Greeted with hostility and derided as a modernist affront when first proposed as the main entrance to Paris’ Musée du Louvre, the 71-foot-high glass and stainless steel Pyramide du Louvre designed by I.M. Pei, FAIA, now rivals the Tour Eiffel as one of France’s most recognizable architectural icons. As the 2017 recipient of the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award, it has once again been recognized as a legendary project that stands the test of time.
Born of President François Mitterrand’s early-’80s quest to modernize the Louvre—and memorialize his power by erecting monuments—Pei’s pyramid is the form that thrust the 800-year-old Palais complex into the modern era. As one Twenty-Five Year Award juror noted, it “established a benchmark for new, modern architecture that enriches an historic setting with integrity and respect for both history and progress.”
The 1980s, says Stephane Kirkland, author of 2013’s Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City (St. Martin’s Press), was a pivotal decade for the city when architecture and urbanism took center stage. Bolstered by a new law that introduced the systematic use of competitions for public projects, Mitterrand’s Grands Projets revitalized the city—to the tune of $2.6 billion (or 15 billion francs)—and delivered a spate of contemporary architecture in line with his socialist politics. No longer were France’s government building campaigns intended to consolidate and show off its power and influence as it did during the reigns of its kings and emperors. Rather, it sought to deepen the already profound connection Parisians find with their city as the ultimate expression of public space.
“Even though the actual architectural production of the time is equally dated, and sometimes as cringe-worthy as 1980s music or fashion, and the main protagonists of the time have pretty much stopped being active,” Kirkland says, “it was an era that was of huge importance in the development that followed. If nothing else, it created sensitivity and awareness and a belief that architecture in France is a contemporary and not just historical art, even among politicians and other people key to architectural projects but without deep knowledge of the field.”
Adding to the Louvre Legacy
By the 1970s, the Louvre’s courtyard was packed cheek by jowl with cars while the museum’s millions of annual visitors endured agonizingly long waits only to face a disorienting maze of corridors on their way to the view the collection. When he was selected as the architect, Pei faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge: reorganizing and expanding the museum without compromising the historic integrity of one of France’s cherished monuments. To execute the project, Pei wove together an unprecedented amount of cultural sensitivity, political acumen, innovation, and preservation skill. As one juror noted, the project has become “an internationally renowned symbol for Paris and an example of the prowess and legacy of I.M. Pei.”
The entirety of the project, known as the Grand Louvre, was executed in two phases over the course of a decade. For the first phase, which gave rise to the pyramid, Pei reorganized the museum around the central courtyard, the Cour Napoléon, transforming it from a parking lot to one of the world’s great public spaces. Long-gated passageways through the palace were reopened, reinvigorating the plaza and vaulting it into a vital gathering space and a bridge to the city beyond.
Anchoring the eastern end of the city’s Axe Historique, the grand perspective extending from the Louvre to La Défense (the business district just west of the city limits), Pei’s pyramid stands up to monuments such as the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile and the Luxor Obelisk. It also serves as a historical marker, says Kirkland, in that it denotes the articulation of the original axis—the skew of which was made more evident after the destruction and eventual demolition of the Palais des Tuileries in the late 19th century—and today’s. While the pyramid itself does not sit on the 26-degree of the Axe Historique that follows the course of the sun’s rising and setting, Pei requested that a statue of Louis XIV be placed in the courtyard along the axis.
“The test of great architecture is being responsive to the site, defining a place that is transformative,” noted another juror. “Pei’s addition contributes to the experience of the Louvre, creating a place that enhances the lives of all who visit the Louvre and those who never go inside as well.”
Additional support space that would preserve and showcase the character of the palace was a primary goal for the project. Heading underground, Pei added 670,000 square feet below the Cour Napoléon, with an elegant lobby area providing direct access to all three wings of the museum. Natural light, which floods the space through the pyramid and three smaller iterations that surround it, is critical to the project’s legacy and echoes the illumination to be found within the collection. As a corollary benefit of the expansion, the construction process unearthed a trove of medieval artifacts, original foundations, and walls, many of which are exhibited within.
Twenty-seven years since the project was completed, Pei’s success has been reaffirmed by the museum’s visitorship, which has more than tripled since the expansion. To accommodate the influx, the museum recently began its first renovation of the reception area directly beneath the pyramid by the French firm Agence Search. But while it is widely celebrated for its stylistic expression, the pyramid’s functionality is not without criticism by specialists and architects alike, notes Kirkland. The overall scheme of entering through the central square has seen long lines snake in front of the pyramid, a condition worsened by Paris’ recent security concerns.
As the crown jewel of the Grands Projets, Pei’s pyramid has aged more gracefully than the Musée d’Orsay and Opéra Bastille, have not been as fortunate: New York Times critic Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, deemed the former “a graceless battle between new and old” and the latter “a decent enough corporate headquarters.”
“For the Louvre to live, it was necessary to adapt it to our time,” Mitterrand said at the opening of Pei’s pyramid. “The museum today embraces the palace without any further restriction. The collections are better presented, the necessary services better installed, and visitors better taken care of. The epicenter of the project remains the pyramid. It is the visible signal and pure consequence of necessity; it participates in a dialogue of forms that integrates light.”
Despite the rancor that surrounded the design’s unveiling, Pei gave France an unexpected treasure that its citizens and visitors from around the globe value as much as the priceless works of art contained within. Bringing “life, action, and beauty to what was already beautiful,” as one juror noted, the project fused modernity with a swell in national pride for a historic building. In May, the pyramid served as yet another herald of France’s future when it was the backdrop for Emmanuel Macron’s victory speech on the evening of his election to France’s presidency.
“When you ask the visitors, ‘Why are you coming to the Louvre?’ they give three answers,” said Henri Loyrette, president-director of the Louvre from 2001 to 2013. “For the Mona Lisa, for the Venus de Milo, and for the pyramid.”