The town of Lens, France, is known for two things: It boasts the tallest slag heap in Europe and the Racing Club de Lens soccer team. Neither of these things are anything to brag about. RC Lens was relegated to a secondary league in 2011, and mines around Lens haven't produced coal since the 1960s. This week, an institution opened that will change not just Lens but all of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region: the Louvre-Lens Museum.
That's the hope, anyway. The Louvre-Lens Museum is the latest proving ground—maybe even the final test—of the Bilbao Effect. That of course is the term for the nearly $200-million gamble taken by the city of Bilbao in the early 1990s on bringing the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to the Basque region of Spain. The gamble paid off, culturally and economically: The Frank Gehry–designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum is a 20th-century touchstone, and its success in Bilbao did more than perhaps any other cultural institution to convince leaders and developers that where mega-projects go, economic transformation follows.
That’s an impression that may be mistaken, however, as other cities that have tried to follow Bilbao’s lead—cities that resemble Lens, in fact—have met with failure and frustration.
Lens today looks only a little bit like Bilbao did before the arrival of the Guggenheim. Bilbao is larger: The Basque city had a population of about 360,000 in 1996, plus many more in the larger metro area. Lens has fewer than 40,000 residents. By the 1990s, Bilbao was looking to transform itself from a former port hub of Spain’s iron industry into a city built on a services economy. Per-capita GDP for Bilbao (measured in today’s euro) was about 15,000 euros in 1996, the year before the Frank Gehry–designed museum opened. In Lens, per-capita GDP fluctuated between 16,000 and 20,000 euros over the 2000s. What with its slag heap, smaller population, and lack of port access, Lens faces an arguably worse situation than Bilbao did. (And for what it’s worth, Athletic Bilbao—Los Leones—has never been relegated from the first division of La Liga.)
While the parallels between Lens and Bilbao are there, the Louvre-Lens and the Bilbao Guggenheim are less alike than a pair of top-shelf satellite museums would appear at first glance. The Louvre-Lens is the first satellite for the Musée du Louvre. On the other hand, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, when and if it opens in 2017, will be the fifth museum to bear the Guggenheim brand name. (Not to be outdone, the Louvre has begun construction on a Louvre Abu Dhabi, but at present the project is permanently delayed.) It was French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin who selected Lens in 2004 to be the future site of the next Louvre museum, and the northern France departments of Nord and Pas de Calais picked up the Louvre-Lens’s $103.4 million price tag, making the entire thing a French national project, minus architectural fees. Bilbao, on the other hand, paid the U.S.–based Guggenheim institution $20 million for the name alone, in addition to the costs for construction and operations.
The Bilbao Guggenheim enjoys about 1 million visitors per year, so it may very well be worth the price. Meanwhile the Lens museum hopes to attract half that number—and avoid the pratfalls of the Bilbao Effect.
That difference starts with the design. SANAA, the 2010 Pritzer Prize–winning firm founded by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, has not reinvented the wheel with the Louvre-Lens, which the firm co-designed with architect Tim Culbert. By all appearances, the building is a sleek, handsome example of the crystal-cool modernism that defines SANAA, which also designed the New Museum on the Lower East Side in New York. Anything can happen during a museum’s construction, but the tried-and-true elongated glass cube is unlikely to lead to prohibitively expensive maintenance costs or unexpected redesign fees. SANAA kept it simple. It may look out of place in Lens, but it’s a safe entry in the global registry of modern art museums.
Back when leaders at the New Museum and the Louvre decided to go with SANAA, it was then a rising firm, far from a name brand. Institutions that have chased the Bilbao Effect have a history of shooting too high—especially by pursuing Gehry himself. In the midst of financial turmoil at the beginning of the 2000s, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., sought to build a new wing with a Gehry façade, thinking that the name alone would attract both funders and crowds. Amid soaring projected costs and the economic turmoil following 9/11, those funds never materialized. Biloxi, Mississippi, a city that doesn’t even boast a losing sports team, commissioned Gehry to build a new five-building campus for its Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Project costs soared there, too, for insuring the buildings against flooding and protecting the artworks against humidity. A regional architect might have approached the design differently; as it stands, only one of the five buildings has opened, and the museum was forced to appeal to Biloxi for funds to keep it from shuttering.
Even Bilbao has suffered under the Bilbao Effect. In their 2005 book, The Globalized City: Economic Restructuring and Social Polarization in European Cities, scholars Frank Moulaert, Arantxa Rodriguez, and Erik Swyngedouw studied Bilbao and its Guggenheim as one of nine European critical case studies, which included Athens's bid for the Olympic Games and Lisbon's experience hosting the World Expo in 1998. The authors found that the project transformed the city in unforeseen ways, some of them unwelcome. Economic stratification and social exclusion emerged. The transgressions of the new economic elite went beyond the normal complaints about gentrification, according to the authors; the shock of growth has had unfortunate side-effects for urban governance and democratic participation.
Many cities would be willing to endure these dread elites in exchange for the gains of tourism. But the Bilbao Effect has not found as much purchase in other cities that have tried it—and anyway, the vogue for expanding cultural institutions in order to spark economic transformation came to a sputtering halt with the global financial collapse. The Louvre-Lens is one of the last such institutions approved during that era of enthusiasm, and Lens Mayor Guy Delcourt describes the 300,000-square-foot museum campus as a "lifeline" for the post-industrial city.
The mayor is hoping for a miracle. What he may get instead is a repeat of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a 54,000-square-foot kunsthalle designed by Shigeru Ban for the capital of Lorraine. That expansion is an unqualified success: Built for a reasonable cost to accommodate a little more than 500,000 visitors annually, it has prompted new economic investment in Metz. The Louvre-Lens hardly needs to do more than simply succeed—and it was designed to do exactly that.
Top image: Members of the media work at the site of the Le Louvre Lens Museum on the eve of the inauguration of the museum in Lens.(Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)