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The Louvre pyramid that shocked Paris turns 30

Christophe Archambault, AFP | A woman runs under the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel by the Louvre museum pyramid in the morning haze at dawn in Paris on March 22, 2019.

When the Louvre’s new entrance – a glass pyramid – was first unveiled 30 years ago, many in France were shocked by its revolutionary design. But “la pyramide” has been key to making the Louvre the most-visited museum in the world.

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It was the pyramid scheme that shocked Paris when a Chinese architect, Ieoh Ming Pei, announced his plans to put one at the centre of the Louvre museum.

Pei first unveiled his design in 1984. And the reactions were as sharp as they were brutal. Critics slammed Pei’s pyramid as “an eyesore”, “an architectural joke”, “an anachronistic intrusion of Egyptian death symbolism in the heart of Paris” and “a megalomaniacal folly imposed by Mitterrand”.

It had been commissioned by the then president of France, François Mitterand, and produced as much political controversy as cultural. Many of France’s elite dismissed it as not just as a wild extravagance but as an extravagance they feared would have huge repercussions on France’s international cultural reputation.

‘What are you doing to our great Louvre?’

Indeed, in the early years of the long project, Pei himself was publicly mocked.

“When I first showed the idea to the public, I would say 90 percent were against it,” Pei recounted in a documentary on America’s PBS. “The first year and a half was really hell. I couldn’t walk the streets of Paris without people looking at me as if to say: ‘There you go again. What are you doing here? What are you doing to our great Louvre?’ ”

There was also a real fear at the time that Mitterand would not get re-elected and the project would be stopped in the middle. So it was constructed out of sequence: the glass pyramid structure was built first, before the base. The rational was that it would have been harder to abandon the project once it existed in concrete form.

A pivotal moment came when Pei showed a full-scale mock up to Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris at the time. Chirac apparently liked what he saw and the political wheels turned much more smoothly after that.

Mountain climbers for window cleaners

The pyramid we see today is unchanged from Pei’s vision. It consists of 70 triangular and 603 diamond-shaped glass panes. Standing 22 metres high, it is cleaned by trained mountain climbers who scale the shape to polish the glass.

And the glass is the key. Pei was adamant that the pyramid should be as transparent as possible. He spent a long time trying to find the most transparent and flattest glass so that views of the original galleries would not be obstructed.

The finished pyramid was actually inaugurated by Mitterand on March 4, 1989, but March 29 was the day when the public were finally allowed to see what had become of their national treasure. By this time people had become used to the idea of this radical new entrance and the brave new design was soon embraced by locals and tourists alike.

Most visited museum in the world

The Louvre’s current director, Jean-Luc Martinez, believes that Pei’s architecture has been central to the museum’s growth and success. More than 10 million people passed through the museum’s doors last year, compared with 3.5 million in 1989.

"The pyramid has brought the Louvre Museum into modernity. It is the sign of a revolution that has put the visitor at the centre of the museum,” Martinez told French Inter radio station.

“The idea of the pyramid wasn’t simply to make a dramatic gesture. This concept was functional and practical, to create a principal central entrance to aid visitor movement.”

To celebrate its 30th birthday, French artist JR has created a huge new trompe l'oeil installationthat will create the illusion of a larger pyramid emerging from rocks as if it had been discovered by an archaeological excavation.

It will only be fully visible from Friday evening from the roof of the Louvre, but JR’s team has also installed two giant screens in the courtyard to allow visitors to see the results from the ground. On Saturday and Sunday, March 30 and 31, visitors will be able to walk on the art work and observe the optical illusion in the courtyard.

"Once everything is pasted, people will walk all over the image and it will fade away and disappear," JR said to Reuters.

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