 15 years of public tours has metastasized, and scientists are not sure if they can reverse the deterioration.

Happily, there is now an alternative: the Lascaux IV Caves Museum. Lascaux II is a partial replica located close by, and Lascaux III is a traveling exhibition; the new museum dwarfs them both in scale and ambition. In 2012, the architecture and design firm Snøhetta won a competition to create Lascaux IV, assembling a team of architects, landscape designers, engineers, French associates, and the London scenography firm Casson Mann. Members of the team spent two days wandering around the site, imagining how the museum could be made easily accessible and grow organically from the earth. The hill is a sanctuary where nothing can be built, but they wanted to get as close to the forest as possible.

Photo by Boegly + Grazia, courtesy of Snøhetta.

Together, they developed a holistic scheme, making three incisions in the gentle slope at the base of the hill and inserting a 620-foot-long, 230-foot-wide concrete bar, which tapers from 33 feet high to ground level at either end. It suggests an outcrop of natural rock, and it’s much lighter and brighter than the yellowish limestone from which the village was built. The architects wanted it to be homogenous and monolithic, which eliminated the use of stone cladding on a steel frame, and it serves as a neutral foil to the landscape and to the brilliant colors of the paintings.

To assure a sense of authenticity, the architects were allowed into the Lascaux caves, wearing protective suits, gloves and masks. “It was an extremely powerful experience,” says Snøhetta project manager Rune Veslegard. “As the door opens, you descend into darkness. We were mesmerized by the beauty of the paintings, even though they are familiar from reproductions; the spatial drama of narrowness and extreme height, and the finely detailed carvings that become visible when you shine a torch almost parallel to the walls.”

Photo by Boegly + Grazia, courtesy of Snøhetta.

To recreate the original, the architects took the three-dimensional computer model of the caves and tweaked it slightly to make the entire complex wheelchair accessible. The smooth limestone of the upper part was modeled as a shell of fiberglass-reinforced resin supported on a steel frame. Each section of this shell was painted in a temporary studio by a team of artists, guided by digital images projected from three directions to compensate for irregularities in the surface. The sections were then seamlessly joined.

Snøhetta has created architectural promenades within several of their buildings, from the Oslo Opera House to the entry pavilion of the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York. Here, the whole complex is designed as a sequence of zones, linked by circulation routes that are designed to intensify visitors’ experience of landscape, art, and architecture. “We wanted to emphasize the importance of physical movement, playing up the contrast of light and dark, opacity and transparency, rough concrete and smooth glass,” explains Verlegard. “There's a sense of theater in the way people are transported from one environment to another.”

Photo by Boegly+ Grazia, courtesy of Snøhetta.

Visitors enter through the tall glazed facade of the reception hall. Guides assemble groups of 32 and take them on an elevator to the landscaped roof, from which there is a 360-degree view of the forest, the village, and the Vézère valley. A ramp leads down, compressing visitors in a narrow fissure in preparation for the replica of the cave. Groups emerge from this immersive experience into a courtyard bounded by a 40-foot green wall and a cascade of water, which serves as a kind of decompression chamber and offers a refreshing sensation on a hot summer day. From there, they can explore interpretative galleries where fragments of the art work are suspended from the ceiling on steel rods in an explosion of color and interpretative technology.

The remaining display areas are linked by a skylit concourse in which geological strata are sandblasted into tilted concrete walls that abstract the spatial drama of the caves. Three galleries explore the history of cave painting; the next space contains a three-dimensional movie theater where Lascaux is put into a global context. Beyond are changing exhibitions of contemporary art and work by artists who have been inspired by Palaeolithic art. The promenade ends where it begins, in the reception hall, which includes the obligatory gift shop and café. Snøhetta has created a building of rare originality that respects the natural and manmade context while enhancing it through contrast. It’s an experience that captures the magic of the caves.

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