Culture / Design

How I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid saga makes us rethink architectural debates

I.M. Pei was excoriated when he unveiled the Louvre Pyramid that is now synonymous with Paris. What does it say about our attitudes to novel infrastructures

May 22, 2019 | By Leon Ngiam

On 16th May 2019, the world mourned the death of architectural giant Ieoh Ming Pei (I.M. Pei), the American-Chinese famed for conceptualising the Louvre Pyramids. A visionary designer and an equally savvy businessman, I.M. Peh was “was one of the few architects who were equally attractive to real estate developers, corporate chieftains and art museum boards (the third group, of course, often made up of members of the first two),” according to NYT architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

It’s been a fulfilling 102 year legacy which sees his name emblazoned across some of the most iconic edifices in the 20th century, but despite his widespread and popular appeal, not all of Pei’s creations were embraced with gusto.

How I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid saga makes us rethink architectural debates

Just looking at the buildings he designed, most would recognise the virtuosity of the architect from the chic, clean-lined, contemporary grandeur that his works emanate. Some of his more renowned works are Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. Of course, this list is incomplete without the mention of the Louvre Pyramids that were opened in 1989 to commemorate the 200th year anniversary the Republic birthed from the French Revolution.

And yes, the ultra-modernist glass pyramids (one massive pyramid accompanied by three small ones by its side) also started a revolution in its own right.


Today, standing in front of the Louvre Pyramid, one cannot help but marvel at the diaphanous structure perched at the literal heart of the Louvre. In the day, the 22 metres tall glass pyramid floods the museum with natural light to instil a sense of vitality in the ancient quarters. As night falls, a gentle yellow-golden glow from the museum interior illuminates the glass pyramid from underneath, like the awakening of a mystical golden dragon; its body materialised by the reflection in the calm water. Its seemingly mammoth size complements seamlessly without overshadowing the medieval French architecture; the Parisians are proud of it, now.

But the reception of the Louvre pyramids has not always been this good. When it was first unveiled, the same infrastructure was deemed to be a “sacrilege” to the museum that dates back to the 12 century. First, it was built by a Chinese-American architect, not a Frenchman. Secondly, it was too modern to be the face of the Louvre. Thirdly, it evoked the Egyptian death motif.

In fact, I.M Pei faced a full-on fusillade of French vitriol with up to 90% of Parisians against the project at its peak. Recalling the stressful episode with the French public, I.M. Pei confessed, “after the Louvre, I thought no project would be too difficult”; the sting of the saga was the personal vilification and anti-Chinese racism that Pei encountered.

30 years on, how have Parisians reconciled with this ultra-modernist design? The turning point was when Pei showed a full-scale mock up to Jacque Chirac, mayor of Paris, who adored the architectural significance of the modern pyramid in the ancient precinct. That was followed by positive reviews from senior politicians and architecture aficionados. Eventually, Pei was feted for the masterful modernist as he was.

While the monument certainly has not changed since it was unveiled in 1989, the people’s (especially the French) perspectives sure have. For one, it made the Louvre the most popular museum in the world at 10.2 million visitors. Coincidentally, one century before the Louvre Pyramid, in 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was unveiled, it was also dubbed an architectural farce—a useless and monstrous tower.

Anecdotally, the French are extremely proud of their heritage and may be resistant to change but once these revolutionary designs proved to embellish their skyline, most nod in concurrence. That is not to say that their passions are frivolous, rather, it is a case in point to reconsider how we are framing our debates on public infrastructures.

At LUXUO, we concur on the importance of heritage preservation, but we believe that modernity also has a place in the City of Light (look at Philharmonie and Fondation Louis Vuitton). Debates are welcome to shed light on public sentiments—as it is their very sense of pride that we are tempering with—but they should be centred on the spirit of the edifice rather than the superficialities such as the race of the architect or be bogged by a loadstone like “provenance”. These debates should explore the question of “what has been” and then decide on “what could be”.

More recently, the reconstruction of the Notre Dame after the fire on 15 April 2019 is the subject of heated debate; the public is torn between the pursuit of a contemporary or a traditional facade. Surely, it is more complicated than the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower due to the theological slant in this scenario, however, it is still worthwhile to question if a new structure faithful to the spirit of the times is preferable to slavish adherence to what was once before.

But, in any case, let’s not abandon our civility or be blinded by passions and descend into politically-biased squabbles. As we attempt to interpret the physical and figurative fit of new infrastructures, let’s not shut down novel ideas for its novelty per se. Rather, let’s accord these momentous debates the gravitas it deserves and base our decision on the cherished principles of our society and the essence of the construct.

The eclectic mix of architectural styles, from gothic cathedrals to the contemporary glass pyramid of the Louvre, in Paris is testament to the transcendent potential of bold, but deliberative, endeavours at architecture. Just as how societies have evolved throughout the centuries, architecture, which is underpinned by society’s paradigm, may evolve to reflect this change. Immoderate denial of innovation may only seem like a contrived effort to freeze time.

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