The man behind the Louvre pyramid: how IM Pei reinvented the art museum for an age of mass tourism

The glass pyramid designed by IM Pei
The glass pyramid designed by IM Pei Credit: Reuters

On August 10, 1793, just a year after France’s revolutionary government had abolished the nation’s monarchy, it reopened the former Louvre Palace in Paris as a public art gallery, exhibiting 537 paintings, confiscated in large part from the collections of the crown and church. Over the following months, hundreds of thousands of Parisians took advantage of the opportunity to visit a building whose change of use so vividly embodied the new political order. 

In the years since, those numbers have only grown and, in recent decades, exponentially so. The 10.2 million art-lovers who visited the Louvre in 2018 represented the largest annual attendance figure that has been achieved by any museum in the world.

Fundamental to that growth has been the extraordinary success of the Grand Louvre project designed by the Chinese-American architect, IM Pei, who died yesterday at the age of 102.  The famous glass pyramid, which occupies the centre of the Louvre’s principal courtyard and forms the new entrance to the museum, may be the design’s most immediately recognisable element, but the larger part of Pei’s work lies below ground. 

The pyramid provides access down to a vast concourse arranged over two subterranean levels where visitors encounter elements of the twelfth century fortress which previously occupied the site. From this central location they are free to travel in all directions, providing ready access to the sprawling complex of galleries above.

The Grand Louvre was completed in 1989 in time for the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Six years earlier the newly elected President Francois Mitterand handpicked Pei for the commission having been impressed by the architect’s recent extension to the American National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  There, Pei had distributed the galleries around a yawning sky-lit atrium, theatrically traversed by escalators and bridges and animated by trees and monumental sculpture. Strongly informed by recent developments in hotel and office lobby design, this was a new kind of museum space, unabashedly spectacular and concerned more with the coach party’s enjoyment in parading in public than with facilitating the connoisseur’s engagement with a painting.

IM Pei (in sunglasses) with French President François Mitterand (left) in 1987, looking at a pane of glass to be used in the construction of the pyramid Credit: AFP/Getty

But it is in the Louvre project, that Pei’s reinvention of the art museum for an age of mass tourism finds most complete expression. Again, the design’s associations lie less with the tradition of earlier exhibition spaces than with commercial interiors, in particular shopping centres and airports. As in those models, the concourse serves as a seemingly endless space rich in opportunities for shopping, eating and people-watching – all the things millions of people now go to galleries to do that don’t actually involve looking at art. Indeed, the Grand Louvre’s success has influenced the design of museums all over the world – Norman Foster’s glazing over of the the central Great Court of the British Museum in 2000 being the most obvious example in Britain. A very significant expansion in audience numbers has invariably followed. Some will question whether the change is entirely welcome, but for better or worse the modern museum has become as much a quasi-public space as a venue for exhibiting art.

It is no coincidence that Pei came to museum design after decades working for commercial clients.  He studied with the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius – who had relocated to the United States in the Thirties – and on graduating, secured a position as Director of Architectural Research for Webb and Knapp, one of America’s largest real estate companies. Here he found the opportunity to design huge retail and office developments in cities like Montreal and Denver while many of his contemporaries were still struggling to secure commissions larger than a house. These early projects offered lessons in the challenges of designing for large numbers of people. They also taught him a certain ruthlessness. His plan for the reconstruction of Oklahoma City Centre proposed the demolition of over 400 buildings. The Louvre project is on a smaller scale but represents a no less radical approach and, when first proposed, was no less controversial.

The pyramid, in particular, was a magnet for hostility. Criticised as a wantonly modernist intrusion in an historic setting, its form was also widely read as emblematic of the new president’s pharaonic pretensions. However, on completion Pei’s work soon won over the vast majority of Parisians and is now almost as intrinsic to the image of the city as the Eiffel Tower. While it seems a markedly restrained intervention when compared with the desperate flamboyance of many museums realised around the world in the years since, much of our contemporary understanding of the art gallery as a site of public entertainment has its origins in IM Pei’s work at the Louvre.