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Louvre's dragonfly-wing-like Islamic art building is ready to fly

The expansion, housed in a shimmering, undulating building, is meant to foster fuller cultural understanding while showcasing beautiful works.

September 01, 2012|By Devorah Lauter
  • The building devoted to Islamic art, photographed during construction, occupies the stately 19th century Visconti courtyard. It will open on Sept. 22.
The building devoted to Islamic art, photographed during construction,… (Antoine Mongodin / Musee…)

PARIS — The Louvre's astonishing new wing for the department of Islamic art undulates like molten gold, so liquid-smooth in contrast to the surrounding neoclassical architecture framing it that at a glance from afar it almost looks like a digitalized, fake rendering of what visitors can hope to see in the distant future.

For the museum's enlarged, 18,000-piece treasure trove of Islamic art, opening Sept. 22, architects Mario Bellini from Italy and Rudy Ricciotti from France used the latest in computer technology to create what is the most significant, innovative architectural expansion project to the museum since I.M. Pei shook up the institution with his glass pyramid in 1989.

Described as an iridescent dragonfly wing, flying carpet, wind-blown veil, scarf or sail, or Bedouin tent, the new structure has elicited mostly warm early reactions (unlike the initial outcry against the pyramid). The building is also a much more intimate addition, tucked into the folds of the sprawling monument (822 years old in some parts) and is not clearly visible from the street.

With its new structure and its expanded and restored collection, from which more than 2,500 works will be displayed, the museum says it hopes to "seduce" visitors into learning more about Islamic arts. In the process, the institution has stated a rather more ambitious goal for the $98.5-million-euro project ($123.8 million): to correct common "misconceptions" associated with the Islamic world and "bridge" cultural gaps that can lead to conflict.

The building, which has ground-level and underground exhibit spaces, is covered in a woven, metallic mesh, or "scales" of triangular panels, to protect light-sensitive works. It can be seen through windows around the rest of the museum, as if it were a modern art sculpture itself, complementing the historic surroundings yet appearing capable of flying away at any moment from the palace walls.

"We decided on the solution of a kind of scarf floating within the free space of the courtyard, which we kept open," Bellini said by telephone. "And to have it touch down for a moment at one point, and stay there — as if floating forever."

"Sometimes there is a repulsion effect for the arts of Islam, and for Islam in particular," said Louvre Director Henri Loyrette in a video statement. "Our duty is to explain, to say, to show the luminous side of this civilization and all that it has indubitably brought to the world. And that's what we are simply trying to do with this new department of Islamic art. So the stakes are multiple, but they are questions of understanding that are very, very strong."

And there is no better motivation for understanding one's fellow man than by way of a little French seduction — or the attraction of the beautiful space and its collection, said the Louvre's Islamic art director, Sophie Makariou. "We're not here to give people lessons. We're here to take them by the hand and teach them things and give them pleasure," she said. "I think this kind of visual joy that you feel is the surest motor for teaching.... I believe in an aesthetic slap in the face that you can get, and the magic of the space contributes to that," Makariou said in her office.

The appeal of the building is an element to the Louvre's cultural bridging operation as well. As Bellini put it, the space allows one to plunge into another experience as if on a journey. "Another way would be to hire a tourist agency and travel through the whole Islamic world," he said.

When approached from outside, the roof of the new structure — located within the 19th century Visconti courtyard — immediately rises up as if one were looking up at a sand dune from its base. (Visitors will enter the new galleries without ever having to go outside, and will only be given limited access to the exterior space between the courtyard and new building.) For the outer and inner "skins" of the canopy, architects chose triangular panels of aluminum anodized mesh, with gold on the exterior top layer, silver underneath. The woven mesh softly filters daylight and allows hazy glimpses of the Paris sky and the stone courtyard.

"If you look up, you understand you're in a courtyard," said Bellini, well known for his industrial designs, which have been featured in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "but on the other hand, you feel you are in a special world, and this magic filter — we can say a flying carpet — it transports your fantasy and your attention elsewhere, while you can still glimpse out and position yourself. That peculiar aspect of being there and not being there is what I think makes our proposal a success."

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