How I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid Broke the Mold

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We take a look at one of Pei's most iconic works in celebration of its 30th year. 

Parisians are not generally known for their warm or welcoming demeanor and their enthusiasm (rather, lack thereof) to I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid was no exception. Deemed ‘terrible,’ ‘useless,’ and ‘a house of the dead’ by some of France’s largest publications, Pei’s Pyramid was certainly not exempt from locals’ pessimistic attitudes. Though with time, the once glassy obtrusion became not only accepted, but surprisingly synonymous, with Parisians and their culture.

Pei’s Pyramid first opened in 1989, two full centuries after the French Revolution. Some claim that the introduction of the monument created an entirely new revolution in and of itself. The initial purpose of the Pyramid project was to link the Louvre’s three major wings via one singular entrance point, while simultaneously drenching its entrance in shimmering light—even on Paris’ most dark and gloomy days. 


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Of course, a deeper meaning stood at the helm of the project. Many have said that at-time President Francois Mitterrand was looking to leave his own mark on the country, and standing alongside Pei during the nationwide ‘Pyramid protest,’ of which over 90% of Parisians were against, was one way to do so. Some even deem his Pyramid alliance to be a tangible representation of his shift away from a right-wing politics towards modern-day socialism. Pei, also considered a rebel and modernist in his own way, was always looking to shake up the cities where his projects were being built; the match between the two was seamless. 

Though the Louvre Pyramid was far from Pei’s first revolutionary project, by the time Mitterrand commissioned Pei’s work, the famed architect was already in his mid-60s and had seen decades of success for his modern architectural approaches globally, ranging from his design of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha to One Dallas Center. Despite his extensive qualifications, including having studied at Harvard and acquiring countless reputable awards and titles, including the Medal of Freedom (1993) and Lifetime Achievement Award (2003, Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum), the French remained opposed. Were (are?) the French just stubborn towards modern change? The debate still stands.  


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However, Pei’s Louvre Pyramid wasn’t even the first of its kind. Although his early projects were created with a slightly darker mentality, Pei had an affinity for the lightness and airiness that came with illuminated glass pyramids. His first design featuring the concept debuted in 1978 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., which comprised numerous glass triangles that double as skylights. Similar pyramids followed suit in his next project at IBM’s headquarters in New York; the 21.6-meter (71-foot) tall Parisian pyramid was next—and wouldn’t be the last. 

Pei’s Pyramid immediately broke the architectural mold in France, a country defined so long by classicism and antiquity. The Louvre Pyramid brought a radical and tangible touch of modernity to the world’s most visited museum, most of whose wings lay scattered with antiquated paintings and classic art. As time passed, initial feelings of opposition and contempt morphed into a sentiment of acceptance. Perhaps the most revolutionary outcome of the Pyramid’s existence was that, in addition to the Louvre’s dimly lit wings, Parisians themselves also began to lighten up.


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Though Pei’s pyramid story wasn’t the first time—and certainly won’t be the last—that the country opposed, protested, and later accepted an architectural structure. During the late 19th century, a handful of esteemed journalists, including Emile Zola, published numerous anecdotes opposing the Eiffel Tower, deeming it ‘useless’ and ‘monstrous.’ Today, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most visited monuments in the world, synonymous with Parisians, French culture, and the City of Lights itself; the latter could be said for Pei’s pyramid, too. 

Despite Pei’s recent passing in May of 2019, his Louvre Pyramid holds extreme relevance today. Upon his 2017 election, France’s youngest-ever president Emmanuel Macron held his inauguration in front of the Pyramid, symbolizing a championing of French culture, modernism, and perhaps even a shift away from Mitterrand’s more socialist ways (they do say history repeats itself, right?) 


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With the recent tragedy of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Pei’s Pyramid and its many intricate symbolisms are being considered now more than ever. As the debates rage over how to reconstruct the church’s fallen spire and fire-singed roof, the question persists: should the cathedral be restored to its traditional facade? Or should the opportunity to introduce a new flare of modernism be taken advantage of, especially on such a monumental scale? Only time will tell.