Snøhetta’s recreation of the Dordogne's cave of primitive art treasures is excitingly convincing
You don’t expect to find a big concrete groundscraper, albeit one carefully assimilated into the landscape, amid the picturesque historic villages and verdant countryside of the Dordogne region of France.
But then everything about the Lascaux IV International Centre for Cave Art is remarkable, from the 20,000-year-old paintings to the scale and immersive nature of the contemporary visitor experience itself.
Designed by Snøhetta in collaboration with associate architect SRA and scenographer Casson Mann, Lascaux IV opened at the end of last year. It offers an experience that is both impressive and surreal. For what the thousands of visitors see on their expertly-choreographed visits is not the celebrated cave, but a brilliant facsimile that is tantalisingly just metres away from the real thing. To add to the strangeness, after experiencing the cave copy, we then visit another, deconstructed version of the highlights to access the full exhibition interpretation.
When I visited this summer, I found the presentation so good that even though I knew I was looking at a copy, I didn’t feel at all disappointed. Somehow, it all works, helped by the distinctive design of the building itself, which plays a key role in conjuring up the idea of visiting the original caves without actually doing so.
And no-one can really quibble with the need for a facsimile after learning of the tragic story of the original cave. Containing hundreds of animal drawings and carvings of remarkable artistic quality, the Lascaux caves were discovered in 1940, and became a hugely popular post-war visitor attraction. But exposure to light and contemporary climatic conditions coupled with the disruptive biological presence of visitors took a heavy toll. By the late 1950s, the Paleolithic drawings were deteriorating and starting to fade from view as the presence of visitors managed to ruin in a few short decades what had been perfectly preserved for many thousands of years. The original caves were closed in 1963 and a first copy (Lascaux II) opened nearby 20 years later.
Snøhetta’s new visitor facility is hugely impressive. Conceived as a ‘fine cut in the landscape’, the centre is built just down the hill from the caves themselves. This positioning, and the green roof, camouflages well what is a substantial building stretching some 180m wide. Nonetheless, on arrival, the monolithic new building is still a striking addition to the landscape, its sober concrete walls deliberately chosen to evoke the local limestone. These are given a stratified effect using bands of rough and smooth concrete both externally and on the exposed internal concrete walls.
As you enter and move around the building, these sloping concrete walls of up to 13m suggest we are going into the rock itself – even though this is the one thing that we know we are not going to do. The choreographed tour starts with a surprise as we head up in a lift to the top of the building to appreciate the hillside setting of the cave. A soundscape re-creates the time when a group of lads stumbled upon the cave entrance in the 1940s before we move down into the cave copy. Here the cool and damp climatic conditions plus the smell and flickering lights evoke the atmosphere of the original.
Once inside, it’s easy to forget that the hundreds of animal drawings and their cave setting are copies, created on resin rock reproductions by a large team of painters and sculptors with the assistance of the latest 3D laser scanning and casting technologies. The guide helps to recreate the excitement of the boys’ discovery and to describe the different interpretations of the drawings and carvings including the enigmatic symbols that accompany many of the animal images.
After the intensity of the replica cave, we exit into an outdoor transition ‘cave garden’ to re-acclimatise before heading back inside to the exhibition galleries, which feature recreations of selected drawings with interpretations available via touch-screen exhibition panels and individual visitor tablets. Here we can further appreciate the artistry behind the groups of animals, puzzle over the meanings, and consider why the cave artists chose only to include one stick-figure man (with a bird’s head) when they were so skilled at portraying animals.
Circulation spaces between the main and temporary exhibition spaces continue the high stratified walls and sense of being inside the rock, in sharp contrast to the more expansive, light-filled foyer, shop and café areas. There is an appropriate sense of solidity and permanence throughout.
It’s a shame not to be able to visit Lascaux itself, but we rather blew that chance when we had it last century. This immersive replica, and Snøhetta’s dignified visitor centre, ensure that despite its fundamental drawback, Lascaux IV in no way disappoints.