I.M. Pei's La Pyramide Du Louvre: A Diamond in the Rough or Merely Junkspace?

By Rebecca L. Moyer

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After a moment of astonishment at first sight of the model of the Pyramide du Louvre, Emile Biasini reportedly exclaimed, "It looks like a diamond!" Biasini, chosen by Francois Mitterand to chair the Etablissement Public du Grand Louvre, was first to see Ieoh Ming Pei's design. The Pyramide, completed in 1989, was designed by the Chinese-American, who offered the "luminous structure-symbol" as a distinct way to avoid distracting attention away from the Louvre, but rather, as a structure that would complement or "gracefully blend" with the great palace.

Further, he rationalized, its geometric shape would enclose the greatest area within the smallest possible volume, so it would stand as unobtrusively as possible. It was, Pei assured, "a natural solution." Pei argued that a traditional horizontal roof would only bring in light; a high, pointed roof would bring in both volume and light, with the added advantage of making the entrance very visible.

This was the point of the project, after all. Before the construction of the Pyramide, the Louvre was known for puzzling its visitors - the entrance was concealed and hard to locate; congestion and chaos plagued the courtyard (la cour Napoleon); the hallways of the galleries beneath were dimly lit and incoherent in structure; the entire Richelieu wing was off limits. Pei saw the "L" shape of the museum as nonconducive to public life. By liberating this wing from the French Treasury and restoring it as part of the museum, Pei would reshape the Louvre as a "U." Finding this a much friendlier, more inviting shape, Pei determined the new entrance would, therefore, have to be located in the center. Occupying the center of gravity, this object would maintain and encourage a more harmonious, balanced environment.


The Pyramide, smack dab in the middle of the courtyard, is now the main entrance to the Louvre. Reaching 70 feet into the air, and angling at 51 degrees, the Pyramide pays homage to the first architects, the Egyptians, who standardized 51 degrees for their own pyramids. However, there is a clear distinction (no pun intended) between the two. This modern "pyramid" is made of transparent glass facades. In fact, this was a point Pei was steadfast in defending - there would be no hue, no tint, no gray allowed - the glass was to be pure, clear, transparent. As a result, today the structure stands lucid, obvious, and naked in the courtyard.

To avoid disturbing the balance of the courtyard, small progeny offset it; these small cubic triangles, too, provide light and ventilation to the subterranean spaces below. Steel rods and cables crisscross in complex arithmetic patterns to promote an aura of equilibrium; indeed the new now stands in the midst of the old in the cour Napoleon.

Ideally, the portico leads to a single descending escalator, which escorts visitors to the Main Galleries below. Yet, before reaching these Main Galleries, visitors must navigate through a new shopping center, food court, and open entryway, lit by the unnatural, luminous structure above. The light dramatically intervenes into the hollow corridors below, casting kaleidoscopic shadows through the glass. It illuminates and metamorphosizes with the weather, the time of day, and the strength of the sun above.

Then, there is the Pyramide Inversee, an inverted, undersized version of the Pyramide. The apex suspends only a few feet above the floor, and its base levels with the street above. Out of place and unaccompanied, this substructure reverses the perspective that one had in the cour Napoleon, yet simultaneously calls to its likeness.


While Pei assuredly freed up support spaces for the Louvre with additional galleries, auditoriums, and the Richelieu wing, it remains less than successful as an enclosed entrance. Lines of people wait in the courtyard, fully exposed to the elements, squeezing into the single entrance, to traverse down the single escalator, leaving the "smaller, flanking pyramids [seemingly] aesthetically gratuitous." Therefore, even with the Pyramide, the courtyard remains just as chaotic, disserving its original and primary intended technical purpose.

As an urban structure, it has been highly criticized as "[reshaping] the city's profile and [opening] the door for further vulgarism." As French critics questioned the taste of the design, as well as the American roots of its architect, the "Battle of the Pyramid became a philosophical debate over the future of French culture."

Surely, this Pyramide was to inherit status as an imperative aesthetic mark of the Parisian landscape; Le Grand Louvre holds great cultural and historical significance for the French. But the Louvre is no newcomer to change. First built by King Philippe Auguste around 1200, the great building was to be a fortress to protect the royalty against robbers and thieves. Charles V enlarged it; Napoleon III extended it even further with the addition of the Richelieu wing. Not only has it represented a proud, French nostalgia for days of chivalry and power, its interior is a shrine to international greatness as it houses some of the greatest artworks of all time.

The debate, or battle if you will, surrounding the look, feel, and locale of this aesthetic object, especially in the confines of such a French historical stronghold, surely acknowledged what a significant cultural construct Pei's building would be. A question remains, then, once finally constructed, what did this "luminous symbol-structure" actually represent?

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