It's an abandoned coal mining site in a depressed corner of northern France that was pummeled by the two world wars.
Soon, a branch of the Louvre Museum will rise up on this unlikely site. Work is to start soon on a sleek glass-and-aluminum building that will house hundreds of the Louvre's treasures, from Egyptian artifacts to Renaissance paintings to Islamic art. Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand and Louvre officials inaugurated the construction site Friday.
The modern building will let the venerable French museum experiment, "giving us a new viewpoint on the Louvre's works," said Louvre director Henri Loyrette, who attended the event as staff back in Paris reopened the museum after a strike shut its doors Thursday.
The euro150 million ($226 million) museum in Lens, to open in 2012, is part of a strategy to spread art beyond the traditional bastions of culture in Paris to new audiences in the provinces. The Pompidou Center modern art museum is opening a branch in the eastern city of Metz, and it also hopes to show its masterpieces in a traveling circus big top that will travel to culturally deprived areas.
Lens was picked for the Louvre project because it could use a reversal of fortune. The city was reduced to rubble by the Germans during World War I. During World War II it was occupied by the Nazis and battered by Allied bombings.
For decades, workers risked their lives in the city's coal mines, and then the mines closed _ the last one in 1986 _ plunging the area into hardship. Lens' unemployment rate is about 14 percent, well above the national level of 9.5 percent.
French officials say they want to thank Lens for its sacrifices. Inaugurating the construction site, the culture minister asked the crowd to observe a moment of silence for 42 miners who died in a 1974 accident.
The miners' work "was a form of sacrifice that all of France benefited from," Mitterrand said.
On the construction site _ a hill _ few traces remain of the former mines underneath. Trees have grown up, hiding the surrounding city and creating a surprisingly bucolic setting. Former miners in hard hats and jumpsuits were on hand for the inauguration.
"This region doesn't have much, but Lens has a football team and now the Louvre," said Lucien Laurent, a 72-year-old who started working in the mines at age 14 _ a profession he called "not quite slavery but almost."
Officials hope Louvre-Lens could help transform the city the way the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, turned a struggling industrial area into a hot travel destination. There are questions, though, about whether Lens has much else to offer to tourists: It's rainy and flat and isn't known for its food, while Bilbao is near beaches and offers Basque cuisine.
The Louvre outpost, designed by Japanese architecture firm Sanaa, is a sequence of glass and aluminum boxes on a hill that rises above modest brick row houses nearby. Through the ceiling-to-floor windows, museum-goers will have a view of gardens and woods. Doors placed throughout the building will invite people to step outside.
While Paris' Louvre is strictly organized by era and art style, the Lens project will mix up the masterpieces. In one space called "The Gallery of Time," artworks of all styles from all over the world will be arranged chronologically.
There won't be a permanent collection _ all the works will be loaned from the Louvre and rotated. Some famous works, such as the "Mona Lisa," are too fragile to travel, the Louvre says.
The Lens project, along with plans to open a new Louvre branch in 2013 on an island off Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, has critics worried the central Paris museum will be deprived of some masterpieces and watered down _ a concern that the Louvre has brushed off, saying its treasures must reach a wider audience.
Louvre director Loyrette has shaken things up at the 216-year-old institution since he took over in 2001.
Besides boosting private sponsorship and launching the Lens and Abu Dhabi projects, Loyrette is also working on a new gallery for Islamic art at the main museum. Attendance is way up too: The museum had 8.5 million visitors in 2008, a jump of 67 percent from 2001.
(This version CORRECTS corrects Met to Metz in graf 4.) )