Landmark At The Louvre: The Pyramid Turns 20

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The Louvre pyramid at twilight.

The Louvre's famous pyramid turns 20 this year. When architect I.M. Pei first designed it in the 1980s, critics said tampering with the Louvre's majestic architecture was "sacrilegious." But over the years, visitors have warmed up to the giant glass structure. Sipa via AP Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sipa via AP Images
The pyramid under construction in 1988. i

The pyramid under construction in 1988. Before the pyramid entrance was built, the Louvre courtyard was a parking lot. Franck Perry/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Franck Perry/AFP/Getty Images
The pyramid under construction in 1988.

The pyramid under construction in 1988. Before the pyramid entrance was built, the Louvre courtyard was a parking lot.

Franck Perry/AFP/Getty Images

When I.M. Pei's glass pyramid was first designed for Paris' ancient, beloved Louvre, critics called it "a gigantic gadget" and "a despotic act." Now, two decades later, the French love it — and the gleaming three-story piece of glass geometry has become a destination of its own.

Before the Louvre was a palace or a museum, it was a medieval fortress. To tamper with its appearance seemed, as some put it, "sacrilegious."

"It was very controversial," says Henri Loyrette, president and director of the Louvre. "There was a lot of debate. Many, many people were very hostile."

Before the pyramid went up, the Louvre courtyard wasn't much to write home about, Loyrette says. It was essentially a parking lot. Pei's pyramid cleared away the cars and gave Paris a new, sparkling glass heart.

Loyrette says that when long lines form at the museum's pyramid entrance, "We say to people: 'We have another entrance you could go through.'" But no matter — the visitors want to enter the museum through the pyramid.

"When you ask the visitors, 'Why are you coming to the Louvre?' they give three answers," Loyrette says. "For the Mona Lisa, for the Venus [de] Milo, and for the pyramid."

More than 8 million people come to the Louvre each year — which takes its toll on the entryway. Loyrette explains that the glass is cleaned once a month by alpine climbers. It's "a very special job," he says.

Museum visitors relax in the Louvre courtyard. i

Museum visitors relax in the Louvre courtyard. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people come to the Louvre each day. Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images
Museum visitors relax in the Louvre courtyard.

Museum visitors relax in the Louvre courtyard. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people come to the Louvre each day.

Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images

There are still naysayers out there — visitors who gripe that the shiny tip of the Louvre iceberg looks out of place among the museum's majestic old architecture.

But despite the maintenance headaches and the ongoing controversy, Loyrette thinks I.M. Pei's pyramid is a masterpiece — and one that gave his revered old museum a "today" message.

"It made the Louvre modern," he says.

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