The pyramids of ancient Egypt were a practical solution to an important post-mortem problem. That is to say, how could the transition from pharaonic mortal life to immortal life be managed, while ensuring continuing exclusive access to your magnificent worldly possessions? The answer was provided by original pyramidal architecture, labyrinthine interior design, masterful engineering, human muscle-power and massive quantities of stone blocks and facings – including 5.5 million tonnes of limestone, 8,000 tonnes of granite and half a million tonnes of mortar.
A practical pyramid
Likewise, the pyramid of metal and glass that was built on the Louvre forecourt in Paris about 3,600 years later was a solution to a modern pressing problem. With the massive escalation of international tourism in the late twentieth century, the Louvre Museum was besieged by would-be visitors. Seeking entry, queues of hapless humanity snaked their way around the surrounding streets, prey to the natural elements and the rapacious predations of swarms of pickpockets. It was an appalling experience for people who were hoping to enjoy some of the world’s most superb art.
In fact, by the early 1980s the fabric of the whole museum was under strain, with weathered exteriors and cramped interiors that were well overdue for attention. A substantial part of the museum’s growing collection was unable to be on display at any one time, being farmed out instead to the nearby Musée d’Orsay. The crowding was not helped by the French Finance Ministry occupying a whole wing of the Louvre complex. The whole sorry situation called for urgent action.
The Grand Louvre project
In response, along came the Grand Louvre project initiated by then-President, Francois Mitterand. The agenda included banishing the Finance Ministry to provide a massive new display space and sprucing up the exteriors. Most controversially, the project included a vastly expanded all-weather public entrance and lobby, restaurants, auditoriums, exhibitions rooms, a bookstore – all to be accommodated under a new metal lattice and glass pyramid on the forecourt that would admit natural light by day and glow from within at night.
The pyramid was to be 21.6 metres (71 feet) high and comprise 95 tonnes of steel, 105 tonnes of aluminium and 673 rhomboid and triangular glass panes to provide a surface area of 1,000 square metres (10,764 square feet). This was somewhat more modest than the Great Pyramid of Giza, which stands at 139 metres (456 feet). However, when the Louvre pyramid was completed in 1988, its scale for its urban environment proved to be ideal.
Not “French” but it is art
Purists were aghast at what they believed to be the structural and visual sacrilege inflicted upon the stately French Renaissance architecture of the Louvre. But while the original inspiration for the Louvre pyramid is most definitely ‘un-French’ it speaks to the universalist nature of great art – including Egyptian art from antiquity. And importantly, the Louvre pyramid does not pretend to be distinctively French. That kind of ghastly pretence can be left to any number of suburbs throughout the world that are infested by hideous mock-French Provincial mansions that are composed of tilt-up, pre-cast concrete slabs.
Despite the difficulties attending its creation by Chinese-American architect, I M Pei, the glass pyramid has come to be widely recognised as visual shorthand for the Louvre Museum itself. Only a sublime work of architectural art could be embraced so readily by France and the world.
Enter the pyramid
Ironically, the continued growth in popularity of the Louvre Museum meant that the practical solution envisioned by the pyramid’s construction – getting people from the outside to the inside without delay – has been frustrated. In subsequent years, the entry queue has been snaking around the forecourt – the Cours Napoleon – rather than the surrounding streets. But at least these days you can beat the queue by purchasing a ticket online in advance – it’s actually required. Anyway, it’s a smart move to get yourself on the inside that magnificent pyramid as soon as you can.
The Louvre Museum is located on the Rue de Rivoli in the First Arrondisement of Paris.
Read more about the history of the Louvre
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…