The French have called it "immaterial monumentality," and its conceptual beginnings were fraught with public furor. For many, this crystalline high tech pyramid seemed inappropriate for the Cour Napoleon, at odds with the surviving testimony to French history. French architects were highly indignant that so prestigious a commission should have been awarded to a foreigner in the absence of any architectural competition.
This controversy raged until May, 1985, when a full-sized model of the glass pyramid erected on the site dramatically reversed public opinion.This project, designed by I.M. Pei, is known officially as the "Grand Louvre." The principal feature of this 650,000-square-foot underground structure is the crystalline pyramid entry - flanked by its three small "pyramidons," and computer-controlled fountains - all set amid vast hand-cut paving stones of the Louvre Grand Court.
The present accumulation of buildings now described collectively as the Louvre represents centuries of construction, demolition, reconstruction, change and debate - and more debate.
Roger Kimball, writer for "Architectural Record" first asked the question: "How could I.M. Pei's exercise in minimalist transparency - be anything but a snub, an affront, to the Louvre's stately 19th-century presence?" But after his visit to this controversial structure he said, "I am happy to report that my visit to the Louvre this fall convinced me that this ambitious project is one of the great success stories in contemporary architecture. Pei's contribution to the Louvre will be remembered as one of his most stunning achievements."
According to Charlotte Ellis, architect living in Paris, "despite its severe geometric precision and resolutely 20th-century imagery, the pyramid makes surprisingly little urban impact, even at close quarters." She goes on to say: "its sleek transparency and lightness of structure neither quarrel nor compete with the ornately carved stone facades of its Cour Napoleon neighbors. It sits sagely among them, politely responding to their somewhat pompous dialogue with reflections on the weather, like an extremely well trained ambassador from some far-flung planet, briefed to convey good will to the self-important elder statesmen of a once turbulent but powerful nation-state."
Apparently this technical tour de force has been accepted by the French and is now gaining considerable appreciation worldwide. In last week's article, I spoke of the clash between contemporary and eclectic architecture, and nowhere is this more apparent than at the Louvre.
Roger Kimball said that it's "breathtaking clarity and elegant weblike support system - so daring, so conspicuously inconspicuous - make the structure a veritable emblem of the modernist ambition to dematerialize the wall and render the boundary between the inside and outside fluid. Its exquisite delicacy betokens the technological progress that has allowed the fulfillment of the architectural dreams of the teens and early 20s in the 1980s."
As I indicated last Sunday, Roche chose to address the addition to the French Renaissance Jewish Museum in New York as a "continuation of C.P.H. Gilbert's original 1908 plan as if Gilbert himself were designing the expansion."
Pei chose to address the addition to the French historic structure as an aim "to bring the Louvre into the 20th century," to, draw attention to the history of the Louvre, its gradual metamorphosis from a fortress and prison in the 12th century to a palace in the 14th to a public art gallery in the wake of the Revolution and into the 21st century as a world class facility.
The often used quote "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" may seem relevant here but I believe historians and art critics of the next century will consider Pei's philosophy most significant.
-Joseph Linton is an architect in Highland, Utah County. He welcomes other viewpoints.