The Louvre Pyramid
The Louvre Pyramid, an integral part of Paris’s Louvre Museum, turns 30 today.
A large glass and metal pyramid designed by Chinese-American award-winning architect I.M. Pei to be the new entrance to the Louvre museum, has become a cherished Paris landmark. But when it was completed in 1989, it shocked and angered the public and the experts.
Pei was commissioned by French President Francois Mitterrand in 1983 to modernize the whole Louvre complex. Mitterrand was so impressed with his modernist extension to the National Gallery of Art in Washington that he wanted him to do the same with the Louvre and hired him without consultations, project or competition.
Pei, who was in his mid-60s when the project began, wasn’t prepared for the hostility his plans would receive from officials and historians. The Louvre’s then director Andre Chabaud, resigned in 1983 in protest. One eminent writer called for revolt in the streets of Paris when culture minister Jack Lang unveiled plans for the pyramid.
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons
Pei’ s idea of an utterly modern pyramid in the courtyard of the centuries-old palace that was once the residence of French kings was met with strong disapproval from the public who saw it as something blasphemous and obscene.
One satirical magazine called the pyramid a tomb and joked that Mitterrand, who was suffering from cancer, wanted to be the first pharaoh in French history.
Apart from the objections to the modernist style of the entrance that was inconsistent with the history of Louvre, and the fact that the pyramid was a symbol of death in ancient Egypt, critics also lamented that the project was megalomaniac, extravagant and expensive folly of Mitterrand and that the architect – the winner of the Pritzker Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of architecture – wasn’t French enough to be given the task of updating the treasured landmark. “You are not in Dallas now!” one of the experts reportedly shouted at him during one heated session that left Pei’s translator in tears.
Wild speculations rose, from one review claiming that “the acrobatic skills of an Indian tribe imported from Canada” would be needed to wash the pyramid panes, to an urban legend that the glass panes of the Louvre Pyramid number exactly 666, “the number of the beast,” meaning Satan, the devil. The 22 meters high glass pyramid is cleaned by trained alpinists and the pyramid contains a total of 673 glass panes.
Pei later said that he received many angry glances in the streets and that at least 90 percent of Parisians were against the project.
At the time, the whole wing of the Louvre was occupied by the French ministry of finance. The Napoleon courtyard was a car park and museum lacked a central entrance and had trouble handling the enormous number of visitors on a daily basis.
Mitterrand’s renovation of the Louvre doubled the exhibition space, making it one of the biggest museums in the world at the time. The costly Grand Louvre “professionalization” that amounted to 7 billion francs, or €1.5bn today, gave Louvre new facilities including a forensic laboratory, a library, an auditorium, temporary exhibition gallery, bus parking, restaurants, cloakrooms – and all that next to a shopping mall with its own Inverted Pyramid that looks like an upside-down and smaller version of the Louvre Pyramid.
Pei, who was obsessed by light, proposed to link the three wings of the museum with vast underground galleries under a large glass and steel pyramid. Visitors entered the museum through the pyramid and descended into the underground lobby and through it to the main Louvre buildings.
Based on a 35m-sided square and supported by a 200-ton steel and aluminum structure, the pyramid is surrounded by water basins and three smaller pyramids. Pei wanted the most transparent and flattest glass possible so that views of the original galleries would not be obstructed and to enable the interaction with the sky and the environment.
As the number of visitors grew, the underground space was restructured between 2014 and 2018 to improve visitor comfort. The Louvre’s director Jean-Luc Martinez believes that Pei’s masterpiece has been of key importance to the museum’s growth and success.
More than 10 million people passed through its doors last year, compared with 3.5 million in 1989. “The pyramid has brought the Louvre Museum into modernity. It is the sign of a revolution that has put the visitor at the center of the museum,” Martinez told French Inter radio station.
“The idea of the pyramid wasn’t simply to make a dramatic gesture. This concept was functional and practical, to create a principal central entrance to aid visitor movement.”
To celebrate The Louvre Pyramid’s birthday, French artist JR created a huge installation that will create the illusion of a larger pyramid emerging from rocks as if it had been discovered by archaeological excavation.