PARIS – As the 30 year anniversary of the now iconic Louvre Museum Pyramid approaches, the landmark designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei has established itself as a mecca for tourists and art lovers visiting the French capital, but its origins were marked by controversy.
In an interview with EFE, Jack Lang, culture minister in the 1980s said that the construction of the glass and metal structure was marred by controversy, but that it has since cemented itself as a Parisian monument.
It is not the first time, Lang said, that a grand monument awakened such blind fury from purists before then becoming one the most loved symbols of Paris, Lang continued.
Both the Eiffel Tower and the Pompidou Centre suffered the same plight.
“They would tell us we were assassinating a palace from King Phillip Augustus’ time,” Lang continued.
Lang was the one to convince then-president François Mitterrand to plough on with the construction regardless of the backlash it had generated.
It was no easy feat though, the former minister who now leads the Arab World Institute in Paris recalled, “But we had to do it because it had become the symbol of our drive to make culture a priority.”
The pyramid, which turns 30 on Friday, was the primary element of a profound transformation that the somewhat stale museum would undergo.
In the 1980s one wing of the Renaissance style Palace was home to the Finance Ministry and another area was a car park.
The building did not have a main entrance and was a maze of different sub-buildings connected through multiple entry points.
Thus the key proposition of the renovation was to give the building one main foyer that would grant access to the diverse spaces.
“To this end, the pyramid became an obvious choice,” Lang added.
In 1984 a model of the pyramid design was leaked to the media and a wave of criticism ensued.
“They criticized me, but many wanted to debilitate the president,” Lang said, adding that in hindsight he is glad the design sparked such controversy.
“It allowed us to popularize the project, to explain it better, and to clarify that it was part of a deeper refurbishment.”
But the media backlash was relentless.
Mitterand was branded the “first pharaoh of France,” with the culture section of daily newspaper “Le Figaro,” at the forefront of the critique, Lang added.
But far from dissuading Mitterand, the reaction to the project reaffirmed the president’s determination to follow through with the architectural venture.
The result was a 21-meter tall polyhedron with a 1,000 square foot base supported by a 95 ton wrought iron structure, a chassis of 105 tons of aluminum encased with 673 glass diamonds.
The architect, Chien Chung Pei, commissioned the use of a special glass that would not lose transparency over time.
Pei, who collaborated with his father for the projects’ design, recalls that “the problem was a political one, not an architectural one.”
The pyramid resolved all the key elements of the design brief the architect was given.
Namely to create one main entrance to the museum, to avoid interfering with the facade of the palace and to create a structure that would be as light as possible, almost areal in nature, a specific request Mitterand had.
“From the beginning, it was a success, it created the impression that it had always been there,” the director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez said.
The airy structure was not only an architectural achievement of mammoth proportions, it also radically transformed the museum itself.
Before the pyramid, the Louvre received some 2 million visitors a year.
In 2018 the museum saw over 10 million punters walk through its grand lobby.
“This increase is thanks to the pyramid,” Martinez continued. “Visitors from across the world came to see both a monument of French history and an exceptional collection.”
“The success of the Louvre is born of an alchemy between the two,” the director added.
Lang now takes great pleasure in basking in the achievements of his cultural and architectural undertaking.
“For me, the real triumph was when, once the work was finished, the director of the “Le Figaro” magazine, Robert Hersant, called me to ask if he could celebrate the magazine’s anniversary under the pyramid.”
“To me, it sounded like a rendition, and I said yes.”