Le Grand Louvre: I. M. Pei's Fusion of Design and Technology


We must ask the question whether pyramid building is likely to ever occur again.
- Kurt Mendelssohn, The Riddle of the Pyramids, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974)

The LouvreThe renovation of the Louvre by I. M. Pei is perhaps the most impressive architectural commission of the 1980s - and perhaps of the century. Not only a building, or even a great museum, the Louvre is the cultural heart of France, a country that takes its culture extremely seriously. Because of the Louvre's great importance, it is impressive enough that the redesigning of it was left up to one man and his firm (and a foreign one, at that).

Naturally, though, one must marvel at the finished product itself to grasp the full implications of the project. The aesthetics of the airy pyramids and underground passageways are practically undeniable and, more importantly, the intended purposes of the structures - both visual and functional - are ingenious. The new elements of the museum serve simultaneously as sculpture, a new entrance, an efficient link to all three museum wings, and an open public plaza. Indeed, Pei's design is able to accomplish all of this magnificently and yet manage to remain almost completely invisible to a viewer at ground level, allowing the original structure to remain the master element.

This paper, however, not only describes the results of this project. To understand the work it its entirety, one must first understand the architect, his background, and his methods. After that, the work is examined not only as an architectural design but as a project combining historical analysis, art, business savvy, and power. These elements, in fact, did not arise out of chance, for they are all permanent and challenging parts of I. M. Pei and his work. To understand his architecture is to understand all of these elements and their roles.

I. M. Pei

I hope to do many more things, but never again will I have another opportunity like the Louvre.
- I. M. Pei

I. M. Pei in the LouvreDescribed as an "elegant, charming, and diplomatic individual," I. M. Pei sounds more like an ambassador than an architect. Always seen in an impeccable double-breasted suit, he also looks like he could be one. This seems appropriate, however, when his past is taken into account.

Born in Canton, China on April 26, 1917, Ieoh Ming Pei was the son of a prominent Chinese banker. During his entire childhood he was surrounded by the powerful elite of the Chinese economic world, and when he came to the United States he continued to be in important places. Beginning his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he then went on to MIT and Harvard. During his career he has had contact with the powerful elite of the world, from the Kennedys in the U.S. to Francois Mitterand in France. He has also known, studied, or taught with many of the great European and American architects of this century including Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. He also has incorporated many ideas from Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Kahn.

The key to full understanding his style, however, is to recognize his willingness to accept a project for what is has to offer rather than to impose upon it a rigid preconception. Instead of adhering to a "school of Pei," he prefers to focus on the individual needs of people; how they will move through and around the building, and how human and architectural environments can be fused into a useful plan. The Louvre project is an ideal example of his style, combining high utility with elegant beauty.

Le Grand Louvre

At the base of all politics is the politics of culture.
- Francois Mitterand

The renovation of the Louvre was not only a large architectural and political undertaking: it was also a calculated move to further bolster the image of Francois Mitterand as the greatest cultural leader of France in the twentieth century. Because of this, he wanted to take no risks: he simply wanted the best that was available with no compromises. Taking the recommendations of both Europeans and Americans, Emile Biasini - the president of the Louvre's official government agency - decided that Pei was the right architect. After conferring with Mitterand, it was decide that the competition process normally used to select architects for projects of this size would not be followed, as Mitterand did not want to leave an endeavor this important to any uncertainties.

With that, the project was placed directly into the lap of I. M. Pei, who had the challenge of renovating a two hundred year old museum into a more modern facility while respecting its immense historic importance to the French people. In addition to providing more room for the museum and its administrative needs, Pei also had the challenge of deciding how to alter the three existing entrances to more efficiently accommodate visitors. After making three lengthy visits to Paris to study the site, structure, and history of the Louvre, Pei arrived at a novel solution.

PlanRather than working with the three entrances, Pei decided to totally abandon them in favor of one new centralized entrance. The only way to do this would be to excavate the Cour Napoleon, the courtyard lying inside the U-shaped building ensemble and build an underground space that would connect directly into all three of the museum's wings. Crowning this area would be a nearly transparent glass pyramid flanked by fountains and three smaller pyramids. He also planned an additional underground corridor leading away from the museum, lit by another pyramid (this time inverted), which would lead to a large subterranean bus terminal.

Section viewThe new reception structure, although hidden underground, is actually the most important element of the entire ensmble. The new reception, exhibition, and administrative facilities add up to 670,000 square feet of new space for the museum. One notable aspect of the structure is its relation to the nearby Seine River; namely, that it lies below the water table. Because flooding of the Seine raises the river considerably above the level of the Cour Napoleon structure, a system of drainage and pumps had to be designed to keep the area free of water. In addition, the sensitive foundations of the original Louvre wings required the excavation to be no closer than 24 feet from the edges of ths courtyard.

InteriorThe ceiling of the structure is of white concrete, consisting of portland cement mix and superplasticizer additives to fill voids around the reinforcements. Although the concrete is conventionally reinforced with wire mesh, it is also further strengthened with a network of interwoven sine-curve-shaped cables. Together, all of these elements allow the depth of the ceiling - which simultaneously serves as the courtyard support construction - to be reduced considerably. Furthermore, the interior finish of the concrete matches the quality of the fine stone used for the interior walls and floor. Above the ceiling layer a more conventional sequence of structural concrete, precast panels, asphalt waterproofing, gravel drainage, and granite pavers is used.

Rising above the underground addition is a structural system which at first attracted the most attention - and controversy - in the entire Pei ensemble. The central glass pyramid, rising 71 feet above the surface of the Cour Napoleon, is a deliberate attempt to avoid a "subway station" feel to the entrance, which Pei decided must be located in the center of the courtyard. By being nearly transparent, the pyramid would not disturb the already-existing museum but subtly complement the classical symmetries found in the Louvre. The transparent glass would also allow large amounts of light to flood the interior of the underground structure; three smaller pyramids were placed around the central one to both allow additional ight and to aid visitors in orienting themselves to the museum's three wings. To further lighten the visual forms of the pyramids, he incorprated a system of triangular fountains and reflecting pools, giving the illusion that the pyramids are floating.

The reception of the pyramids was extremely harsh by nearly everyone in Paris. The Commission Superieure des Monuments Historiques called it a "gigantic, ruinous gadget," and a prominent Paris intellectual decided that it looked like an "annex to Disneyland." Only President Mitterand and the Louvre administration seemed satisfied and even pleased with Pei's ideas. After the Louvre curators published their own statement, insisting that Pei's pyrmaids were a "gratuitous architectural gesture" that had nonetheless been accepted and approved, the harsh criticism was finally diminished but not eliminated. Only after Pei had a cable mock-up of the central pyramid erected on the site were Parisians convinced that the plan may have a chance.

The large pyramid at nightThe now-finished pyramid is admired and even lauded by the French, not only for its appearance but also for its ingenious engineering. The 675 diamond-shaped and 118 triangular panes of glass in the structure are supported by a spaceframe of 128 steel crisscrossing girders tied together by 16 cables. This self-supporting system was so innovative, in fact, that Pei was unable to find anyone in Europe to make the necessary components. Returning to America, Pei had Navtec from Littleton, Massachusetts manufacture them, a company better known for the rigging it builds for America's Cup yachts.

To quote the critic John Russell, "Visitors may never notice such minutiae, or the purity of an enclosure unmarred by lighting fixtures, mechanical ductwork, security or smoke sensors - all are accomodated out of sight." Indeed, the true beauty of Pei's design lies in the invisible as well as the visible realms. A structure that almost does not exist, the glass pyramid floats gently above the visitors, creating an immense open space out of what would otherwise be an uninviting hole. The new Hall Napoleon also delivers an effect that is surprisingly open and vibrant for something lying underground. And looking at the final product from a distance, the additions by Pei bring a magic to the old Louvre structure that is difficult to describe. Reflecting the Paris sky with a striking clarity, the pyramids and fountains of the new Grand Louvre provide the enchanting effects that pyramids elsewhere have done for centuries: achieving an architectural clarity, conveying a sense of history and antiquity, and connecting heaven and earth.

April 1992