PARIS — Clouds scud across the Ile de France even on lovely summer days. These days their billowing reflections are seen in a massive crystalline glass and steel pyramid unveiled earlier this year in the Napoleon court of the Louvre. It is the symbolic centerpiece of a $1-billion renovation being carried out on what is arguably the world's greatest art museum.
The project was designed by the Sino-American architect I. M. Pei at the behest of French President Francois Mitterand . The project, scheduled for completion in 1993, is called Le Grand Louvre.
Like everything prominent and modern done in Paris, the pyramid, and indeed the whole face-lifting scheme, has been the focus of lively public debate and controversy. Back before the turn of the century, the construction of the Eiffel Tower was opposed by leading graybeards, and the great cache of Impressionist paintings that is now the pride of the still-new Musee d'Orsay was vigorously resisted by reigning academicians. Sometimes you can't tell whether the French really hate progress or if they just love to argue.
Anticipatory worries about the three-story-tall pyramid ranged from anxiety that such a sleek high-tech hood-ornament would clash with the old structure to fears the building would be upstaged. After all, how dare we mess with a hallowed edifice whose history goes back to the 12th Century? In its previous incarnation as royal palace, its architectural apogee was reached in 1670 with the completion of the classical East Front by Claude Perrault.
More temporal lovers of Paris wrung their hands out of pure nostalgia. The Court Napoleon was a scruffy collection of bushes and \o7 deux-chevaux\f7 Citroens when I was a bohemian student here, so, by gum, that's the way it should stay. Period.
Miraculously, no sooner was the pyramid inaugurated in a downpour of fireworks and patriotic \o7 paroles\f7 than controversy drifted away like a leaf on the Seine. Everybody seems seduced by this visitor from Egyptian outer space or resigned to it. The opinion of the world's collective Everyman is now being formulated as millions of foreign tourists descend on Paris like an annual plague of locusts.
Symbolically and historically the pyramid makes perfectly good sense. The Louvre, of course, anchors one end of a long urban axis that begins with the Arc de Triomphe, continues down the Champs Elysees, crosses the Place de la Concorde, strolls through the Tuilleries gardens, under the little Arc de Triomphe du Carousel and into the open arms of the Louvre. How better to complete this magnificent vista than with an anchoring monument at the other end?
(There are some problems with this scenario. The Louvre does not actually line up with the Champs Elysees, so the pyramid is off-center to the urban axis. You can't see this at the moment due to intervening construction, but when the scaffolding comes down, it may appear that Pei should have played to civic symmetry rather than that of the museum.)
The pyramid echoes the Egyptian obelisk in the Concorde, evoking Napoleonic glory. It also recalls a French taste for visionary symbolic architecture seen today in the immense mirrored sphere at the Science Museum in La Villette. By 1980, queues at the Louvre snaked outdoors the length of the palace, the street on the Seine side clogged with stridently painted tourist buses.
The interior was jammed with almost as many artworks as visitors. Almost incredibly the huge museum had run out of space to hang even its existing collections properly, much less expand. The place also looked scruffy from age, neglect and heavy use.
This second problem was fairly easy to solve if you had the kingly clout of a French president. Francois Mitterand ordered the museum spruced up and the Ministry of Finance out of the wing it has long occupied in the Louvre's Richelieu pavilion. The ministry grumbled at giving up its opulent offices, but it will be done so that in the end the whole Louvre will be a museum.
The traffic problem--called "crowd control" in less polite vernacular--was a tougher nut. Pei solved it by putting a common pedestrian entrance at the pyramid and building a spacious reception area beneath it. Eventually the subterranean space will be expanded to include parking to hide cars and ugly tourist buses. A kind of dignified shopping mall will also be added, to some people's dismay.
There is no question that Pei's solution is the best one under the circumstances, but problems remain. Some are real, some aesthetic, but all minor compared to the elusive Big One.
After all this fuss, people still must wait in line above ground just to get into the pyramid, standing patiently in a maze made of gritty metal police barriers--a shame when the rest is so lovely.
I chickened out and used a press entrance (due to an old phobia about lines contracted in Army mess halls) but tolerant friends say the overground wait is not bad because people are let in in clumps of 100 or so every few minutes.