Browse all

The Louvre Pyramid

From unpopular project to symbol of Paris

The Louvre Pyramid From unpopular project to symbol of Paris

Ieoh Ming Pei, also known as I.M.Pei, the Chinese-American archistar who, among many buildings, designed the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, died at the age of 102 years old. His work, which has long since become a symbol of the City of Light in the collective imagination, like the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame, was initially strongly criticised by French public opinion. Let's go back to the early 1980s. François Mitterrand, who has just been elected President of the French Republic, has a dream: to expand and give higher prestige to the Louvre, assigning to the museum also the wing of the building occupied by the Ministry of Finance and realizing a new entrance to facilitate access for tourists. Among the many proposals presented, the politician chose those of an American architect named I.M.Pei who shared his vision of a space, later called Carrousel du Louvre, that would welcome visitors also "entertaining" them with an auditorium, temporary exhibition rooms, a large bookshop, boutiques and restaurants. 

The actual project consisted in revisiting the inner courtyard of the Louvre by placing in the Cour Napoléon, instead of the two large existing tree-lined flowerbeds, a glass and metal pyramid surrounded by fountains with large flat triangular basins, arranged in such a way as to form a square. The 22-metre-high structure, with a 35-metre base, consisted of 70 triangular and 603 diamond-shaped glass panes supported by a 200-tonne aluminium and stainless steel frame.  In order to complete and amplify the scenic effect, Pei had planned another three smaller copies of the five metre height around the main pyramid; while the interior would have housed an upside-down 7 metre high pyramid and a square plan with a 16 metre side that descended like a convex body almost reaching another rocky structure of the same geometric form.

This was sufficient to cause a scandal. Le Figaro called Pei's work "a gadget"; the magazine L'Amateur d'art wondered "why Mitterrand had chosen a Japanese-American architect when a Frenchman would never cut the perspective to the west of Paris". The critic André Fermigier wrote in Le Monde that Pei had inserted a "foreign body, showing such disdain for history", even deciding to leave the newspaper when a special supplement dedicated to the glass pyramid was published. The main concern was that such an imposing and modern structure would damage the historical aesthetics of the Louvre complex, but after Pei's work was inaugurated on March 30, 1989, many changed their minds radically. For example, observing the clean lines and sharp edges, the simple but pleasantly monumental geometries of the architecture, a journalist from the Quotidien de Paris wrote: "The much feared pyramid has become adorable". So, over time, the structure established itself as a symbol not only of the Louvre, but of Paris, entering the collective imagination, literature and cinema (have you ever watched The Da Vinci Code?).