In 1981, the newly elected French president, Francois Mitterrand, launched a campaign to renovate cultural institutions throughout France. One of the most advantageous of those projects was the renovation and reorganization of the Louvre.
In 1983 after touring Europe and the United States, President Mitterrand commissioned the Chinese American architect, I.M. Pei. It was the first time that a foreign architect was enlisted to work on the Louvre museum.
Completed in 1989, I.M. Pei’s renovation redesigned Cour Napoleon, the main court of the Louvre, in order to alleviate the congestion from the thousands of daily visitors. A new grand entrance provided a convenient, central lobby space separate from the galleries, which provided focal point for the cyclical process of one’s experience through the museum.
In addition to providing a new entrance to the Louvre, Pei’s design featured a new underground system of galleries, storage, and preservation laboratories, as well as a connection between the wings of the museum. The addition and relocation of the supporting spaces of the museum allowed for the Louvre to expand its collection and place more work on exhibit.
Pei’s design of the Louvre addition implemented a large glass and steel pyramid that is surrounded by three smaller triangles that provide light to the space below Cour Napoleon. For Pei, the glass pyramid provided a symbolic entry that had historical and figural importance that reinforced the main entry.
“Formally, it is the most compatible with the architecture of the Louvre..., it is also one of the most structurally stable of forms, which assures its transparency, as it is constructed of glass and steel, it signifies a break with the architectural traditions of the past. It is a work of our time.” – I.M. Pei
The monumental appearance of the glass and steel pyramid fixed in the middle of the court provides a central focal point that compliments the scale and design of the Louvre.
The scale of the large pyramid, which is designed to the same proportions of the famous Pyramid of Giza, does not detract from the historical nature of the museum rather the juxtaposition of the modern structure and the French Renaissance architectural style of the museum creates a complimentary effect that enhances each of the design’s details and beauty. So much so that the sloping glass walls of the pyramid begin to pay homage to the mansard roofs of the museum, and the opaque, heavy qualities of the Louvre’s façade exaggerate the transparency of Pei’s design.
With the history of the Louvre dating back to the 12th Century, one could imagine that the modern design implemented by Pei would not be fully accepted by the historically enamored Parisian’s. The site of the Louvre was originally a dungeon and fortress for Philippe Auguste, which was later transformed into a palace under King Francis I in 1546. It wasn’t until 1793 that Louis XVI had turned the Louvre into a museum. The Louvre has been deeply rooted in the history and culture of the Parisian people.
Much of the criticism surrounding the renovation was not because of the addition to the museum itself, but more of an issue of styles. Most felt that Pei’s modern design aesthetic would clash with the Louvre’s Classical architecture; appearing as an alien form.
However, as the decades have passed and Paris has modernized Pei’s design has become embedded in the Parisian culture. It is regarded with similar significance to that of the Eiffel Tower becoming an icon for the people of Paris, as well as the world. Pei’s design has become synonymous with the image of the Louvre marking it as an inseparable entity from the museum and of Paris.