March 08: Le plus grandiose des Grands Projets

2016/03/08 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1989 the Pyramide du Louvre opened.

The Pyramid was one—maybe the most spectaculaire due to its visibility—of the Grands Projets (actually and officially Grandes Operations d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme) launched by French President François Mitterrand in 1982 to ensure that the monumental city of Paris met the new millennium with unabashedly modern monuments.  Eight definitely giant and some superb buildings (and at least one or two désastres) were planned by a striking and international group of architects: the Parc de la Villette (Barnard Tschumi), the Institut du Monde Arabe (Jean Nouvel), Opéra Bastille (Carlos Ott), La Grande Arche de la Défense (Johann Otto von Spreckelsen), Ministère des Finances (Paul Chemetov and Borja Huidobro,), a massive addition to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Dominique Perrault), and the adaptive reuse of the Orsay railway station as the Musée d’Orsay.  All told, the Projets were estimated at a cost of 15.7 billion francs.

Designed by I.M. Pei, the Louvre project was intended to accomplish two things: in addition to giving a ‘modern’ image to the centuries-old museum, it was meant to unsnarl the mobs who choked the entries every day (even long since 1789 French leaders are not crazy about mobs).  It was, after all, initially designed as a palace, and so was ill-suited for at least the circulation of a museum, although it’s always been a swell place to hang paintings.  The Pyramide itself is really no more than a big skylight that illuminates a vast new underground vestibule, in which visitors have a central place to buy tickets and tschotskes, and from which they can choose three basic directions to head into the galleries.  On the Pei Cobb Freed & Partners website you can read all about the tons of extra programming (upwards of 650,000 SF) that the architects stuffed underground, including a vast shopping mall that is an unfortunate but realistic commentary on the place of museums in contemporary culture (the fact that it paved the way to a McDonald’s being housed technically under the same roof as the Winged Victory of Samothrace says a lot).

On a square base of 115 feet per side, rising to a height of 70 feet (or, in French measure, 53 baguettes to a side and 32.8 baguettes tall), the Pyramide’s sides comprise 673 glass segments (do not believe Dan Brown or whomever told you there are 666 because Mitterrand was a Satanist or whatever) (in general, please avoid Dan Brown).  Having received a bunch of prizes and awards from the design and construction community, the Pyramide did not escape public and critical censure by those who object to its overt rejection of the French Classicism that had worked just fine at the site for centuries.  Given the typical Post-Modern approach to history (the architectural equivalent of the “would you start my orange” kind of dedication to a task), the appropriate character of an ostensibly Egyptian form has some merit: the Louvre has a long (some might say “tainted,” or “imperialistic” or maybe “controversial”) history with Egypt, so it makes some sense to descend beneath a glass pyramid and head to the Denon wing and look at collections curated by Jean-François Champollion.  Even so, Clio wonders how Pei might have done the project now, given the evidence of his softening and elegant handling of historical traditions in Doha.  Even so, she is appreciative that it’s not the crummy kind of winky-nudge jokey-goodtime cartoon history that might have been dumped on the Louvre site in the mid-1980s by other PoMo architects.  What if they had hired Michael Graves? Sacrebleu!

image: la Pyramide, from the Pavilion Sully (Clio’s)

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