News feature

Lascaux Caves

Snøhetta’s International Centre for Cave Art opens in Lascaux with full-size replica of ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’ Visitors embark on a journey 20,000 years into the past, says Kim Megson


A dramatic new museum celebrating some of the world’s most famous prehistoric cave art has opened at the Lascaux Cave complex in France.

The E66m (US$70.3m, £56.2m) International Centre for Cave Art is located in the town of Montignac-sur-Vézère, at the foot of the hill where the Lascaux caves – adorned with the highest concentration of Paleolithic cave art in Europe – were discovered in 1940.

Within the new centre, designed by Norwegian architects Snøhetta and scenographers Casson Mann, is a sensorily authentic replica of the caves called Lascaux IV.

Developed through advanced 3D laser scanning and casting technologies, and recreated to a tolerance of 1mm, the facsimile has been recreated by the Périgord Facsimile Workshop (AFSP) with the same humidity, light, sound, smell and 16°C temperature as the UNESCO-protected original.

Over two years, 25 artists hand painted 900m (2,900ft) of resin rock reproductions, using the same pigments the prehistoric painters used 20,000 years ago to recreate 1,900 cave paintings.

Visitors to the centre ascend from the lobby to the building’s rooftop, where there is a panoramic view of the surrounding valley. In groups of no more than 30, they then descend a gentle slope, as if retracing the steps of the four young boys who discovered the original cave, and then enter the facsimile.

After journeying through the caves, they enter a bright outdoor transitional Cave Garden – the stark difference in atmosphere and light creating a juxtaposition with the underground world. They then enter four linked exhibition rooms, including a 3D theatre, which explain the environmental and cultural context that paved the way for the creation of the cave art, and the techniques and equipment which was used to create it.

“There’s a massive amount of knowledge about Lascaux, but also many different interpretations of how it came to be and no real, definitive answers,” Casson Mann founder Roger Mann told CLAD. “Our goal then was to provide context to these questions, to move people and to give them room to explore the permutations of what they have just seen inside the facsimile.

“Despite the centre being built around a replica, the visitor experience is designed to be one of magic and authenticity.”

Snøhetta’s building, conceived with local firm SRA Architectes, is a low-rising glass and concrete structure designed as “an incision, or a horizontal fault that accentuates the line between the surrounding valley and Lascaux hill.”

The walls, roof and interior and exterior floors use the same type of concrete to create a distinctive monolithic appearance.

“The building feels like neither landscape or architecture,” Snøhetta founder Craig Dykers told CLAD. “It occupies space and likewise you occupy it. You walk on the roof, it feel as though it’s yours and you own your experience. It’s very connected to the earth we stand on, and it mediates between the municipal context of the nearby town, the agrarian landscape of the immediate surroundings and the paleolithic cave within.”

He added that by framing the experience of the cave replica with contemporary design, the trap of artifice is avoided, because while the visitor understands they are in the presence of a reproduction, they still feel its impact.

Lascaux IV complements Lascaux II – an original replica of the cave that opened in 1983 – and prevents that attraction from becoming overcrowded. There is also a Lascaux III – an 800sq m (8,600sq ft) mobile replica of the cave that is taken around the world.

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