Parisian Louvre pyramid designer I.M. Pei turns 100
Heavily criticised by Parisians at one point, the newly-turned centenarian’s giant glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre is now an undoubted icon
And the French daily Le Figaro, which had led the campaign against the “atrocious” design, celebrated its genius with a supplement on the 10th anniversary of its opening.
It also served as the museum’s main entrance, making its subterranean concourse bright even on the most overcast of days.
Pei, who grew up in Hong Kong and Shanghai before studying at Harvard with the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, was not the most obvious choice for the job, having never worked on a historic building before.
Already in his mid-60s and an established star in the United States for his elegant John F. Kennedy Library and Dallas City Hall, nothing had prepared Pei for the hostility of the reception his radical plans would receive.
He needed all his tact and dry sense of humour to survive a series of encounters with planning officials and historians.
One meeting with the French historic monuments commission in January 1984 ended in uproar, with Pei unable even to present his ideas.
“You are not in Dallas now!” one of the experts shouted at him during what he recalled was a “terrible session”, where he felt the target of anti-Chinese racism.
Not even Pei’s winning of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the “Nobel of architecture” in 1983, seemed to assuage his detractors.
Jack Lang, who was French culture minister at the time, told AFP he is still “surprised by the violence of the opposition” to Pei’s ideas.
“The project also came at a time of fierce ideological clashes” between the left and right, he added.
The present incumbent, however, is in no doubt that the pyramid is a masterpiece that helped turn the museum around.
Jean-Luc Martinez is all the more convinced of the fact having worked with Pei over the last few years to adapt his plans to cope with the museum’s growing popularity.
Pei’s original design was for up to two million visitors a year. Last year the Louvre welcomed nearly nine million.
For Martinez the pyramid is “the modern symbol of the museum”, he said, “an icon on the same level” as the Louvre’s most revered artworks “the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace”.
Pei is not alone in being savaged for changing the cherished landscape of Paris.
In 1887, a group of intellectuals that included Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant published a letter in the newspaper Le Temps to protest at the building of the “useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower“, an “odious column of sheet metal with bolts”.