An excerpt from our epic series on the Louvre!
Part 1: “A Humiliating Mess”
Beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.”
-Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris.
The Louvre is a morgue; you go there to identify your friends.
What's the name of that famous museum in Paris? The Louvre? I went through that place in 20 minutes.
If 1968 was the earthquake then 1969 was the aftershock. President Charles de Gaulle’s referendum for increased power narrowly failed and he resigned. The General remained a respected figure due to his service in World War 2 and his ending of the Algerian War. Yet, most French people believed that the old man was trapped in the past. His worldview was based on promoting the country’s power and glory at a time when most voters wanted societal improvement and cooperation between nations.
The idea that France needed to emerge from the past and embrace the future was not limited to politics. Art became increasingly transgressive. In the past artists received commissions from the wealthy to create the most aesthetically-pleasing works possible. The post-World War period levelled much of the economic playing field, resulting in a France that was more egalitarian than it had ever been, with strong middle and working classes. Artists appealed to the masses and created works meant to evoke deep emotions and thoughts. Whereas classical art was meant to be beautiful, modern art was supposed to be transformative. France in the 1960s experienced a number of challenging art styles, including nouveau réalisme, which adopted much from American pop art.
Post-war architecture was also dramatically different than before. The Beaux-Arts school that had dominated Western Europe was in decline. The excessive, ornament-heavy style appealed to the exorbitantly-wealthy who aimed to flaunt their fortunes. The booming numbers in the middle and working class wanted livable buildings at the cheapest cost. In homes and public buildings, function preceded form. Modern architecture removed all outward decorations. It maximized space and utility. Perhaps the most influential architect in post-war France was the Swiss-born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as ‘Le Corbusier.’ Le Corbusier famously said, “a house is a machine for living in.” His projects were minimalist to the extreme, noted for their flat surfaces, open spaces and extensive natural lighting. For Le Corbusier and many other post-war architects, buildings had previously been made in reverse: architects working in the Beaux-Arts style focused on the building and how it would be perceived. Modernists looked to the people who would inhabit these spaces and created enjoyable, usable locations.
Modern art and architecture came together under de Gaulle’s replacement Georges Pompidou. Pompidou was a collector of modern art paintings and thought that the state should nurture new styles of art and architecture or risk falling behind. In December 1969 he announced that the area in central Paris known as the Beaubourg would be the home to a new building housing a public library and modern art museum. Construction began in 1971 and continued even after Pompidou’s death in 1974, finishing in 1977, largely thanks to Prime Minister Jacques Chirac who approved of the project even as president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing did not. Originally called Le Centre national d'art et de culture, it is universally-known today as the Centre Pompidou, and houses the largest modern art museum in Europe. This construction was unlike any before it. The Centre Pompidou was built in a radical fashion as an ‘inside-out’ building. The many pipes, ventilation ducts and enclosed cables are completely visible, unlike virtually every other building where these unsightly elements are hidden within obscuring walls. The Centre Pompidou and its museum were a marked triumph, quickly becoming one of the most popular museums in the world and a point of fascination.
The Centre Pompidou was not the only new museum in central Paris. Just across the river from the Tuileries Garden lies Orsay. Orsay was built in 1900 as a train station connecting Paris to Orléans and the rest of the southwest. By 1939 the train station shut down, and the masterful Belle Époque edifice served as a mail depot and a hotel, though neither function truly suited it. In 1974 President Pompidou decided to turn Orsay into a museum with a specific function. The Louvre held art before 1848 and the Centre Pompidou housed modern art. Orsay was meant to bridge the gap between the two colossal museums and showcase the remarkable art from the Fin de Siècle, a time when French art truly was the envy of the world. Preliminary planning began in 1974 and became a major priority for the government until its opening in 1986.
While the French government championed the new it neglected its traditional house of art. During this period the Louvre was in a sorry state and plagued by numerous problems. There was no easily-visible entrance to the Louvre. When tourists visited they were most likely to discover the entrance when they spotted the horrendously long line of people queueing to get in. Upon joining the line the visitor would have to wait for people to slowly file through the small reception area after which they would move into the cramped spaces of the building. To make matters worse, people often backtracked, as the internal layout was confusing. At this time the museum was in an ‘L’ shape because the Ministry of Finance occupied the Richelieu Wing to the north, leaving just the eastern Sully Wing and the southern Denon Wing for the museum. This meant there was little logical progression through the building.
Another major problem was insufficient space to display artworks and for storage. At any given time 43% of the gallery space was closed off as the museum lacked the funds to maintain the building. There were little amenities inside. There were virtually no areas to rest. There was no bookshop or restaurant. There were only two bathrooms. The palace had not been designed for the physically disabled who could not ascend its lengthy stairs to get to the upper floors. The building had not been upgraded with the newest lighting fixtures and protections from heat, cold, humidity and potential terrorist attacks, meaning that the building complex’s interior was decades out of date.
The Louvre’s exterior was similarly degraded. The Cour Napoléon was a parking lot for visitors and government workers. Buses crammed the Rue de Rivoli looking for any place to drop off their passengers. Constant high-level traffic surrounded the Louvre on three sides. Only the enclosed Cour Carrée was shielded from the perpetual noise of speeding cars. Industrial smog accumulated on the buildings’ walls, giving them a grimy appearance. Oil and other vehicular liquids trickled onto the grounds. Street merchants, falsely claiming they were associated with the Louvre, assembled in the Cour Napoléon to sell their wares. Among them were often pornographic postcards which they hid under their raincoats before flashing them at an approaching visitor. The area gained a reputation as a dangerous place at night. Ieoh Ming Pei’s son, who worked with him on the Grand Louvre project, was told that prostitutes sometimes conducted business there.
Émile Biasini later described the Louvre as “The world’s most miserable museum.” The sentiment was widespread. The average visit to the Louvre lasted around 1 hour and 20 minutes compared to 3 hours and 30 minutes at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. or the NY Met. The Louvre also lagged in total visitors. In the late 1970s 3 million people visited the museum annually, compared to 4.5 million for the Eiffel Tower and 7.2 million for the Centre Pompidou. By the 1980s innovations in transportation, communication and increased wealth meant that more people were travelling than ever before, but the Louvre was missing out on the economic boom. Finally, most French people, and especially Parisians, had abandoned their own treasure. 70% of Louvre visitors were foreign. Tourists from the United States alone outnumbered all French visitors.
The Louvre housed the greatest collection of art and artifacts in the world, yet visiting it was still a terrible experience. French art historian André Chastel said that “the Louvre was the worst kept up, the worst surveilled, the uncleanliest, of all the major international establishments…[it is a] humiliating mess.” An astounding 80% of visitors did not return to the Louvre. It was the sort of thing that people did once out of a sense of cultural obligation. People went in, saw the Mona Lisa, the Winged Nike of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo, maybe the Code of Hammurabi, and then left for good.
Imagine a car speeding along a highway. That car runs out of oil. It continues to move forward but that pace slows down rapidly. In this metaphor the car is the French economy, and the metaphoric oil is, well, oil. In 1973 the United States and a number of allies supported Israel against an Arab-led coalition in the Yom Kippur War. Arab defeat led members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries to place an embargo on oil to Israel’s allies. France was not one of those countries but a global reduction of the world’s most important energy source was bound to have widespread impact. France’s gross domestic product, which had regularly grown at a rate of 4-6% since the end of World War 2, took a nosedive. In 1975 France experienced negative growth for the first time since the war. This marked the end of the trente glorieuses, the thirty-year period of rapid economic growth in France between 1945 and 1975.
President Giscard d'Estaing dealt with the economic crisis through austerity measures. Those worst-affected viewed d’Estaing as cutting off government support for workers right when they needed it the most. The economic crisis and d’Estaing’s handling of it turned popular support against him. On 10 May 1981 d’Estaing lost his reelection bid to François Mitterrand, leader of the Parti Socialiste. That June the socialists won an outright majority in Parliament, which they further secured through a coalition with other left-wing groups. For the first time the Fifth Republic had a left-wing president and a left-wing government.
When Mitterrand entered the Elysée Palace he was determined to bolster French culture by finally fulfilling André Malraux’s decade-long plea: increasing the Ministry of Culture’s budget to 1% of all government spending. Moreover, Mitterrand inherited four projects that d’Estaing had left behind but barely started. These included an institute for Arab cultures; the science and industry museum at La Villette; a monumental skyscraper at the heart of La Défense known simply as ‘Tête-Défense;’ and the conversion of the Gare d’Orsay into a museum. Mitterrand decided to oversee the construction of these and many more public buildings across France in what has since become known as Les Grands Travaux, The Great Works, though often mistranslated as The Great Projects.
The president could not personally oversee the construction and he delegated them to his new Minister of Culture, Jack Lang. Lang was born on 2 September 1939 in Mirecourt. His father was from a wealthy Jewish household and served as a manager in the family business. His mother was Catholic, which became very important during the German occupation as the family did not have to report that her son was part Jewish. Lang was a very bright teenager who excelled in his classes. He studied at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, and in 1961 he received two degrees, one in public service and the other in law. As if those accomplishments weren’t enough he married that same year.
Lang became a professor of international law at the University of Nancy. He proved not just brilliant but hard-working as well. When he was not engaged in teaching or researching he organized cultural events. In 1963 he created the University of Nancy Theater Festival which quickly became famous. In 1972 President Pompidou appointed him to direct the reconstruction of the prestigious théâtre de Chaillot. After Pompidou’s death, d’Estaing became president and appointed the conservative Michel Guy to the position of Minister of Culture. Guy promptly fired Lang, despite protest from left-wing politicians like Mitterrand and from intellectuals like Jean-Denis Bredin, who wrote L’Affaire, often considered the definitive history book on the Dreyfus Affair. Afterwards, Lang became involved in politics, joining the Socialist Party. In 1977 he was elected to city council in the 3rd arrondisement of Paris and in 1979 he became the party’s national secretary of culture. Mitterrand recognized that Lang was a brilliant administrator who respected tradition yet was not afraid to challenge conventional thinking. When Mitterrand won the presidential election in 1981 he made Lang the Minister of Culture. Lang became the overseer of the Grands Travaux, in charge of existing projects and tasked with starting other major works. Almost immediately, Lang’s thoughts turned to the Louvre.
Everyone knew the Louvre needed fixing, but no one had yet dared to propose such a colossal and controversial undertaking. On 27 July Lang wrote a long, prosaic letter to the president. Lang reminded Mitterrand of the palace’s deplorable state. He urged the president to both restore the Louvre’s former glory and modernize it so that it would be, “the greatest museum in the world.” Lang went even further and asked that Mitterrand create a vast urban promenade stretching from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe in what would be one of the largest Parisian development projects since Haussmann. Lang envisioned an elongated space at the heart of France that would make it the envy of all world capitals and a site for Parisians and all French to take pride in their country.
Mitterrand responded by writing a short note on the letter and sending it back to Lang. “Good idea, but difficult (by definition like all good ideas).” Mitterrand tasked Lang with coming up with a more concrete proposal. Thrilled by the prospect of heading such a historic task, Lang took to the project with gusto. By the summer’s end he pitched a bold idea to Mitterrand: remove the Ministry of Finance from the Richelieu Wing, turn the entire building complex into a museum, clean the building’s exterior and fix the congestion problems of the interior. The proposal was not entirely fleshed out, but it was a start.
On 24 September, 1981 Mitterrand held his first press conference. If the journalists assembled there thought it would prove a mostly academic and boring first appearance of the new president they were mistaken. Mitterrand laid out his grand vision for governmental involvement in culture. He announced that the Ministry of Culture’s budget would double to a full 1% of all government spending. He declared that in 1989 there would be a grand, universal exposition to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. He revealed that the state would develop major building projects across the country, including the Louvre. Before departing, he added that the Ministry of Finance would be kicked out of the palace.
The press conference was a thunderbolt that struck at the heart of France. The president’s proposals were daring, innovative and incredibly controversial. The Louvre in particular was on the minds of many in Paris and across the country. How would the monument be reformed? Would it simply be touched up, or would the socialists turn it into some sort of modern monstrosity? The truth was that at the time no one knew what was going to be done about the Louvre; not even Mitterrand or Lang. To save the monument of France, Mitterrand would need an architect for the ages, one who would join the ranks of Pierre Lescot, Louis Le Vau and Hector LeFuel in remaking the Louvre.
Part 2: Origins of an Architect
“Whoever was born a poet became an architect.”
-Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris
“Life is architecture and architecture is the mirror of life.”
-Ieoh Ming Pei
Ieoh Ming Pei was born on 26 April 1917 in what is today Guangzhou, in southern China during a turbulent time in his country’s history. Early 20th-century China was swept up in the Warlord Era, during which various military leaders fought for territory. Intermittent small-scale clashes were broken up by full-blown wars which saw over a million soldiers mobilized and hundreds of thousands killed. Famine was widespread. Peasants in devastated areas ate bark to ward off starvation. The young Ieoh Ming was sheltered from the horrors of war due to his family’s sizeable wealth. His grandfather Li-tai Pei worked for a bank that regularly bribed warlords to protect his hometown of Suzhou.
Ieoh Ming initially grew up in Hong Kong. When he turned 10 his father, Su-Ye, was promoted and the family moved to Shanghai. During summers the boy visited his grandfather’s estate in Suzhou. Like many cities in China, Suzhou has a long history. In 514 BCE King Helü moved his court to the area, turning what had been a collection of villages into the capital of the state of Wu. Helü built an elaborate hunting garden which became renowned across the region. Afterwards, wealthy nobles built their own gardens. The gardens of Suzhou shared many features with those across China: their aim was to create a balance between the self and the natural world. These contain an assortment of the most beautiful trees, bushes and flowers from the area, which are strategically interspersed with ponds, pavilions and pagodas. The architecture of the buildings within and around the garden range from incredibly minimalist to spectacularly elaborate. What is remarkable about Chinese gardens is that the simple architectural features, like Moon Gates, are still striking. Meanwhile the highly-decorated pagodas manage to blend with the environment without detracting from nature.
Suzhou’s gardens became an archetype for wealthy gardens across China. What set Suzhou’s gardens apart was a particular tradition of rock sculpture. Craft workers found large, often tall rocks. These they chiseled, forming holes and shapes that were meant to be pleasing to the eye. They would then take their rock to a beach where the tide would smooth them over a period of years, if not decades. The process took so long that parents often gave their commissions to their children who placed them in their gardens. The traditional craft of rock cultivation is a unique art that combines human intuition with directed nature to produce something that blends the two. The sheer length of the process also implicitly teaches an important lesson: the most beautiful art takes patience; sometimes parents have to start a great work which only their children will be able to enjoy.
Li-tai was not just a financier, he was a traditional Chinese scholar and famed calligrapher who passed on Confucian values to his grandson. Ieoh Ming’s mother, Lien Kwun, was an accomplished poet and flute player. She sometimes took the boy with her to Buddhist monasteries where he learned to meditate and appreciate the silence, though it was difficult for the young child to remain still for hours on end. Lien Kwun raised the boy while her husband, remained a distant figure in his life.
Ieoh Ming grew up between Shanghai and Suzhou, one a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis filled with modern-day constructions, the other, a traditional Chinese city. While in Shanghai he regularly passed by the construction site for the Park Hotel. The building eventually finished at 24 stories tall, making it the tallest building on the Asian continent. The gradual transition from worksite to finished marvel fascinated Ieoh Ming, who decided then that he would become an architect. As a youth one of his favorite architects was André Le Nôtre who designed the gardens at the Palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV.
Shortly after Ieoh Ming’s thirteenth birthday his mother died of cancer. Su-Ye fell into a deep depression and departed for Europe, leaving his children in Shanghai with a caretaker. Su-Ye returned with a younger woman who agreed to marry him if she did not have to raise or live with the man’s children. Su-Ye agreed and Ieoh Ming and his siblings were moved to an apartment. However, Li-tai did not want his grandson to grow up in Shanghai where he believed they would be detached from their heritage and so he moved the children to Suzhou.
When Ieoh Ming Pei turned 18 it was time to go to college. Since the best schools were then in Europe and the United States that is where he looked. He chose the University of Pennsylvania due to the descriptions of their architecture courses. Yet, he quickly became disappointed. For two weeks his professors had him copying sketches from classical Greco-Roman buildings as students learned the Beaux-Arts style. He wanted to create entirely new things, not just copy past designs. Moreover, he excelled in mathematics and science, while his drawing lagged. Downcast, he transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study engineering.
While Pei had given up on his dream, luck steered him back on course. William Emerson, the dean of architecture, recognized his potential. Emerson invited Pei to his house, where he urged him to join the architecture school. Pei then confided that he could not become an architect because he could not draw well. Emerson responded that he had never met a Chinese person who couldn’t draw. His talk worked and Pei once again pursued architecture.
Pei’s experience at MIT was much like at UPenn. Students learned to copy the Beaux-Arts style. Pei excelled in his studies though he still wanted to create transformative architecture. During a visit to the school library he found the three books on architecture written by Le Corbusier. Pei later remarked, “Le Corbusier’s three books were my bible. They were the only thing I could rely on to see anything new in architecture.” The designs were simple, elegant and dictated by form. That year Le Corbusier visited MIT where he gave a guest lecture. He ridiculed modern architecture, calling the skyscrapers of New York City “romantic” but bemoaning that they had killed the street and turned the city into a “mad house.”
In the late 1930s Pei drove to Grand Central Station to pick up a fraternity brother. While there, his classmate introduced him to Ai Lin Loo. Like Pei, Loo was also born to a wealthy Chinese family who sent her abroad for university. She had chosen Wellesley College where she studied landscape architecture. Pei was immediately smitten. Loo told him she waiting for a connecting train to Boston. Pei tried to convince her to let him drive her there, but she said ‘no.’ Later, Pei found out her train had been delayed by a hurricane and he called her to tease her and say she should have gone with him. Then he asked her out. Five days after Loo’s graduation they married.
After graduating from college the Peis wanted to return to China, but by then Japan had invaded and seized much of the north. Pei’s father told his son it was not safe to return, and the couple remained in the United States. Shortly thereafter, Ai Lin applied for a masters at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. It was through her that Pei learned that Harvard was doing exactly what he wanted to do. In 1937 Harvard appointed Walter Gropius the chairman of its architecture program. Gropius was a world-famous architect. A German, he had led the Bauhaus school. He advocated for artists and architects to work together to create buildings that could be cheaply mass produced, which maximized function while being beautiful and distinctive. Gropius’ work became widely admired by modernists and hated by traditionalists. The Nazis loathed his designs, which they considered ‘socialist.’ The pressure became so intense that Gropius fled the country, first to England, then to the United States. He was joined by his Hungarian protégé Marcel Breuer, who had accompanied him into exile and also became a professor at Harvard.
As head of Harvard’s architecture school Gropius turned his revolutionary ideas into a curriculum. He banned art history as a means of forcing his students to start their work from scratch. Gropius also predicted that architecture would become uniform as humanity adopted the most useful forms of construction. Pei disagreed with both of these ideas; he believed that history was important to architecture and that every culture would produce its own artistic styles. Despite their philosophical divergences, Gropius and Breuer were excellent teachers who cultivated Pei’s abilities.
Upon graduating Pei wanted to move back to the homeland. However, even though World War 2 was over, the country was not at peace. The Chinese Civil War pitted Communists against Republicans with significant violence impacting civilians. Su-Ye convinced his son not to return. Instead, the Peis moved to New York City. There, real estate mogul William Zeckendorf hired Pei for his architecture firm. At his new job Pei designed low-cost public housing complexes. The young architect broke onto the scene with the Mile High Center in Denver. At the time, Pei saw a mass exodus from the cities to the suburbs and he wanted to bring people back by making urbanity beautiful again. He drew plans for a building filled with windows that would allow for natural light, and whose base had significant empty spaces for parks. Being a New York City real estate developer, Zeckendorf balked at the unused space, which he considered a waste of money. Pei replied with philosopher Lao-tzu’s saying, “The essence of a vessel is its emptiness.” Zeckendorf took a chance and Pei’s team constructed the Mile High Center. The building was a huge success. Denver’s first high rise had the lowest vacancy rate of any building in the city.
Soon Pei was taking contracts to work on low-cost housing in Boston, New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington D.C. and Montréal. While working for Zeckendorf, Pei had the chance to meet Le Corbusier. Zeckendorf proudly showed off some of Pei’s designs to Le Corbu, who was then working on the United Nations headquarters. Le Corbu looked at one of the designs and asked, “Where is the sun?” Le Corbu argued Pei’s round building did not take into account the position of the sun. Pei replied that, “In New York the sun is not as important as in the south of France.” While he did not think it was a good critique at the time, Pei learned from his idol the importance of natural lighting.
The 1950s were a defining period for Pei. Having just won the civil war, the Chinese Communist Party cemented its control over China. Pei did not believe that he could prosper in his homeland and so, in 1954, he became an American citizen. Meanwhile the American real estate market plummeted and Zeckendorf declared bankruptcy. Pei was not wholly discouraged as he tired of designing housing projects and wanted to create public buildings. In 1955 he founded his own architecture firm, I.M. Pei and Associates.
Over the next two-and-a-half decades Pei designed a number of world-renowned buildings. Each time Pei constructed he made sure to learn about the history and culture of the place and incorporate that into the design. When Pei built the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, he designed it in emulation of the historic Pueblo cave cities in nearby Mesa Verde National Park. He ordered his team to crush local stones in with the concrete mixture so that the building had a pinkish hue, which allowed it to blend in with nature.
Pei’s most famous work up to this point was the National Gallery of Art’s East Building on the Washington Mall in D.C. Once he received the commission Pei studied the area and decided that he needed to make the building as enticing as possible to young people so they wouldn’t pass it over for the nearby Air and Space Museum. He studied museums and learned that most people tired of visits after 45 minutes. Pei came up with the novel idea that museums should be fun, enjoyable experiences, not austere outings. He decided to cut the museum into two trapezoids facing each other across an open space. Meanwhile the building’s interior would have wide, open spaces with benches for people to relax, reflect, admire the art and hang out together. Pei’s building was minimalist in the extreme, without any of the fancy Greco-Roman motifs common in D.C. While the building was under construction critics and the public blasted the concrete behemoth. The architect responded to their criticism by saying that the building was, “like a teenage girl with braces on her teeth. Wait until the scaffolding comes off.” When the museum opened it was a revelation and quickly became one of the most popular in the world.
Simultaneously, Pei dreamed of redesigning Paris. As early as 1969 he drew up plans to extend and rationalize the axis that ran from the Louvre through the Arc de Triomphe and to La Défense. This lengthy, uninterrupted stretch of monuments and boulevards had long been one of the world’s most scenic urban landscapes, but not much had changed since the Haussmann renovations of the Second Empire, and Pei looked to make his mark on the City of Lights. Pei’s opportunity came when French President Georges Pompidou announced a competition to create a Grand Arch at La Défense. Pei entered the competition though the plan did not work out. Disappointed, Pei decided he would no longer enter competitions as he had enough business already, given his status as one of the world’s premier architects.
Pei finally returned to China in 1974 as part of a tour organized by the American Institute of Architects. When he arrived he discovered that the China he had known as a boy was no more. Decades of brutal warfare had flattened city centers, which had been replaced with utilitarian, Soviet-style architecture. Chinese reliance on Eastern European models dismayed Pei, who found them ugly and unfitting in his home country.
Pei’s reputation led government officials to ask him to design a high-rise hotel in central Beijing, one which would draw Western tourists at a time when China was opening itself to the world. Pei adamantly refused to construct a large building near the Forbidden City. He viewed the great palace complex of the Emperors’ court as the most sacred site in China. He rejected any plans to overshadow the historic site with a modern tower. Moreover, he believed that the purpose of the Forbidden City was to create a sense of vastness and isolation for an individual, in the face of such majesty. Large buildings overlooking the walls would break the sense of solemnity that gave the palace complex its magic.
The Chinese government refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. They believed that Pei was the perfect man for the job. He was already one of the world’s greatest architects. Moreover, his Chinese heritage meant that he understood the artistic predilections of his homeland while his time in the United States taught him modern urban design. Officials acquiesced to Pei’s demands and gave him a plot of land outside the city proper at a place called Fragrant Hill. Pei bowed to their appeals and began work on a small resort.
Chinese officials wanted Pei to design a Western-style hotel, but Pei did not think that would fit. He wanted to do something wholly novel: create a modern building that respected traditional Chinese architecture. For this, Pei took to the streets. Pei declared that if he were hired to design a building in Italy he would draw inspiration from normal houses, not the Vatican, as he believed that Italian architecture lived in the homes of regular Italians. Likewise, Pei walked the streets of Beijing, meeting and talking with people to find what they considered most livable.
When Pei arrived at the drawing board, he designed a hotel that drew inspiration from his grandfather’s manor. Traditional Chinese homes were often built in a maze-like way, wherein one could never see the whole building from one vantage point. For early Chinese builders this was a way of confusing evil spirits who would become lost. Pei was not looking to trick any vengeful ghosts; instead, he aimed to create a building complex that inspired exploration and maintained an intimate feeling at all times. Pei wanted the hotel to evoke a traditional Chinese garden and he went looking for craft workers to make stone monoliths and other features. This was not an easy task. The old Chinese ways died violently in the 20th century through regular invasion, civil war and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution which claimed the lives of over a million people and imposed modernism on the country. Yet, Pei’s team managed to track down a number of aged craft workers who remembered these long-neglected arts.
As if combining modern architecture with traditional arts was not complex enough, the American team had to deal with the communist government. Negotiating red tape, learning which officials had leverage and who could be convinced to help the project was its own ordeal. In so many ways communist China differed from the country of Pei’s childhood. Despite all these struggles, construction workers finished the unique building in 1982. The hotel debuted to much fanfare with Jackie Kennedy and others attending the opening ceremony. Unfortunately, hotel management was given to a CCP loyalist with no experience, and the building languished.
Pei was disappointed with the end result. However, he had managed to convince the municipal government of Beijing to pass an ordinance banning the construction of high-rises around the Forbidden City. Pei later remarked that this was his, “greatest contribution to China.” Pei also learned a number of important skills from working in a foreign country. He learned how to meld modern designs with traditional tastes. He learned that each country has its own bureaucratic red tape, which may appear daunting at first but can be negotiated through if one knew the right people. Pei’s remarkable cultural sensitivity, his perseverance through difficult times, and his ability to simplify every complex problem were on full display in Beijing. Yet, even his skills would be tested once he set foot in Paris.
Part 3: The Stars Align
I come from China, a country whose culture is ancient but very distant. The past is glorious but it remains the past. The French are very attached to the past. I have encountered people who spoke of Louis XIV as though they just left him yesterday… If I were simply an American I would have some difficulty adapting myself to the situation. As I belong to two cultures which represent two extremities and France is in between, I am able to understand… Before accepting the commission I initially felt that the task was impossible, that one could not touch the Louvre. For Versailles, I would leave everything as is. At night, the gates close and Versailles sleeps. But if the Louvre sleeps Paris tosses and turns. The position of the Louvre in Paris dictates that it be more active. The Louvre’s destiny is to be a museum. Why not the best, most pleasant?”
-Ieoh Ming Pei interview in Le Monde, published 10-11th February 1985
Beginning in 1983, I wanted the Louvre to fulfill its museographical destiny. The resistance to this project was equal to its ambition. But here, as elsewhere, the alliance of purpose and competence was able to surmount the obstacles…In the heart of the city, on the very ground which, more than any other, incarnates the progressive sedimentation of our common past, a vital cultural site, unique in the world, has been erected. It honors France and contributes to its influence. In the name of the nation, I express my gratitude to the creators of this successful endeavor. They have written a new page in the long history of the Louvre, a page in the history of our country.
In May 1981, fresh off his presidential election victory, François Mitterrand travelled to Washington D.C. His intention was to meet America’s new president, Ronald Reagan. However, Reagan was an ardent Cold Warrior who staked his popularity on defeating the global threat of communism. As the head of the Socialist Party and frequent collaborator with the communists, Mitterrand was on the opposite side of the political aisle from the Republican leader. French officials informed the White House staff that Mitterrand requested a meeting but received no response. As the Frenchman waited for a meeting that would never happen he decided to enjoy the local art scene. He sojourned to the National Gallery and was struck by its elegance, bold style, simplicity and how much people enjoyed their visit. Mitterrand decided that whichever brilliant architect had designed the building would be perfect for the Grand Louvre. This visit eventually led him to choose I.M. Pei as the lead architect for the most challenging of all the Grands Travaux. When Jack Lang recalled Reagan’s snub the committed socialist wrote, “At least Reagan inadvertently did one good thing!”
Lang respected Pei’s work but his first choice for the project was Frenchman Jean Nouvel. However, Nouvel was already busy working on another of the Great Works: the Arab Institute. Lang’s second choice was Mexican architect Ramirez Vasquez who designed the pre-Colombian museum of Mexico which Lang described as “the most beautiful museum in the world.” Yet, Mitterrand had his sights set on Pei.
In the autumn of 1981 Lang toured American museums in his search for architects. While in New York he met with Pei at his office in Manhattan. Pei no doubt knew that the French government was in the midst of a building frenzy and this was a chance for the Minister of Culture to see if Pei was open to a commission. Pei was friendly and warm, as usual, though he was not in a hurry to take up a new project. At the time he was developing the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing. Moreover, he had soured on France and competitions ever since he was rejected for La Défense.
On 11 December Pei traveled to Paris where he was inducted into the Paris Academy of Architecture. While in the City of Lights, President Mitterrand invited Pei to a get-together. Mitterrand discussed his admiration for the Chinese-American architect and his eagerness that Pei should lead on one of the Great Works. The French president did not yet reveal that the project would be the grandest of them all.
Erecting a building is not just a matter of steel, concrete and glass. Any large-scale construction in our modern age involves an enormous amount of legalese, especially when it involves historic urban centers like Paris. Whoever oversaw the Grand Louvre would have to negotiate with the Louvre’s numerous museums, multiple government agencies relating to transportation, public works, urban design and sanitation, and of course, the Ministry of Finance; the last of which was hostile to the entire project because it meant evicting them from their office. No project could ever have as much red tape as reconstruction on the central palace. To deal with this, Mitterrand needed a manager to oversee the project. That man was Émile Biasini.
Émile Biasini was born in 1922 in a small commune just outside Avignon. He studied law at the Université d'Aix-Marseille before continuing his education in Paris. During the war he joined the Resistance. Afterwards he became a colonial administrator in Guinea. Following the Algerian War and decolonization, Biasini joined the newly-formed Ministry of Culture under André Malraux, where he was appointed Director of Theater, Music and Cultural Affairs. Biasini oversaw Malraux’s most famous project: the construction of the Houses of Culture across the country. He was removed from his post in 1967 and became a functionary working on public television. In 1970 he became President of the Interministerial Mission for the Development of the Aquitaine Coast.
By 1982 Biasini had proven that he was capable of overseeing ambitious cultural projects which were well-received by the public. Mitterrand also liked Biasini’s character, describing him as a “bulldozer who would not be stopped,” and a “man of the people.” While Mitterrand had a strong feeling towards Biasini, Biasini had almost none for the president. Biasini claims that he had met the president before but their time together had been brief, and he had never gotten to know the man. One day the president asked Biasini to meet him at a nearby estate where Mitterrand lived. Biasini arrived and found the president, trimming the rosebushes. Mitterrand turned to Biasini and asked, “Will you oversee the Grand Louvre?” Biasini took a moment and replied that he would, to which the president said, “Jack Lang will explain it all.”
Lang was not pleased with Biasini, and the Minister of Culture asserted that he was in charge of the Grand Louvre while Biasini was merely the overseer of the project. While technically Biasini worked under Lang he asserted that he had authority over the work. What followed was a six-month power struggle between the two in which little was accomplished. The bureaucratic fighting only ended when the president sided with Biasini. Mitterrand was comfortable delegating the Great Works to others but he wanted personal control of the Louvre, which he exercised through Biasini.
Biasini’s first task was to find an architect. The project manager travelled to museums all over the world and asked who were the best designers. I.M. Pei was on every list. Biasini recognized Pei’s genius and further believed that he was a good fit for the Louvre due to his life story. Biasini held that since Pei grew up in China he respected the past while his time in America made him appreciative of new styles.
In November Biasini met with Pei and asked him to redesign the Louvre. Pei laughed and said he would never be allowed to do it. Biasini assured him that the government wanted Pei for the job and that he would not have to submit to a competition to get it. At first Pei refused, thinking that fixing the Louvre was too momentous an endeavor. After Biasini left Yann Weymouth, chief designer in Pei’s firm, turned to his boss and asked if he had seen the film The Godfather. Pei replied, “Yes,” and Weymouth said, “This is an offer you can’t refuse.”
Pei mulled over the decision and concluded that, “You don’t say ‘no’ to the Louvre.” In February 1983 he told Biasini that he would take the job but only if he were allowed four months to study the building and its position in the city before coming up with a design. Once a week every month Pei travelled to Paris where he walked through the Louvre Museum, its grounds, along the Tuileries Garden and the Paris Axis. Pei studied the original designs of the garden by André Le Nôtre as he began to develop a plan to restore the Tuileries alongside the Louvre. Renewing the dilapidated gardens would reignite visible interest in its history, create a nature area to balance the Louvre buildings and incorporate the entire grounds into a harmonious, livable space.
After months of contemplation Pei came upon a solution. The museum was currently in an ‘L’ shape, one which would become a ‘U’ if Mitterrand succeeded in evicting the Ministry of Finance. Thus, the center of the museum was the Cour Napoléon. Pei decided to create an expansive underground complex beneath what was then a parking lot. Its center would contain a vast reception area which would deal with the problem of congestion, and provide space for people to relax and meet up with tour groups. Furthermore, this area would have an expanded cloak-room, bathrooms and stores to create the most enjoyable and comfortable experience possible.
Having a reception area in the middle of the museum would allow museum-goers to enter any of the three wings. Further connections would make the giant museum easily traversable, with no part of the museum being more than 200 meters away. At the time the furthest distance in the Louvre was 800 meters. The central node, alongside further connections, would allow patrons to choose their own path and see exactly which art and artifacts they preferred, making each trip to the museum unique. This underground structure would further address the problems of storage and laboratory facilities.
Pei thought that a museum experience needed to be light and joyful and did not want the underground reception area to have the same feel as a metro station. For this reason he decided that the reception area would be topped by a glass construction which would allow in natural light. The creation of a large glass building would further serve as a clear entry point for the Louvre, fixing the problem of the museum’s confusing entrance. Pei did not know what kind of building to put in the center of the Cour Napoléon, but that problem could be addressed later. Pei further worked out the technical details of adding elevators and escalators to facilitate travel for the elderly and disabled, and modernizing the museum with advanced air conditioning, heating, humidity control, lighting and security.
On 22 June Pei presented his initial plans to President Mitterrand. His designs were as ambitious as they were daring. These would address every problem that the Louvre had and make it by far the largest museum in the world. Mitterrand was thrilled and he assured Pei that he would stand by his design no matter the public reaction. He promised Pei that he would not be driven out of France like Bernini, a reference to the architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini who had been hired to design to the Louvre Colonnade before courtly politicking sent him back to Italy.
On 27 July 1983 Mitterrand announced that I.M. Pei would be the lead architect of the Grand Louvre. On 3 November L’Etablissement public constructeur du Grand Louvre was created, with Émile Biasini as its director. Phase I would be the excavation of the Cour Napoléon and the Cour Carrée followed by the construction of the underground facility. Mitterrand wanted this phase mostly complete in 3 years, before the 1986 election, at which point the project would be irreversible. Phase II was the renovation of the building complex. Biasini, Pei and their associates had a mandate to overhaul one of the most important and beloved buildings in the world and they had to do it in a fraction of the time such an endeavor should have been allocated.
Many of the events happened simultaneously. For the purpose of simplicity we’ll start with the first project, the excavation, before turning to the actual construction and the firestorm of controversy it caused.
Part 4: Unearthing the Medieval Louvre
To make the texts speak where archeology is silent and to use the data of the excavation where the archives are non-existent or imprecise, is this not the job of the archaeologist?
So all things pass upon the earth
Spirit, beauty, grace, talent
Ephemeral as a flower
Tossed by the slightest breeze
-Sign from the Paris Catacombs
Step 1 of the Grand Louvre project was the excavation of the two main courtyards: the Cour Carrée which was enclosed by the Sully Wing, and the Cour Napoléon, which was open on its western side to the Tuileries while otherwise enclosed by the three wings. Before the first shovel went into the dirt Biasini had to fight a dozen battles.
First, Biasini had to get official permission from the various departments and individuals using the area. There were a lot of them. Just to name a few: there was the head architect of the Louvre, the Historic Monuments Commission, the Worksites Commission, the Tuileries Defense Association, and the many different museums within the Louvre. Biasini managed to get the proper worksite permissions relatively quickly as the Louvre staff overwhelmingly supported the project. However, that would be the only easy part of the entire job.
Next, Biasini had to deal with the Ministry of Finance which was then using the Cour Napoléon as a parking lot. Biasini told them that upon the order of the president they would have to leave and use one of the nearby public parking garages. The bureaucrats were not-at-all used to being told what to do and resented Mitterrand’s plans to remove them, so they decided to be as much of a nuisance as possible. The ministry agreed to a partial removal of its vehicles but only if the museum staff gave up an equal share of their parking spaces. The museum staff balked, since the Louvre was set to be theirs entirely and they demanded that the Ministry of Finance give up their parking spaces. After a period of bickering, Biasini managed to remove the cars when he worked out a reimbursement plan for the finance officials in nearby parking garages.
The courtyard had emptied of cars but it was not wholly bare. There were two large statues, one which could be removed with very little red tape. The other was a statue of Lafayette. When Biasini tried to remove it he learned that the National Daughters of the American Revolution claimed that the area where the statue rested was American soil, gifted by the French nation. Biasini did not believe this was the case but decided it would be faster to get permission from the American organization to move the statue rather than fight an elongated legal battle. Ultimately, the statue was moved to a place of prominence in the Cour Albert I.
The last objects to be displaced were the trees, many of which were over a hundred years old. These trees were to be safely removed and replanted elsewhere, rather than simply cut down. Normally it takes 3 years to remove large trees due to a lengthy pruning process. However, Mitterrand had a schedule and they needed to go quickly. In fact, workers had to dig out the trees within two months before the springtime brought with it an abundance of sap. Landscapers removed the trees in that time, although it meant that only one-third of them would survive.
While laborers cleared the courtyard, Biasini assembled an elite team of archeologists. Even by the early 1980s urban archeology was limited. Archeologists’ primary experience was in unearthing long-abandoned cities, such as Persian Susa, Pompeii or Ancient Egyptian sites. These professionals were accustomed to working at closed-off sites where they could control everything and which were far from population centers. Yet, this project was smack-dab in the middle of one of the largest cities in Europe. Furthermore, the Ministry of Finance and the museum would remain open during the entire event. This added a whole new technical problem as construction specialists had to set up new entrances to the building, and reroute power and telephone lines. By this time French archeologists successfully excavated Cluny Abbey, the Chateau de Vincennes, Bavay ‘dans le Nord,’ Glanum in Provence, Locmariaquer in Brittany, Bibracte around Bourgogne and other areas. Yet, the Louvre would be the single largest urban excavation in French history up to that point.
Once Biasini assembled a small group of experts he asked them how long they would take to safely dig out the artifacts from the two courtyards. They responded that it would take ten workers ten years. Biasini replied, “Use 100 and do it in one year.” The lead archeologists assembled a team of over 100 for the Cour Napoléon and 30 for the Cour Carrée. These teams were composed of 80 archeologists, thirty students, and dozens of historians and other specialists.
Just starting was difficult because excavators had little information on what was beneath them. There were no historical surveyors’ plans which would reveal the physical structures below, nor geohydrological data which would inform workers how deep they could dig without drawing water from the nearby Seine River. For information about the water table the Louvre workers turned to the Bureau de recherche géologique et minière, which worked on the nearby metro station. Next, the team bore into the ground. The drillers had to work slowly and vibrate the soil as little as possible to prevent damage to artifacts. Once the holes were set up seepage piezometers tested the water pressure. This data was transferred to computers which created simulations of the water level. Bear in mind that computers in the early 1980s were incredibly primitive; they often operated on floppy discs and had less than 1/1000th the processing power of a computer in 2023. The team calculated their work relative to the highest flood in the last 100 years. Even if Paris had record-breaking rain, archeologists could still evacuate the artifacts before the whole area went underwater.
Once all the paperwork was signed and the area secured it was time to dig. Excavators in the Cour Carrée had a general idea of what they would find: namely, the walls of the original medieval castle, made by king Philippe-Auguste, which they found and restored. In contrast, the Cour Napoléon was a mystery. When archeologists dug up the courtyard they found relics from across epochs. They found a medallion bearing the arms of the Dauphin Louis. They uncovered the 17th century walls created by Louis Le Vau for King Louis XIV in front of the Sully Pavilion, which they quickly examined and tore down. Pei amended his construction plans to incorporate the old walls, which were reconstructed later on. Still further digging revealed the walls of Charles V, which were made to defend the city during the Hundred Years’ War. Alongside these were two pennants, and fragments of the king’s helmet and attached copper crown, which curators later restored. The medieval findings were just the beginning. Archeologists uncovered Gallo-Roman artifacts, then a pre-Roman Gallic village which included enclosures, graves and a cemetery. Ultimately, the team concluded that the area had been inhabited since 4,000 BCE.
History is not neutral, and neither is archeology. The excavators split into two overarching ideological camps. In the Cour Carrée were those who held a more traditional view of history. They unearthed and restored the 12th century walls, which were a great monument to centralized power and the glory of the kings of old. The opposite camp occupied the Cour Napoléon and largely worked on small fragments of pottery, tools and refuse. They believed that archeologists should uncover the lost history of everyday people rather than idolizing powerful figures. These two political-ideological divides led to heated debate between the revolutionary excavators and the medieval conservators. When Biasini found out about the worksite tensions between the right-wing and left-wing he set up a meeting space at the Denon entrance where people from both sides could drink and mingle. The archeologists referred to the space as ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ after the border crossing in Berlin where the Americans and Soviets stared each other down and threatened thermonuclear war.
Archeologists dug up as many artifacts as they could as quickly as possible. In the Cour Carrée the digs took place alongside restorative work. At the end of March 1985 the excavations in the Cour Carrée ended. A year later work in the Cour Napoléon finished. The excavations were an enormous success. Scholars and the public applauded the uncovering of the Louvre’s past across the ages. The findings gave weight to the museum as a historical object in itself. Often taken for a creation of the Second Empire, the excavations demonstrated that the Louvre was part of a long continuation going back 900 years as a center of royal power and many thousands of years as a place of habitation. For so long the Louvre was seen as a repository of great history and artworks while its own great story was largely unknown. Before the Grand Louvre project there had been no room dedicated to the history of the museum. Following the excavations the museum created two rooms near the underground walls of Philippe-Auguste to tell the story of the Louvre. This exhibit was later expanded and moved to the Pavillon d’Horloge.
With the artifacts safely removed it was time to construct the underground section of the Louvre and its monumental entrance. If the excavations received universal support the construction of a new building in the center of the heart of Paris became one of the most heated cultural battles of modern France.
Part 5: Building a ship in the midst of a storm: The Pyramid and the Public
To burn a city, there is needed only a child or a madman; but to rebuild it, architects, materials, workmen, money, and especially time, will be required.
-Joseph de Maistre
Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.
Pei and his associates, both American and French, worked frantically on their designs. Everything had to be done faster than normal. When Pei worked on the National Gallery in D.C. construction took place over 10 years for a building that was 56,000 square meters. Mitterrand mandated that the Louvre’s main construction take no more than 5 years, even as architects planned to expand its surface area from 57,000 to 180,000 square meters. The expansion would double exhibition space, though the greatest gains were for facilities. Most modern museums at the time used 55% of their space for exhibition and 45% for scientific study, cataloguing and storage. The Louvre was then using 80% of its space for exhibition with little academic study. The massive underground structure was thus necessary to complete Mitterrand, Lang and Biasini’s aim of making the Louvre not just the greatest museum in the world but the most modern.
There was one more goal that Pei had to fulfil: the Louvre had to be beautiful. Form had to marry function and satisfy the insatiable tastes of the French public. For this, Pei designed a vast open reception area filled with natural light from above. For the aboveground there had to be some sort of structure to draw in visitors and impress those from below. Pei wanted some form that was simple, timeless and natural. First drafts included a glass sphere, cube and a rectangle. However, each shape drew attention to its edges, away from the Louvre itself. Pei understood that the people of Paris cherished the Louvre and would not want something obstructing their view of the historic building. That is when he came up with the idea of a glass pyramid.
The pyramid would be the perfect shape to cap the underground structure. Its pointed top naturally drew attention to potential visitors. Meanwhile its sharp edges gave way to the buildings around it, drawing attention to the Louvre itself. Furthermore, a pyramid takes up less space and material than any other possible shape. Finally, it was the best shape to direct light into the underground as from below it appears as a square window. Distinctive, yet minimalist, striking even as it drew attention to the palace, this was Pei’s ultimate aim.
Next, Pei’s team worked on the pyramid’s form. Pei wanted the glass structure to be shorter than the Louvre itself, as he did not want it visible from anywhere but the courtyard entrance. This was to satisfy Parisians, who would have complained if the glass peak was visible from every angle. Instead, the pyramid would be a treasure held in the arms of the palace.
Architects debated what degree the pyramid should take. Initial projections were between 30 and 45 degrees, but Pei did not like the look, arguing that the pyramid appeared to be collapsing. It was then that Pei drew inspiration from the Egyptian pyramids. When he studied them he discovered that they stood at roughly a 51 degree angle. Pei decided to replicate their design and created a pyramid that was 51.52 degrees.
Pei’s next step was to make a universal symbol French. To accomplish this, he returned to his childhood admiration of André Le Nôtre. What better way to connect the Louvre with the Tuileries Garden than by emulating the patterns of its original designer? Furthermore, Pei firmly believed that urban areas needed nature. Without nature, congested cities of steel and concrete created a mental and spiritual disconnect from their setting and themselves. For his whole life he had designed concrete superstructures alongside open greenery, as he aimed to blend the best of urbanity and the natural environment. Within Le Nôtre’s ordered universe Pei saw a blend of logic and simple geometry which created a complex garden. Pei would make his own garden in the Cour Napoléon, though he knew that his garden could not be of plants and trees, which would obfuscate the view of the Louvre. Instead, his would comprise light and water. Pei designed flat, triangular reflecting pools around the main pyramid. As visitors gazed into the pools they would see the ever-changing blue, grey or white sky above them, as the reflection pulled the heavens down to Earth. The pools thus connect humanity with the untainted environment in a way that is as clean and natural as possible. Finally, he added three smaller pyramids on the northern, eastern and southern sides of the great pyramid to balance out the design and allow more light to filter into the underground.
Pei’s design paid homage to French sensibilities and history. It expanded the conception of the Louvre from the buildings to incorporate the complex. Most importantly, it would allow the Louvre to maintain its historic form while being as unobtrusive as possible. Pei believed that the Louvre was France’s greatest monument, even more than the Eiffel Tower. As such, everything that he did was to draw attention to the palace, not to his own design. Though when he had to construct something new he determined to make it in historical French fashion.
Finally, Pei wanted to create a vast space for relaxation and reflection, to bring light and air to the Louvre. His Cour Napoléon would be an inviting destination, where hundreds could gather. Enclosed from the outside by the wings of the Louvre, it would be a haven for visitors to congregate and appreciate such a momentous day in their lives. This vast, park-like atmosphere was exactly the sort of thing Pei wanted to use to end the commonly-held belief that the Louvre was a cramped, stuffy, stodgy place that one went to once in their life and never returned. Pei would create an open, inviting space where the greatest urban area would connect in a natural setting. A final, inverted pyramid would be made later at the Carrousel, itself a marvel of engineering, that creates a wondrous and surreal feeling for patrons.
Genius is often the end product of a collaborative effort, not the sole impetus of one great thinker. Pei’s pyramid was a work of art, though not every idea he had for it stood the test of time. Originally, Pei wanted to place statues within the glass pyramid. Possible contenders included the Winged Nike of Samothrace, the Horses of Marly or the Bulls-Head Capital of Apadana. Later on, the curators of the Louvre convinced him that it would be too decorative and make the pyramid look like the Rolls-Royce logo. Pei even proposed Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker to crown the pyramid’s interior, as a symbol of the deep contemplation visitors would have as they entered. However, the curators thought when people descended the spiral staircase and looked up, The Thinker would look like a man on the toilet. Pei relented; the pyramid would be its own work of art, bare of everything, a testament to open space and the possibilities within.
The designs for the pyramid were a closely-kept secret among the architectural team as they wanted to dodge any public outcry for as long as possible. The first person that Pei informed of his design was Biasini, who he showed a rough sketch of his plans. Biasini absorbed the drawing with a sense of shock. Then, after a moment he understood it from a different perspective. He turned to the architect and said, “Oh, this is like a diamond?” Imagining it as a great jewel, Biasini came to like the design, which he realized took up the least amount of space possible.
The next person who had to be notified was the President. Mitterrand personally oversaw the Louvre’s construction due to his own love of the building and its political importance. When Pei and a select group of architects traveled to Elysée Palace, Weymouth kept the designs in a locked box which could only be opened with a screwdriver he kept in his pocket. The architects were left waiting as Mitterrand was then in a meeting with the Minister of Defense. The two were discussing the military conflict in Chad which was escalating into a full-blown war. They then pivoted to a discussion of Mirage jet fighters.
Once Mitterrand had finished the architects entered the war-room. Weymouth unlocked the box and opened it like it was the Ark of the Covenant. Pei and Lang then held a mock-up of the designs towards the president, presenting him with a top-down view. Because Lang was significantly taller than his counterpart, the model slid and almost fell. Mitterrand soaked in the design. After a moment he turned to the room and asked, “Is anyone here repulsed by this?” Absolutely no one spoke. Mitterrand took this as a sign that there was no serious opposition to the plans. Pei did not understand what the president said afterwards, save that he regularly muttered, “Très bien,” throughout the rest of the meeting.
If Pei’s meetings had gone well so far, they were about to take a sharp turn for the worse. On 23 January 1984 Pei and his team presented their design to the Commission of Historic Monuments and the press. It was a chaotic unveiling, as the conservative commissioners heckled Pei’s design. At one point someone shouted, “Why have you come here to ruin French patrimony?” and “We’re not in Dallas!” The attacks were so vicious that Pei’s interpreter broke down in tears and could not continue. When the gathered audience was not heckling Pei, they were talking loudly amongst themselves, some sharing xenophobic comments, or laughing at inopportune moments. By 1:30pm the meeting ended and everyone went to lunch. Pei had never dealt with such a hostile crowd before and felt crestfallen. Despite this, Biasini approached him and told him not to worry as the project would continue no matter what. The Chinese-American architect had experienced a crash course in French culture. He would soon learn that in France even architecture was political.
Thankfully for Pei, he did not have to manage public relations. That was Jack Lang’s job. While Biasini oversaw the entire project and Pei led the construction, Lang fought the cultural battle for the Grand Louvre. Following the meeting Lang polled the audience and found that the loudest voices were in a minority. Of the 48 people who he interviewed, 18 supported the Grand Louvre with no reservations, 17 supported it with reservations about the pyramid and 13 wholly opposed it. Lang took this as a triumph, claiming that the academy members were naturally conservative. While Pei viewed the presentation as a disaster, Lang saw it as an unusually calm and supportive meeting, by French standards.
That night the newspaper France Soir put a picture of the Pyramid on its frontpage with the headline, “The New Louvre Causes Scandal.” Beside it was an editorial by novelist Jean Dutourd who moaned, “Poor France!” Other newspapers aligned with the right-wing followed the attacks. Le Parisien libéré condemned the “shocking Chinese pyramid.” On 26 January Dutourd called for an ‘insurrection’ against the Grand Louvre project. André Fermigier wrote one of the harshest critiques in an article called, “The House of Death.” He compared the glass pyramid to an ancient Egyptian mausoleum, drawing parallels between the sepulchral resting place of the deceased and what would be a tomb for the once-great Louvre. Among other things, Fermigier wrote,
“One rubs their eyes when they read about it and hopes to wake up. One believes they’ve been taken to a ‘castle-for-sale’ and a Hollywood-style reconstruction of the temples of Solomon, Alexander and Cleopatra…A pyramid of glass! If Flaubert had only seen this! And when one thinks of the time, of the effort that was spent for getting rid of the site of the monument to Gambetta that made the generations of French laugh since the beautiful days of the Third Republic! Mr. Pei tells us that he adores the pyramids. That is a widespread sentiment, however that does not appear to us to justify the sentiment of treating the Louvre courtyard as an annex of Disneyland.”
When the papers were not launching xenophobic attacks against Pei they lampooned President Mitterrand and his egoism. Cartoons dubbed him ‘Mitterramses II,’ a play on ‘Mitterrand’ and ‘Ramses II,’ pharaoh of Egypt, and ‘Tontonkhamon,’ ‘tonton’ meaning ‘uncle’ and the word being a play on another pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Public criticism of the Grand Louvre was baffling to say the least. The critics claimed that Pei was building over a sacred site; a site which at the time was a parking lot that regularly hosted grifters, thieves, prostitutes and their patrons, to say nothing of the Ministry of Finance. They attacked plans to include a food court and shopping center in the underground annex even though for centuries shanties existed around the Louvre for artisans and their shops; if anything the underground boutiques would be a return to its historic essence while freeing the above-ground from commercialism. Of course, the stores would also bring in much-needed revenue for the underfunded museum. The public criticisms of the Louvre were based on an idyllic 19th century palace, one which no longer existed.
Meanwhile those familiar with the real Louvre broadly approved the plan. Between 28-30 January 1985 Pei presented his plans to architects, curators, programmers and administrators at a retreat at Arcachon. This crowd overwhelmingly approved of the designs, something which lifted Pei’s spirits and revived the team’s morale. In response to the rising public outcry, the Louvre’s curators made the unprecedented step of making a public statement showcasing their utmost support for Pei’s designs as a functional solution to their problems while retaining architectural beauty. They proclaimed that, “The unceasing concern of all concerned with the brief was to create ‘the world’s greatest museum’ without giving way to gigantism of the kind that would make the whole into an unvisitable monster…I.M. Pei’s pyramid was the symbol of the entrance to the museum. Far from being the ‘modernist gimmickry’ or ‘gratuitous architectural gesture’ it has sometimes been dubbed…forms an integral part of an overall architectural scheme that is unanimously appreciated and accepted for its coherence and quality.”
Many left-wing newspapers praised the pyramid’s design and argued that it fixed the Louvre’s functional problems. In fact, Lang believed that most of the press were with them and he encouraged museum workers to publicly support the Grand Louvre. In response to the consistent hatred directed at Pei, ten laureates of the grand prize in architecture publicly defended the American architect and his French assistant Michel Macaray in Le Monde.
While Pei made little public comment, he did declare that the pyramid was not Egyptian, Chinese or a modern American building but a universal expression of art. Moreover, he reminded those French who saw it as an ‘Egyptian artifact’ that would never be home in France that just down the street from the Louvre at Place de la Concorde stands the Luxor Obelisk. The obelisk was made in the 14th century BCE, given to France as a gift in 1830 by Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha and stood in the Place de la Concorde in the center of Paris since 1836. It was quite a silly thing to condemn one object for being ‘too Egyptian’ while celebrating a real Egyptian artifact that was within sight of the Louvre, just past the Tuileries Garden.
Yet, there was still an Egyptian connection, one which fit perfectly with the setting. After all, Pei’s glass pyramid would be built in the Cour Napoléon. Napoleon famously won a battle at Embabeh, which he called The Battle of the Pyramids because the pyramids were within sight. There, Napoleon gazed on the ancient wonders and declared to his soldiers, “From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us.” The square next to the Louvre was renamed Place des Pyramides in Napoleon’s honor.
When Napoleon departed for his Egyptian campaign he brought with him scholars of all disciplines to study the country, its history and natural environment. While there he established the Institut d’Égypte as a permanent base for study in the country. Most famously, commander Pierre-François Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone, which later French experts used to decipher the Ancient Egyptian language. If the glass pyramid was a reference to Egypt, it was well-placed.
Jack Lang went on the offensive. If the traditionalists used history as their weapon, so would he. Lang trumpeted the success of the archeological digs, especially the incorporation of the Louvre castle’s walls into the underground. Far from creating a modern monstrosity, Lang applauded how the excavations restored its proper history. He even appealed to the commission of historic monuments to classify the walls of Philippe-Auguste and Charles V as protected historic sites. Lang similarly publicized news of the restorations on the walls, roofs and statues as returning the palace to its former glory. Lang’s work was a major public relations victory for the Grand Louvre which reassured many that the workers respected French history.
The Grand Louvre’s enemies were undeterred. In January 1985 none other than Michel Guy, the previous minister of culture who had fired Lang from the théâtre de Chaillot, created the Association for the Renewal of the Louvre. The organization opposed the project, especially the pyramid, and called for a one-year moratorium on construction. Officially, this was to give the government time to hold a competition for an architect and rethink the design, though it was clear that they were trying to halt work until the next elections took place.
The organization condemned the fact that Pei had been chosen by presidential fiat rather than through a competition. Furthermore, they balked that a non-French person led the designs on the Louvre. The president of the union of architecture syndicates joined his voice to theirs, stating that, “Development of the Grand Louvre [was] entrusted to an American of Chinese origin, la Tête Défense to a Dane, l’Opéra de la Bastille to a Canadian, Villette park to a Swiss, development of a Parisian quarter to a Spaniard; are the architects of our country stupid?” The organization further condemned the underground mall, calling it a ‘cultural drugstore.’ Meanwhile the far-right Figaro-Magazine called Jack Lang the, “father of mental AIDS” in reference to the newly-discovered AIDS virus.
Jack Lang set up his own public outreach organization in support of the Grand Louvre which published articles supporting the work. They reprinted scathing reviews of the Eiffel Tower from when it was first erected, comparing the hatred that the beloved monument received to the construction at the Louvre. A model of the finished palace was set up at the Orangerie so that the public could see and judge for themselves. Lang’s fellows reported that 86% of the general public supported the Grand Louvre while 91% of those who saw the mockup did. Moreover, 65% of people who saw the mockup were very favorable towards the pyramid. The Louis Harris Institute reported similar figures with 75% of the public supporting the Grand Louvre. Perhaps most importantly, those who favored the Grand Louvre were predominantly those who had visited the museum before and believed it needed serious changes. Those who opposed the Grand Louvre were more likely to have never been there. The Grand Louvre’s greatest supporters were the most informed, and its opponents the least. It was a battle between a real-world need to fix a problem versus a fantasy proffered by traditionalists and opponents of Mitterrand.
Lang believed that if the government wanted to convince the public and end the controversy they just needed to get one man on their side: the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. Chirac’s position as mayor gave him a significant amount of power over affairs in the city. Perhaps more importantly, he was the most popular conservative politician in the country, who, it was assumed, would run against Mitterrand for the presidency. If the de facto leader of the conservatives sided with the Grand Louvre then the project’s opponents would have no major voice with any authority to oppose the project.
Lang covertly courted Chirac by showing worksite plans to two of his confidants. On 9 February 1985 Biasini and Pei presented the designs to the mayor directly. Chirac praised Pei and said that the, “the restructuring project touches perfection.” Even though he personally admired the changes, he would not publicly approve of the project. Chirac believed that the best way to quiet public discomfort was if they could see what would happen to their beloved Louvre. To that end, he asked Pei to create a full-scale replica of the pyramid, which would be on display for a limited period for Parisians to visit. The request was audacious but not unprecedented. According to one article published around that time, Napoleon Bonaparte had a full-scale mock-up made of the Arc de Triomphe before its construction. If Pei and his team wanted Chirac’s support they would have to replicate the Emperor’s strategy.
The team hastily put together a wire-frame structure which went on display between 1-5 May 1985. The fake pyramid was held in place by the largest crane in Europe. The crane’s operator was constantly listening to weather reports and adjusted position whenever the wind changed. The model had no glass panes, unlike the designs for the finished pyramid. Moreover, there were no pools or smaller adjacent pyramids to refract light. For these reasons Pei was unhappy with the model. Yet, it did its job. The model was shorter than the Louvre and did not obstruct views either to or from the palace. It communicated that the new construction would highlight, not overshadow, the palace.
This was enough for Chirac. The Mayor of Paris praised the designs and publicly supported the Grand Louvre. His support did not completely end the controversy. Guy was unmoved, proclaiming that, “What the Louvre really needs are mops, brooms and window washers. The current plans turn the Louvre into a combination airport, cultural drugstore and subway.” But the dissidents were part of a shrinking minority that was outside of political power. With Mitterrand leading the left and Chirac holding the right, both sides of the political aisle rallied around the Grand Louvre.
Part 6: From the drawing board to reality
The purpose of construction is to make things hold together; of architecture to move us.
Art should be created for life, not for the museum.
Once builders finished constructing a false pyramid it was time to make the real one. Pei’s team began work on the glass pyramid even before the support structure was in place. This was because the 1986 legislative election was fast approaching. Mitterrand’s team worried that if the socialists lost then conservatives would cut funding to the project, if not outright cancelling it. The builders wanted to make the pyramid a fait accompli, leaving the far less controversial building for the post-election.
First, they needed the steel cable frame. Pei wanted to use as little material as possible, so that the steel had a minimal presence. He wanted the metal to blend in with the buildings around it and studied the palace’s roofs. His team quickly discovered that the roofs were not a uniform color, but were 11 different shades of grey. After much consideration they decided on the least-intrusive color.
Pei wanted a steel frame that was as elegant as possible. Always pushing boundaries, Pei realized that the engineers best-suited for this job were yacht-makers, whose soaring, yet light rods could make irregular shapes to conform to a ship’s design. Pei contacted a Massachusetts-based yacht-design firm who agreed to build the frame. The finished product comprised six thousand round rods and two thousand one hundred and fifty butt-joints made with a lost wax process.
Next came the glass. Pei demanded that the glass be as transparent as possible. However, most glass made at the time took on a green tint due to its oxide content. Pei asked the Saint Gobain glass manufacturing company to test out new glass-making techniques without iron oxide. The French glassmakers said that it was impossible. Pei replied that if they could not do it he would hire a German firm, at which point the glassmakers said that it could be done. Saint Gobain succeeded, making what was then a novel type of clear glass. However, while the glass was clear it was more supple than regular glass and tended to bend. Pei refused to let his pyramid distort views of the palace and so he shipped the panes to the United Kingdom and Japan. There, craft workers using older techniques smoothed each pane.
Upon completion in 1988 the pyramid was a marvel. It weighed 163,300 kilograms, meaning roughly 360,000 lbs. or 180 tons. It is comprised of 673 glass panes, though many people mistakenly believe it is 666 because the best-selling novel and film The Da Vinci Code claimed that the Louvre was connected to a secretive and nefarious religious order who ordered that the glass panes reflect the Biblical number of The Beast. Ever the perfectionist, Pei refused to put a ring on the top of the pyramid, which would have allowed climbers to more easily ascend the structure for regular cleaning. Instead, mountain climbers periodically repel down from a crane to clean the surface to allow natural light to descend unobstructed from above.
Once they finished the ‘roof,’ work focused on the underground foundation. Pei had been an admirer of concrete from his early career designing public housing. He championed concrete as a cheap, strong solution, in comparison to brickwork and stone. Yet, he believed that concrete could still be beautiful if properly sculpted. Workers poured the concrete into knotless Oregon pine battens which left the least imprint. Workers then sculpted the concrete to a smooth finish to make them indistinguishable from the stoneworks.
What Pei and his team accomplished was incredible. The pyramid and the underground were groundbreaking technological feats which combined all new advances with traditional craftwork. Just as the Louvre was a marriage between the ultramodern and historic, Pei found harmony between novel and traditional techniques when building. Pei accomplished this on a limited budget to offset complaints by conservative politicians and the Ministry of Finance, the latter of which was still upset that they were being kicked out. Moreover, the team had limited time, and worked around the clock to finish the grand design. Pei himself was torn between two projects and spent 10 days in Paris working on the Louvre, 10 days in his office in New York and 10 days in Hong Kong where he led construction on the Bank of China Tower. Yet, when Pei was present he communicated clearly, with an affable and approachable nature that endeared him to everyone around him. Pei’s ability to simplify every complex problem proved invaluable, particularly in getting the French and American architects on the same page. The American architects were used to working on projects on virgin soil with precise blueprints detailing exactly what they should do. In contrast, French architects often built in historic areas and were accustomed to constant problems of red tape, historic finds, governmental change and other issues which might disrupt construction. In the process of building the Americans learned to adapt to varying circumstances.
In March 1986 the socialists lost the election and their majority in Parliament to the conservatives, who were led by Jacques Chirac. What followed was the first cohabitation in the Fifth Republic’s history with the president being from the left-wing and a right-wing parliament. Parliament cut funding for the Grand Louvre, demoting it to just a regular project. The emboldened Ministry of Finance then dug in its heels and delayed its departure date. Bureaucrats demanded that the building not disturb them. Construction workers had to set up noise buffers. Work on the Richelieu Wing had to be done between 9pm and 8am when the Ministry of Finance was not present.
Yet, by 1986 the Grand Louvre was irreversible. Its opponents could stall but not halt the audacious design. Moreover, Mitterrand was determined to see it done. The Louvre’s construction emerged during the May 1988 presidential debate between Mitterrand and Chirac, with the president declaring, “I did not make the decision to launch the Grand Louvre project just to leave it a building site.” Mitterrand narrowly defeated his rival. Ten months later he inaugurated the Grand Louvre, in March 1989. Late that year the last of the Ministry of Finance finally got the boot and relocated to Bercy in eastern Paris. Phase I of the Grand Louvre was complete. Phase II, the restoration of the palace and its grounds, could begin.
Part 7: Restoring the old Glory
It is not sufficient to see and to know the beauty of a work. We must feel and be affected by it.
“That is well said,” replied Candide, "but we must cultivate our garden.”
Upon completion centuries before the Louvre’s original Parisian limestone walls shone cream-white in the morning sun. Its white marble statues appeared as ethereal forms of perfection, too ideal for our imperfect world. But time had exacted its toll. Rain, snow, freezing temperatures, moss and lichen wore at the façades and statues. Dirt, smog from industrial fires and cars, seeped into the stone. The building and its accoutrements had chips and cracks that destroyed the illusion of heavenly perfection brough to earth.
Once the archeologists, then the builders went away, the cleaners stepped in. Restorative work began early in the Cour Carrée but had to wait until Spring 1989 for the Cour Napoléon. It began with a much-needed steam-cleaning of the blackened façades so the palace could shine again. Craft workers repaired the building’s walls using limestone from Burgundy and granite from Brittany. Stoneworks were replaced and sculptures restored on the spot. However, restorers argued that not everything could, or should, be saved. They decided not to restore the walls and statues as if they were brand new. Their goal was to restore the fundamental integrity of each work while leaving the scars of time in place wherever possible. Only the roof had a complete restoration; all of its tiles were replaced and gutters remade. Forty-eight different firms worked on the roof, in what must have been a co-ordinational nightmare for Biasini, though one which preserved the form of the palace while modernizing its function.
Workers carried out extensive work redesigning the Richelieu wing. They installed glass ceilings over the Cour Marly, the Cour Puget and the Cour Khorsabad. What had been courtyards became vast open spaces where visitors can congregate, relax, take in the wonder of the Louvre, and take a break from the more enclosed art gallery rooms. It is in these light-filled, open rooms that Pei’s work is most clearly visible within the Louvre palace. The Cour Marly and Cour Puget host some of the finest sculptures of 17th to 19th century Europe, including a horse statue belonging to Louis XIV. The Cour Khorsabad became known as the Palace of Sargon II of the Assyrian Empire and is filled with massive wall-reliefs of winged lions with the heads of men.
Workers further opened up the Louvre with the Richelieu Passage, a covered walkway connecting the Cour Napoléon to the Rue de Rivoli and the metro station Palais-Royal. The interior of the palace was fully modernized. Historic artifacts moved to the ground floor while paintings mostly moved up where they could be exposed to zenithal light. Workers installed high windows which allow sunlight to illuminate the room without directly touching the paintings. The Cour Carrée even received moveable filters near the roof to filtrate light, which are moved twice a year during the equinoxes. While the entire Louvre was modernized the most historic rooms went unaltered, as was the case with the Grand Galerie. The Grand Galerie’s only alteration was the expansion of space in the Mona Lisa room to allow in as many visitors as possible. Finally, the Louvre incorporated elevators, escalators and ramps, finally making it accessible to the physically handicapped.
Between May 1989 and August 1990 a team of archeologists excavated the Place du Carrousel, just beyond the Louvre Palace grounds. Their findings were extraordinary. There were remains of Neolithic structures and those dating to the Bronze Age La Tène culture, which were the early Gauls. There were fragments from an Iron Age settlement and a Roman farm which was used until the Merovingian period. They also found part of a 14th century manor with painted murals, and some of the city walls of Charles V. Archeologists discovered remnants from a 16th-17th century faubourg, including a kiln belonging to Bernard Pallisy’s workshop which made ceramics for Catherine de Médici’s garden. Finally, they found tableware belonging to the Swiss Guard, an elite mercenary group which protected the kings of France until they were brutally killed in 1792 during the Revolution. With the excavations complete, workers built a vast complex which included workers and visitors’ parking, a museum delivery area, show rooms, commercial centers and a laboratory equipped with radiographic equipment to examine art.
Years of work by thousands of different professionals from around the world turned the Louvre from a broken-down relic to a modern marvel. Yet, there was one final part of the palace complex that needed attention. Just beyond the Louvre courtyard lay the Tuileries Garden. Once it had housed the Tuileries Palace, though the Communards burned it down in 1871. All that was left was a poorly-maintained patchwork of greenery. The oldest still-existing garden of Paris, created by Catherine de’ Medici in 1564, was a mess. Claude Mollard, a functionary within the Ministry of Culture wrote to Jack Lang that,
“The Tuileries Park is in agony. Like all living, it dies at the edges. From the large stretches that border the Rue de Rivoli, the embankments or the Place du Carrousel, [the garden] has become a desert. Disemboweled, assaulted by noise and pollution, its canopy scant, poor, often absent [of people], riddled with ugly stains, disagreeable, dirty, inhabitable, abandoned, one of the great works of Le Nôtre perishes in the center of the capital.”
Mollard was not exaggerating by much; in four centuries the Tuileries had gone from a royal garden to a dirty thoroughfare. Paradoxically, it was still France’s most visited garden due to its central location within the city and its wide, open spaces. Thousands of Parisians crossed through it every day as they went to and from work, to say nothing of the tourists who walked across the historic place. It was frankly embarrassing for a country known the world-over for its beautiful gardens to have its most famous and popular example be little more than an empty parking lot.
Lang saw the great work conducted on the Louvre and decided that the Tuileries should be restored as well. However, when the Minister of Culture approached Mitterrand he got a chilly reception. In the president’s defense, he had fought countless political battles for the Grands Travaux; engaging in yet another one was hardly an appealing prospect. To convince Mitterrand, Lang reached out to Marc Simonent-Lenglart, a mutual friend who owned the chateau de Cormatin, which Mitterrand visited each Monday of Pentecost. Simonent-Lenglart agreed that the gardens needed fixing, especially if the Louvre was going to receive more tourists. He further argued that the Tuileries, which had been made as a private garden, was not suited for the potentially 5 million people who would walk through it in any given year. Lang and Simonent-Lenglart approached the president with their ideas. Mitterrand replied in his usual curt style, “Everything is in agreement. The work is remarkable. Let’s examine certain points in detail.”
Lang and his new comrade began working on plans, ones which the Minister of Culture hoped could be completed in time for the bicentennial of 21 September 1792 when the First Republic was declared. They decided that the Tuileries needed to work on four different levels: it had to be practical for people travelling through it twice daily to and from work; it should be a calm retreat for Parisians and their children with spaces for relaxation and play; it needed to be beautiful to appeal to tourists; and it must showcase its history and France’s vegetation. Three themes arose in the recreation of the garden: History, modernity and nature.
Against Lang’s wishes, work only began in 1992 and extended until 1997. In five years workers remade and restored the great garden, largely retaining Le Nôtre’s style even as they expanded the open space. Agriculturalists replanted 3,000 trees. Laborers placed sculptures from some of France’s greatest artists, including Rodin, throughout the garden. In the year 2000 French-American artist Alain Kirili organized the placement of contemporary sculptures throughout the Tuileries, finally completing André Malraux’s dream of turning it into a modern sculpture garden.
The restoration of the Tuileries was the true final stage of the remaking of the Louvre, though there was one other labor that greatly enhanced and expanded the complex. On 31 December 1999 the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, a metal bridge spanning the Seine, was inaugurated. This footbridge connects the Tuileries with the Musée d’Orsay, creating what might be the greatest museum complex in the world, as it connects the Louvre, Orsay and the Orangerie.
Part 8: Unparalleled Triumph
The sight of such a monument is like continual and stationary music which one hears for one's good as one approaches it.
-Anne Louise Germaine de Staël, Corinne
Keep good company - that is, go to the Louvre.
The Grand Louvre was a stunning success in every measure. In the decade after it opened the Louvre’s annual attendance more than doubled, from 2.8 million in the 1980s to over 6 million in 1998. The Louvre rapidly became the most popular museum in the world, a position it has held every year by a wide margin ever since. The Louvre is also one of the most enjoyable, with visitors spending on average three-and-a-half hours in the museum; too short by my tastes. While the Grand Louvre attracted far more international tourists, it succeeded in bringing back Parisians and French people. French citizens make up the largest single group visiting the museum, whereas before it was Americans. More visitors meant more revenue. In the year 2000 the Louvre was able to hire a staff of 1,800 full-time workers and 500 contractors, though even this was inadequate to meet the daily demand.
The Louvre became, and perhaps still is, the most modern museum in the world, which boasts the largest research facilities for artifacts and art anywhere on Earth. Moreover, the museum adapted to each technological shift, producing audio guides, films, visual presentations, and online productions.
Pei’s glass pyramid, which had been the most controversial aspect of the entire project, quickly became beloved by architects and by the people of Paris. Henri Loyette, the director of the Louvre from 2001 to 2013, proclaimed, “When you ask the visitors, ‘Why are you coming to the Louvre?’ they give three answers. For the Mona Lisa, for the Venus de Milo, and for the pyramid.” Even Michel Guy admitted he was wrong in opposing the Grand Louvre. Since then the pyramid has become a model for its function and form, which architects around the world study as they attempt to respect the old and celebrate the new.
The Louvre’s excavations were a major turning point in French archeology. They were among the most intensive of their time and the most fruitful. The incredible work done in the Cour Carrée, Carrousel and especially the Cour Napoléon became models for future urban excavations. Finally, the work inspired a 2001 law that mandated archeological digs when major work was done on historic sites.
François Mitterrand served as president of France from 1981 to 1995, the longest tenure in the history of the Fifth Republic; perhaps the longest there ever will be since during his successor Jacques Chirac’s administration the presidential term was reduced to five years. Mitterrand led France through a chaotic period that saw the collapse of the USSR and the reunification of Germany. In 1992 he signed the Maastricht Treaty which founded the European Union. His handling of the Rwandan Genocide and his personal ordering of the attack on the Rainbow Six, in contrast, remain dark marks on his legacy. His domestic policies had varied success, though his Grands Travaux are widely hailed as the greatest period of state-funded construction in over a hundred years. Mitterrand’s final accomplishment was to make the left-wing electable, as his presidency legitimized the Socialist Party as a core of French politics…for a time. Mitterrand died on 8 January 1996 at the age of 79 from prostate cancer. He has since been regarded as one of the Fifth Republic’s greatest presidents, regularly polling ahead of everyone but Charles de Gaulle and occasionally his old rival Jacques Chirac.
Émile Biasini moved from one great project to the next. Even before the Grand Louvre’s First Phase had finished he was promoted to project manager of the Grands Travaux in their entirety. In the year 2000 he became the president of the Maison des cultures du monde, a program aimed at fostering cultural exchange between peoples from across the world. Biasini died on 2 July 2011 at the age of 88.
Jack Lang has had a long career as a politician and promoter of the arts. After Mitterrand stepped down from power Jack remained a member of the National Assembly. In 2000 he unsuccessfully ran for Mayor of Paris, losing to fellow socialist Bertrand Delanoë. Shortly after he lost, Chirac made him Minister of Education, a position he held for two years. In 2007 Lang became co-chairman of a commission to change the French Constitution. Set up by President Nicolas Sarkozy, its aim was to modernize the government. Any change to the Constitution required a three-fifths majority and the Socialist Party refused to support the changes by the right-wing president. Lang became the only socialist to vote for the proposition; as it turned out, his one vote gave Sarkozy the majority he needed. Lang’s fellow socialists were outraged at his betrayal and shunned him. Despite his own party turning on him, Lang managed to remain in office until 2012. In 2013 he left politics to become the president of the Institut du Monde Arabe, a position he has held ever since. As of this recording, in April 2023, Lang remains an active member of the Parisian cultural scene and will celebrate his 84th birthday on 2 September.
Ieoh Ming Pei, better known as I.M. Pei, was one of the most accomplished architects in modern history. Before starting work on the Louvre he had won virtually every major architectural award there was, including the coveted Pritzker Prize. Yet, his career was far from over. In 1989, the same year that the Louvre Phase I ended, he finished work on the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas. The orchestral hall opened to rave reviews and is considered one of the finest in the world. The following year Pei finished construction on the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. The iconic building was then the tallest in all of Asia, and the first skyscraper on the continent to surpass 300 meters in height. It was a remarkable moment for the boy who had spent so much of his childhood in Hong Kong to return over sixty years later and create its most visible landmark.
In the early 1990s Pei accepted a job to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Having grown up in the 1930s, Pei was not knowledgeable about rock. Yet, as with all of his other projects, he studied the culture to learn what sort of building he should make. He ultimately decided on a combination pyramid and tower. In September 1995 the museum opened with a concert featuring Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and other legendary artists.
Around that time Pei began work designing the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan. Part of a monastery for the Shinji Shumeikai, movement, Pei decided to model his work on an ancient Chinese poem, “The Peach Blossom Spring,” in which a fisherman gets lost and stumbles upon a hidden paradise. To access the museum visitors must walk through a path lined by cherry trees, through a tunnel and over a bridge, in an experience that prepares the mind for a similarly unearthly journey. In 2006 Pei designed the modern art museum of Luxembourg, after which he retired. Yet, Pei was convinced to return to work at 91 years old to oversee one last major project: the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. Pei admitted that he was unfamiliar with Islamic culture and went on a tour of the Muslim world to study its greatest accomplishments. After much deliberation he created a museum on an artificial peninsula which emulated great mosques and traditional Arabian ports.
On 16 May, 2019 I.M. Pei passed away in Manhattan at the age of 102. He claimed that the Louvre was the most challenging of all his works. Yet, he said he was lucky to have worked on the project since such opportunities only come once in a lifetime.
This episode is part of a series covering the history of the Louvre, from its beginnings as a medieval castle, its reinvention as a Renaissance palace, a new wonder of the Second Empire and its recreation as the world’s most modern museum. The Louvre is France’s greatest monument, having been a novel castle that awed medieval Europe and led to countless imitations. It was a bulwark in the Hundred Years’ War and its walls nearly reached by Saint Joan of Arc. Protestants were slaughtered in front of its doors during the Wars of Religion. It and its adjoining Tuileries were the royal palace during the early Revolution and Napoleon’s Reign. It faced the threat of destruction in the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II, yet emerged from all conflicts intact. If you want to hear the complete story sign up for our Patreon. For just $2 you can get access to this exclusive series that is 12 episodes and 10 hours long so far, alongside all episodes ad-free a month or more before their official release.
Many thanks to those who read quotes for this episode. In order: The History of China Podcast, which tells the history of China from its beginning until present. The History of Westeros Podcast, covering the fantastical stories of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world. Xiran Jay Zhao, international best-selling author of the novel Iron Widow and famous Youtuber. Her Half of History, which is all about the other half of humanity that so often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Queens Podcast, all about great women leaders in history. Lafayette We Are Here, a podcast which covers great figures in French history. And Dr. Emma Kavanagh. Thanks to all who were a part of this, I am including links to their works on our website.
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Jill Rubalcaba, I.M. Pei: Architect of Time, Place and Purpose, Marshall Cavendish, 2011.
“Tête De La Défense.” I.M. Pei Foundation, October 26, 2022. https://impeifoundation.org/works/tete-de-la-defense/.