Lascaux. That mystical place in France’s Dordogne region is known throughout the world. Despite being one of numerous caves in southwestern France and neighboring Spain that features prehistoric art—some older, some bigger—Lascaux gained an international reputation for the quality, diversity, color, and sheer size of its animal paintings. The tale of its discovery and its unique history since then have only added to the allure. Stumbled upon by a teenage boy and his dog in 1940 as France was embroiled in World War II, Lascaux opened to the public shortly after the war’s end. It eventually became clear that the constant visitors were taking a toll on the grotto and its treasures, forcing it to permanently close in 1963. It has only been accessible to a very restricted group, mainly scientists, since then—ushering in a new era for the Paleolithic phenomenon.
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Lascaux II, a full-scale replica of a portion of the cave, opened 20 years later in 1983, just beside it, and was, to the surprise of many, a hit. (Lascaux III, a traveling replica, followed in 2012.) This December, the Centre International de l’Art Pariétal—what has come to be known as Lascaux IV—opened 1,700 feet down the hill from the original on what was farmland, beside the small town of Montignac. It is a full-fledged museum housing yet another, larger, cave facsimile, plus interactive and contemporary art exhibits, theaters, a shop, restaurant, and offices. The new facility was built, in part, to alleviate stress caused to the original by the 250,000 annual visitors to the adjacent Lascaux II, which will remain partially open to groups.
The Oslo-based office of Snøhetta, partnering with London-based exhibition designers Casson Mann, won the commission for the center in 2012 after entering an open competition, a rarity for the firm. “Lascaux is sacred in France and important for Europe,” says Snøhetta project architect Rune Veslegard. “To be able to participate in that history was very interesting for us.”
Like much of its work, Snøhetta’s project in Montignac is equal parts architecture and landscape. The design recalls Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House (RECORD, August 2008), appearing like a rock formation upon whose roof people, including nonvisitors to the museum, can stroll and picnic. Ensconced within the base of the hill, the 93,000-square-foot building is faced with a 590-foot expanse of continuous glazing that ranges from a sliver to 24 feet high, and topped with a jagged concrete roofline, making it both slight and monolithic. Snøhetta carved three incisions into the hill—the first for the glassy façade, the second to allow daylight into the 34-foot-high canyonlike orientation space at the center of the museum, and the last, bordering the dense forest above, to form the outdoor entrance to the new cave replica.
The decision to enter the cave replica from the outside rather than from the museum was controversial, and one Snøhetta fought to maintain. “At some point, the client wanted to enclose everything, but the experience is stronger and more powerful to separate the cave from the rest of the museum,” says Veslegard. “We wanted visitors to discover it as the boy did, and come into contact with the sights and smells of the forest.”
Rain or shine, after passing through the interior orientation space’s canted poured concrete walls and being escorted by a guide and taken in an elevator to the planted roof, visitors in small groups take the ramped access route, lined by stone retaining walls, into the dark cave replica above the main museum space, where the temperature, acoustics, humidity, and light levels are as close to those of the original as possible.
What did change, by necessity for a public building, was the geometry of some of the wall and floor surfaces. In the real cave, for instance, some passages are as narrow as 12 inches, and their counterparts had to be widened for the museum. Where the slope of the ground surface was too steep, the incline was adjusted to meet accessibility guidelines.
Apart from those modifications, advances in 3-D scanning allowed the contours of the new replica’s walls—formed from CNC-milled molds and hung on steel ribs—and the paintings and etchings to come within micrometers of the original. “It took 11 years to reproduce 40 percent of the cave for Lascaux II, and only 30 months to do 90 percent of it here,” says the center’s managing director, Guillaume Colombo. In total, there were over 1,000 people involved in the project. “This was groundbreaking for us on so many levels—to integrate something so complex with architecture and make it work seamlessly,” says Veslegard.
The success of Lascaux II already proved there was a large audience willing to visit a simulacrum. The experience of being within the cave replica is indeed impressive, without feeling like a Disney or Las Vegas– type reproduction. Yet despite the similarities to the Oslo Opera House, without the urban context and a more distinctive architectural expression, Lascaux IV falls a bit flat.
The best aspect of the architecture is the procession through the building—inside to outside and back inside—culminating in lush, green interior walls and gentle waterfalls, a symbol of man’s imprint on nature, not unlike Lascaux itself.
“Almost no one can experience the real cave,” says Veslegard, who actually got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend a half hour inside it, “so we had to create the new reality.”
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
SRA Architectes Paris
Khephren Ingenierie - structural
CassonMann - Scenography
Eric Solé - Tel.: +33683565096
Main structure: reinforced concrete - cast on site
Roof structure: steel trusses
Roof: composite floor deck (Steel + concrete)
Masonry: Exposed reinforced concrete cast on site
Metal panels: Alucobond Colour: RAL 9007 ("Shadowboxes" main facade.)
Metal/glass curtain wall: Contractor: Coveris 33 allée de mégevie - 33170 Gradignan, France
Glass manufacturer: TVITEC
T-shaped vertical steel mullions: COVERIS+VALBUSA
Precast concrete: Main contractor: Lagarrigue BTP Place de la République
Wood: ADB - Les Artisans du bois ZA Les Chalus 04300, Forcalquier, France
Curtain wall: Contractor: Coveris 33 allée de mégevie - 33170 Gradignan, France
Glass manufacturer: TVITEC
T-shaped vertical steel mullions: COVERIS+VALBUSA
Metal: Main contractor: Lagarrigue BTP Place de la République
Subcontractor Steel structure: Cabrol Construction métallique
Metalworks: (Handrails, fences, gratings, metal doors etc) LACOSTE et fils 7 rue César Geoffray, 19100 Brive La Gaillarde, France
Tile/shingles: Tiles: Granifloor Hellgrau R11B (Kitchen and staff restrooms)
Wood frame: ADB - Les Artisans du bois ZA Les Chalus 04300, Forcalquier, France
Glass: Contractor: Coveris 33 allée de mégevie - 33170 Gradignan, France
Glass manufacturer: TVITEC (Main facade)
Glass manufacturer: CRISTEC (Glass lamellas, main facade)
Contractor: Coveris 33 allée de mégevie - 33170 Gradignan, France
Glass manufacturer: TVITEC (Skylights)
Entrances: Contractor: Coveris 33 allée de mégevie - 33170 Gradignan, France
Contractor: LACOSTE et fils 7 rue César Geoffray, 19100 Brive La Gaillarde, France
Wood doors: ADB - Les Artisans du bois
Sliding doors: Contractor: Coveris
Locksets: Contractor: LACOSTE et fils
Acoustical ceilings: Painted monolithic accoustic ceiling (Entrance hall and zone 3)
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: ADB - Les Artisans du bois
Contractors: PPA/BESSE/SONEX Paint: NCS 1500 N (Walls back of house)
Wall coverings: Exposed concrete cast on site (Front of house areas)
Plastic laminate: France Equipement - 0027 Anthracite
Solid surfacing: Exposed concrete cast on site
Floor and wall tile: Tiles: Granifloor Hellgrau R11B (Kitchen and staff restrooms)
Resilient flooring: Tarkett Lino Etrusco 14877002
Office furniture: Tables: Vitra Click 1600x800mm
Reception furniture: Receptiondesk: precast fibrereinforced concrete (Tailormade)
Fixed seating: SOKOA MENDI: DIP0-P0, DIQ0-P0, DIV0-P0, DIX0-P0, DIY0-P0
Chairs: Studio Omega - Q2
Tables: PEDRALI - Ypsilon (Restaurant)
Upholstery: ADB - Les Artisans du bois
Interior ambient lighting: Light designers: 8'18'' Conception Lumière
Tasklighting: Generalux ref.: LINON - Lin154 (Tecnical rooms/ services)
Exterior: Aplyled ref.: RailLed (Integrated in exterior benches)
Elevators/escalators: KONE - elevator to the administration floor
Contractor plumbing: Eiffage - 3-7 place de l'Europe
Contractor Waterfeatures: Arrolimousin -18 rue E. Bugatti