La Pyramide du Louvre – *****
From the moment I.M. Pei’s design for the pyramidal addition to the Musee du Louvre was introduced in 1985, it was the subject of controversy and international attention, derided as a violation of the museum’s classical integrity. But two decades later, it is one of the top tourist attractions in Paris, attracting some 8.5 million annual visitors.
Two weeks ago I traveled to Paris for the 20th Anniversary celebration of the project. It was also a reunion of the original team that worked on this historic project, including our firm, which worked closely with the architects on developing the original wayfinding and signage.
The week of festivities included a light installation by Jenny Holzer, lectures and films. But the highlight was a daylong seminar about Pei’s architectural plan, its impact on the Louvre and on the city of Paris. Architects and curators dramatically recounted the massively complex process, from design conception through final construction, in a series of presentations. The key point reinforced throughout the day was that Pei’s design was more about urbanism than architecture. It responded to the desperate need to integrate the museum into the fabric of the city and transform the Louvre’s main courtyard from a dismal parking lot to a grand public gathering place.
The Pyramid is actually the proverbial tip of the iceberg and is a fraction of what Pei’s concept encompasses. Architects responded to the museum’s enormously challenging brief by creating an entire world of interconnected functional spaces underground to meet the demands of 4.5 million international visitors a year. The pyramidal skylights (one major, three minor) are the only parts of this plan visible at the surface. They serve as a form of signage that says “Enter Here.” Their geometry is pure and the immensity of the original palace that surrounds them dwarfs their size.
Recent studies show that the Louvre now draws nearly twice the number of visitors than it did before the Pyramid’s installation. Due to continuing crowd control challenges, it is somewhat a victim of its own success. However, with its elegant structural web of supports and cables, the Pyramid remains an architectural and engineering marvel.
During the conference, Pei was asked to say a few words and at 92 he has lost none of his charm. In a simple statement he thanked the Louvre for “allowing him to discover so much about France” and said that the experience “gave more to him than he gave to the museum.”
Certainly an architectural project that costs a zillion dollars rarely results in a small gesture. However, it’s clear from a perspective of 20 years, that at the Louvre, Pei achieved a kind of architectural sleight-of-hand with so much more there than meets the eye.
The “Yes to Less” rating is based on three criteria: beauty, ingenuity, and functionality. Designs can earn as many as five stars (“Flawless”), or as few as one (“Clueless.”)
Readers are invited to nominate design examples–from the brilliant to the egregious–for Carbone’s consideration.