Cave art in the age of digital reproduction
Lascaux IV, the latest addition to Centre International de l’Art Pariétal in the French town of Montignac, welcomes visitors to an immersive educational experience of the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings. Known by archaeologists as the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory” due their spiritual and historical significance, the 20 000-year-old paintings are among the finest known examples of art from the Paleolithic period.
Created as a holistic museum and educational experience, Lascaux IV features state-of-the-art experiential storytelling technology paired with a facsimile of the original caves. Visitors are invited to discover the caves in a way that reveals a sense of wonder and mystery – as if they, too, were the first group of adventurers to stumble upon the cave paintings.
Conseil Général de la Dordogne
Associate architect: SRA Architectes
Associate architect, study phase: Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture
Scenography: Casson Mann
2 Immersive and authentic experience
Lascaux IV is designed to initiate a transition through time and space, creating an adventure similar to that of the cave’s first discoverers in 1940. Snøhetta and SRA Architectes, alongside scenographer Casson Mann, worked closely with archaeologists to create an immersive experience.
The cave replica was developed through the most advanced 3D laser scanning and casting technologies to replicate the original cave form to a 1-millimeter tolerance. Following the construction, the caves underwent a careful analog process: 25 artists spent 2 years hand-painting 900 meters of resin rock reproductions. To ensure the highest level of accuracy, artists used the same pigments that the prehistoric painters used 20 000 years ago to recreate the 1 900 paintings and engravings that adorn the walls of Lascaux IV.
3 A journey through prehistory
The visitor experience is carefully sequenced. Beginning in the lobby, visitors ascend by a lift to the belvedere out on the roof, where a magnificent panoramic view of Montignac and the Vézère Valley awaits. They then descend a gentle slope towards the cave facsimile, which follows the incline of the roof towards the edge of the forest until reaching the entrance to the replica.
Upon exiting the facsimile, visitors arrive at the Cave Garden. Framed by plants, the sky and the sound of flowing water, the patio provides an opportunity to re-adjust to the exterior context after the intense visceral and emotional experience of the cave.
Inside the cave facsimile, the atmosphere is damp and dark, re-creating the humidity within the caves. Sounds are muffled and the temperature drops to about 16 degrees Celsius. This sequence is dedicated to contemplation and an experience of the sanctuary that once was. Lights flicker just as the animal fat lamps of Paleolithic times did, revealing the layers of paintings and engravings on the surface of the walls.
4 Enhancing the surrounding landscape
Situated at the intersection of two distinct landscapes, between a densely forested protected hillside and the agricultural Vézère Valley, the museum is conceived as a fine cut in the landscape. Its monolithic, sober expression speaks to the surrounding nature and massive rock formations embedded in the hill, with a new, public agricultural landscape unfolding around it.
The landscape design for Lascaux IV consists of both the exterior spaces on and within the museum itself, and the 75 000 square meter-area surrounding the museum, including parking spaces, retention pools, agricultural and meadow land, flower gardens, water mirrors, 8 500 square meters of vegetated rood, restoration of the forest edge, paths and hard surface areas.
The area’s rich natural and cultural landscape is seamlessly integrated. The museum's publicly accessible roof connects to the surrounding meadow with tall grass vegetation. Traditionally used shrub vegetation, “haie bocagere”, is used to differentiate between the public and private areas.
Paths leading to the museum’s entrance are cultivated as an intensified version of the surrounding agricultural landscape, divided into subtle parterres with different sorts of flowery meadow and successive agricultural crops. Integrated are also large retention pools with wetland planting that contain and filter rainwater.
Closest to the entrance, the parterres are intensified into smaller color-themed flower gardens. More than 100 different species of natural flowers create rich, fragranced experience before entering onto the building and museum experience.
5 Bringing contrasts together
Throughout the museum, the visitor experience sequences a balance of stark differences in atmospheres, light and intensities – from the enclosed exhibition spaces ensconced in the hill, to the light-filled lobby and transition spaces. The juxtaposition between descent and ascent, inside and outside, earth and sky, or nature and art, evoke the analogous experience of the caves.
6 Cave painting-inspired wayfinding
By using the architecture and landscape itself as directional elements, the need for extensive signage and wayfinding elements were superfluous, and only the necessary signage was elegantly integrated and executed.
The signage and wayfinding concept considers two major parameters. Firstly, the architecture itself, with its beautiful, raw concrete surfaces and finding a solution that would utilize the surfaces in a symbiotic relationship between the lettering and the underlying tactility. Secondly, and equally important, was to find a solution that had relevance to the cave paintings themselves.
The deep, natural red colors and the hand-drawn iconography pay homage to the ancient grotto masters, matched with the typography from the museum’s visual identity.
All signs are painted directly onto the concrete surfaces to keep the dry tactility alive and to stay as close to the cave paintings in execution as possible.