:: I.M. Pei's Pyramide du Louvre . . .
By Rebecca L. Moyer

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The Pyramide du Louvre has been termed Pei's "legacy to modernism." Modernism, which celebrated it's glory in the early decades of the 20th century, aesthetically encouraged subjectivity over objectivity; an emphasis on HOW perception takes place over WHAT is perceived; the blurring of genres and lessening of criteria; the multi-narration of grand, cultural narratives; the rejection of the distinction between "high" and "low" culture; and an emphasis on fragmentation and discontinuity.

Both modernism and postmodernism embrace these criteria; both are criticized for generating an abundance of provisional, incoherent, ahistorical objects. While postmodernity emphasizes this fragmentation and encourages repetition, modernity supposedly laments it. Regardless, the Pyramide is characteristically rooted in this modernist tradition. It serves as a decorative, pastiche of a doorway that is not functional, and divorces itself from its historical surroundings. Also, it has an anything-goes exuberance by disassociating itself from any class distinction. As a structure of glass, cable, and steel, it is highly simplistic and non-exclusive.

Its own populist positioning within the courtyard makes it an aesthetically (hyper)modern object - its aim is to be seen, to attract its "consumers" to a single location. This doorway itself is vague and ambiguous. It mystically invites visitors down a moving, inescapable escalator, dropping them off into the throes of, no, not the museum, but a shopping arena. The prerequisite of a single-file line makes entering the museum an entirely subjective experience, as visitors are dumped freely, one by one, into the seemingly open, yet confined space below. Also, because an engrossing Pyramide pleasantly lights the sky above, there's a modernistic dualism here that makes the visitor focus on HOW the structure exists, rather than WHAT it really means. This trait is exemplified by its recurrence below ground level, in which the visitor again encounters the Pyramide Inversee. This reversal, then, lends itself to another paradox: skewing the perspective of the visitor by turning things upside down, and also, by its own skewed perspective as a reflective construct.

The Pyramide is also a free-floating entity, liberated from its surroundings, recycled in smaller copies scattered above and below the horizontal courtyard plane. These are disconnected from one another. The purpose, therefore, is not the actual production of a space, but the re-production of emblematic qualities of an image, which are reproduced in the partnering lustrous images of the smaller pyramids.

Likewise, back in the courtyard, the experience of visiting the Louvre has been commodified. The pyramid is inescapable; it is obligatory that one must see it. It makes itself known and serves to sell itself. Through its insubstantial, mythic walls, it glimmers, shines, and invites - appealing to us an object to be had, much like a diamond. And, fear not (!), lights surround the Pyramide at night, electronically putting the Pyramide on display.

Pei, himself, has been noted as saying he "does not believe the architecture must find forms to express the times or that it should remain isolated from commercial forces." Rather, his geometric and sophisticated designs loosely relate themselves to the high-tech movement, inferring a relationship to the surroundings of an electronic culture. As a three-dimensional construct, the Pyramide screens or provides windows for looking across the courtyard, functioning much like the electronic screen that one uses to look through to discover, enjoy, see, or learn about something else.

Published in a recent non-profit art webzine, architect Rem Koolhaas, in "The Bloke Alone," sums up the modern condition of aesthetic structural designs in his description of the automonument (his term for the 20th century monument):
Beyond a certain critical mass each structure becomes a monument, or at least raises that expectation through its size alone, even if the sum or the nature of the individual activities it accommodates does not deserve a monumental expression. The category of monument presents a radical, morally traumatic break with the conventions of symbolism: its physical manifestation does not represent an abstract ideal, an institution of exceptional importance, a three-dimensional, readable articulation of a social hierarchy, a memorial; it merely is itself and through sheer volume cannot avoid being a symbol - an empty one, available for meaning as a billboard is for advertisement. It is a solipsism, celebrating only the fact of its disproportionate existence, the shamelessness of its own process of creation…

Koolhaas is describing contemporary architecture as not technical, aesthetic, or ideological - the automonument is most closely indicative of an epistemological crisis, because it is not representative of current state of knowledge. In another stream-of-consciousness article, he describes the scenario more critically and more bluntly, saying, "the built product of modernization is not modern architecture but Junkspace." Rationalizing the terms junk and space, he writes, "if space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, junk-space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet."

Junkspace, according to Koolhaas, is the product of mechanization and technology, mainly, the escalator and air conditioning, jailing progress within the confines of newly built structures. The automonument is junkspace. The Pyramide, then, with its interior-focused, mechanized transportation fixation, is another example of Koolhaas' junkspace from the moment of entry, where "an escalator takes you to an invisible destination, facing a provisional vista of plaster, inspired by forgettable sources. (…'Space' is scooped out of Junkspace as from a soggy block of ice cream that has languished too long in the freezer…)."

A Koolhaas antithesis of Junkspace - namely accessible, is his Prada store in Manhattan. This renovated store was coincidentally once a museum itself - museum turned store mind you - in which the interior public space (like inside the Pyramide) is not enclosed. Instead, you voyeuristically observe others while conscious of being watched. A glass-enclosed machine juxtaposes a gaping hole in the floor, which openly exposes the subterranean basement area. A waving wall and brightly colored murals serve to further disorient and suggest movement between upper and lower floor - one is compelled to look below in a manner reminiscent of peering into and inward the Pyramide du Louvre.

It's critical to note that both Pei and Koolhaas utilize the physical material of transparent glass; both architects acknowledge glass is to be used for creating ostensible partitions, ornamental structures really, that take on geometric forms. Also, both architects use steel; Pei within the stitching of pyramid cables, Koolhaas in the large, mechanical lift inside the glass encasing. This juxtaposition of urbanity and nature provides differing relationships of hardness and lightness, cloudiness and transparency. These physical materials are responsive computational media - they serve as meaningful responses to the urban condition of their respective cities (whether New York City or Paris).

Yet, the outcome is ironically twisted. Koolhaas' Prada store spawns an attentive, quiet consideration, the composure mandated within the designated walls of a museum. Pei's plain and earthy Pyramide produces a chaotic, noisy milieu, a la the frenzy of a shopping mall. Conversely, the brightly decorated Prada store is open and outward, but in this respect directed toward particular tastes; the Pyramide is inward and single-minded, yet unchallenging and therefore aspires to all tastes. Here, is a distinct difference in conditions of attendance. The Pyramide calls for submission; the Prada store invites interaction.

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