Pei Creates a New Entrance to the Louvre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

I. M. Pei’s controversial glass pyramid provided the historic Louvre with an entrance that was modern, distinctive, and functional.

Summary of Event

By the early 1980’s, the Louvre, one of the world’s most prestigious museums, was in a terrible state of disrepair. It lacked a dignified and visible entrance, was desperately short of gallery space, failed to provide visitors with decent amenities, lacked proper repair workshops and administrative offices, and possessed no coherent plan for displaying its vast treasures; moreover, the building’s exterior facades were in need of substantial renovation. When François Mitterrand was elected as the first Socialist president of France’s Fifth Republic in 1981, he was determined to restore the Louvre to its former glory, and a plan to renovate the museum was set in motion. In a controversial move, Mitterrand disdained an international competition and appointed I. M. Pei, a Chinese American, as the project’s principal architect. Museums Louvre Architecture;Louvre Crystal Pyramid Art;museums [kw]Pei Creates a New Entrance to the Louvre (Mar. 4, 1988) [kw]Louvre, Pei Creates a New Entrance to the (Mar. 4, 1988) Museums Louvre Architecture;Louvre Crystal Pyramid Art;museums [g]Europe;Mar. 4, 1988: Pei Creates a New Entrance to the Louvre[06760] [g]France;Mar. 4, 1988: Pei Creates a New Entrance to the Louvre[06760] [c]Architecture;Mar. 4, 1988: Pei Creates a New Entrance to the Louvre[06760] Pei, I. M. Chirac, Jacques Mitterrand, François

Pei was already a respected figure with an international reputation, noted for his modernist designs characterized by stark, angular geometric shapes. Significantly, he had considerable experience in working on art museums; his east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., was widely regarded as a critical success. Pei quickly rejected the idea of remodeling any of the three existing entrances to the Louvre; he decided instead to locate a totally new entrance in the geometric center of the Louvre complex. The new entrance would lead visitors into a vast underground complex that would feature not simply a reception hall but the offices, restoration rooms, conference centers, restaurants, bookstores, and other support facilities that the old Louvre lacked.

After serious reflection, Pei decided that the new entrance would take the form of a glass pyramid. Pei believed that the pyramid is an inherently classical design, so the entrance would therefore harmonize with the classical facades of the surrounding Louvre structure. A pyramid, moreover, would occupy less volume than a dome or a square and thereby be less intrusive than either. Pei would construct the pyramid of transparent glass, which would allow people on the surface level to see through the structure and would also admit light into the museum’s underground area—thus reducing any claustrophobic effect and avoiding giving the impression that visitors were descending into a subway station.

When Pei formally unveiled his plans on January 23, 1984, the design provoked an immediate storm of controversy, and Pei himself was subjected to vitriolic verbal assaults. In the ensuing weeks and months, what the press dubbed “the battle of the pyramid” took place. Two important French newspapers, Le Figaro and Le Quotidien de Paris, led the opposition to the design, and even the prestigious Le Monde lent its columns to Pei’s critics. Editors, journalists, and members of the cultural establishment derided the pyramid as a useless gadget, a postmodernist knickknack, an annex of Disneyland, and a cheap and gaudy diamond. A former French minister of culture, Michel Guy, Guy, Michel founded a new association to fight the project and quickly enrolled fifteen thousand people, and a member of the French Academy went so far as to call for an insurrection. Three respected art historians published a book claiming that the project would be a disaster, and thirty thousand copies were sold in the first month after publication. One periodical that defended Pei, Le Nouvel Observateur, found itself the target of hate mail, some of it racist in nature.

Why did Pei’s plans provoke such a venomous reaction? One must first remember that the Louvre is not simply a museum; it is part of French history, culture, and heritage, and many French citizens did not want the Louvre to be defiled by foreigners or imported architects. Pei was resented because he was not French, and the fact that he was an American of Chinese birth made him even more suspect in some circles. More reasonably, the pyramid was regarded as incongruous, a modern edifice totally out of place in stately classical surroundings. The symbolism of the pyramid, it was also argued, was closely identified with death, whereas the Louvre stood for the life-giving forces of culture and civilization. Some critics, moreover, argued that the final project would result in a gigantic Louvre; it would be better, they said, to have multiple entrances that would admit the public into several smaller Louvres to avoid overwhelming visitors.

Finally, it was obvious that politics played an unfortunate role in the criticism of Pei’s design. Mitterrand was a Socialist, and many of the project’s critics were conservatives; the latter accused Mitterrand of wishing, like the ancient pharaohs, to build a grandiose monument to himself. More objective observers suggested that the argument was not really about a pyramid; it was about conservatives confronting progressives, the old against the new, a snobbish cultural elite being frightened by the democratic masses.

Central courtyard of the Louvre. The glass pyramid serves as the museum’s main entrance.

(U.S. Navy/Ross)

Pei was not without friends, however. In an unusual statement, all seven curators of the Louvre publicly announced their support for his design. Prominent orchestra conductor Pierre Boulez gave his endorsement to the project, as did the widow of former French president Georges Pompidou. A particularly valuable ally was the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. Although he was the leader of one of France’s major conservative parties, Chirac stated that he was not hostile to the project, but he did request that a full-scale model of the new entrance be erected at the proposed site. The model was built in early May, 1985, and no fewer than sixty thousand Parisians streamed by the site. Most were pleasantly surprised that the pyramid was not anywhere near as large or obtrusive as they had feared; indeed, many commented on its reasonable proportion and sedate placement. This event seemed to play a key role in defusing much of the criticism, and opposition to the project began to collapse. Not surprisingly, shortly thereafter public opinion polls began showing substantial support for the pyramid.

The project moved forward, and on March 4, 1988, Mitterrand officially dedicated the Crystal Pyramid, as it came to be popularly known. The finished product was stunning, if nothing else. Exquisitely proportioned, it stood 71 feet high, measured 118 feet at the base, and contained 793 diamond-shaped panes of the finest polished optical glass. Although it weighed some two hundred tons, it looked like it floated slightly above the ground. Surrounding it were three smaller glass pyramids as well as a series of triangular reflecting pools with fountains made of dark-blue granite. Even critics could find no fault in the superb craftsmanship and the quality of the materials. At the time, however, visitors could not enter the Louvre through the pyramid, because the underground portions of the project were still incomplete. In another ceremony on March 30, 1989, Mitterrand officially dedicated the finished project, and the general public was finally able to use the new entrance to the Louvre.

Significance

The most obvious impact of Pei’s work at the Louvre is that he essentially transformed the museum into a modern, efficient facility, bringing it up to the service and exhibition standards of such institutions in the late twentieth century. He created a functional entrance in a spot where tourists would expect to find it, in the geometric center of the vast complex that constitutes the Louvre. The distinctive building he designed to mark the entrance is recognizable but not overwhelming; the pyramid is actually only two-thirds the height of the surrounding buildings. Visitors can use escalators, a beautiful helicoidal staircase, or a modernistic circular hydraulic elevator to descend into the entrance hall. Visitors have easy access to tickets and information and are guided through a series of underground tunnels to the portions of the museum they wish to see.

Pei also dramatically enlarged the capacity of the Louvre. In modern museums, a fifty-fifty split is regarded as the optimal ratio between exhibition space and space devoted to support facilities; in the old Louvre, galleries had represented 80 to 90 percent of the total space. Normally, an architect would add a modern wing to an existing museum, but of course such an addition was unthinkable in the case of the Louvre. Part of the new space was to come from the north wing of the Louvre, from which the Ministry of Finance was moved. Pei, in a brilliant stroke, found the solution for additional space by going underground, creating no fewer than twenty acres of museum space underneath the Louvre’s existing courtyard. This presented some formidable engineering problems, as the nearby Seine River could possibly flood the new entrance. Special provisions were made to create a drainage network and to ensure that pumps would be ready should the Seine reach flood stage.

During excavation for the project, another problem arose: Workers uncovered the remains of the fortress of Philip Augustus, erected around 1200, and also found portions of the palace of Charles V. The construction schedule was rearranged so that progress could continue while teams of archaeologists were sent into the critical areas; they worked quickly and efficiently for several months in what was probably the largest archaeological expedition in French history. In the end, some twenty-five thousand artifacts were found and preserved for posterity, and large segments of the fortress tower, wall, and moat were restored. Pei skillfully worked these archaeological treasures into the exhibition spaces, so that now visitors can view not only the artistic treasures of the Louvre but also other valuable artifacts from France’s past.

It was not simply the Louvre that Pei affected, however; his project also had a broader impact on the city of Paris. Previously, much of the Louvre’s courtyard had been disfigured during the day as it served as a parking lot, and after dark it tended to be deserted at best or used as a rather unsavory trysting area at worst. With the construction of the pyramid, the area was redeemed. It now teems constantly with vibrant activity thanks to the fact that the pyramid is lighted at night. Indeed, some argue that the pyramid is at its best either when it catches the rays of the setting sun or when it is illuminated. Pei thus played a key role in reinvigorating a significant public space, saving it from decay and underuse and transforming it into a safe, pleasant area for Parisians and tourists alike.

Other architects have also benefited from the Louvre design, in that through this work Pei gained renewed respectability for modern architecture. Parisians may be forgiven for having a negative attitude toward modern architecture. Several previous attempts at building skyscrapers or creating ultramodern urban projects in the city were censured for their sterility and lack of taste and grace, among these the Pompidou Center and the Tour Montparnasse. Pei demonstrated that one can use modern architecture, materials, and engineering to create something functional and efficient while at the same time showing respect for the past and sensitivity to the needs of city dwellers.

Perhaps Pei should be commended for what he did not do as much as for what he actually built. He created new space without adding a disharmonious modern wing to the Louvre. Without ripping up historic rooms, staircases, and hallways, he made it possible for the museum to move large numbers of visitors through its facilities and to provide them with decent amenities. After the work was completed, a pyramid of restrained proportions and some lovely reflecting water basins were the only visible external signs of the vast renovation that had occurred. The full glory of the old Louvre stood intact, majestic, imperial, and beautiful as ever. Pei was fully aware that this commission was something special, that it had a unique and historical dimension to it. After all, not every architect is privileged to leave a mark on what is arguably the world’s greatest museum. Museums Louvre Architecture;Louvre Crystal Pyramid Art;museums

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biasini, Emile, Jean Lebrat, Dominique Bezombes, and Jean-Michel Vincent. The Grand Louvre: A Museum Transfigured, 1981-1993. Translated by Charlotte Ellis and Murray Wyllie. Paris: Electra Moniteur, 1989. Sophisticated study focuses on the architectural and technical aspects of the construction, presenting highly detailed information in the form of a diary of the project (Biasini was the project’s first director). Includes an extensive collection of pictures, drawings, and plans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coignard, Jerome, Joel Girard, and Christophe Lagrange. The Grand Louvre and the Pyramid. Translated by Lois Grjebine. Paris: Beaux Arts Magazine, 1990. One of the best brief introductions to the subject available, written primarily for the novice. Includes excellent color photographs of both the pyramid and the vast complex underneath it. Does not discuss the controversy generated by Pei’s design to any extent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Archimbaud, Nicholas. Louvre: Portrait of a Museum. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998. Highly illustrated volume discusses the history of the Louvre, including its architecture, as well as the museum’s collections. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Douglas. The Museum Transformed: Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990. Davis, the former architectural critic for Newsweek, offers some valuable insights into the major differences between the traditional museum and the museums of the late twentieth century. Includes a brief section on the Louvre’s pyramid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lipstadt, Helene. “A Paris for the Twenty-First Century?” Art in America 72 (November, 1984): 104-113. Places the Louvre renovation project within the larger political and cultural context of other ultramodern projects in Paris. Argues that Mitterrand sought to represent his Socialist government as the patron of a new democratic culture and that the pyramid, with its easy access, served as a symbol of his attempt to make culture accessible to the masses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Susan. “French Ferociously Debate the Pei Pyramid at the Louvre.” Architecture 74 (May, 1985): 25, 34, 40, 46. Competent and balanced account of the controversy Pei’s pyramid generated, written by the director of the American Institute of Architects’ Octagon Museum. Includes several photographs, including one of the famous mock-up that helped transform public opinion in Pei’s favor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiseman, Carter. I. M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture. Rev. ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. Outstanding study of the architect’s life and work is based on solid scholarship and filled with interesting anecdotes. Devotes an entire chapter to the Louvre project, and another chapter, titled “An Orderly Enigma,” provides unique and penetrating insight into Pei’s personality, character, and work habits. Includes hundreds of photographs and illustrations.

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