Architect called back to save the Louvre

The Louvre museum in France is recalling the architect who built its glass pyramid over a decade ago because its much-loved entrance is buckling under the sheer weight of visitor demand.

American-born Ieoh Ming Pei, last week returned to the Parisian construction he was commissioned to erect in 1989, where he gave the ominous verdict that its atrium is no longer “a pleasant place.”

According to the architect, this is because “people get jostled about,” making the base of the pyramid look and feel like an “airport” rather than the entrance to a centre for culture.

Asked by The Sunday Times whether he regretted building the glass structure, an emphatic Pei replied that nobody could have then predicted that the pyramid would become a cultural icon.

It is understood that upon commissioning the work, Pei, who is now 89, was instructed that the underground atrium would house 4million visitors a year, to operate as one of three entrances.

Yet according to reports, crowds in the late 1990s soared to 5million, further to the recent record-breaking influx of 7.5million visitors – prompting owners of the Louvre to commission a rethink.

Although visitors pay to see the museum’s many treasures, most notably the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo statue, they also want to see the third most popular work – the glass pyramid that protects them.

The problem for Pei is that the museum expects crowds to increase in the future and its chief executive director, Didier Selles, has ruled out the possibility of emergency repairs.

As a result, the architect has reportedly spent much of the summer pacing around the pyramid, including parading the galleries inside, to come up with a solution for the £48m makeover.

“The root problem is the ticketing and information desk. Many tourists are first-timers and they need an awful lot of direction,” he said.

He hopes his original plans will now be more evident in the forthcoming remodeling, which starts in 2009, to offer visitors “a place where people meet and talk.”

“I was frank with the Louvre, I told them I would find a solution but they will have to make the solution work. I don’t think I can ensure that things are done as I want them done,” he added.

One possible workaround includes moving ticket booths to an empty storage area, in addition to relocating the Grand Louvre restaurant and museum bookshop.

The architect may however see his glass pyramid loses some of the prominence that has given the museum average annual crowds of 5.7million - as its online home explains.

“There is widespread agreement on the need to play down the monumental, institutional character of the Louvre as an entity in itself, and focus instead on its role as an intermediary between individual visitors and the particular objects, paintings, and sculptures that they have come to discover,” the Louvre says, under a text section entitled ‘Making an entrance.’

The note to the public also says measures are already underway to enable the museum “to operate on a more ‘human’ scale.”

It concludes: “The role and functioning of the Pyramid and the Hall Napoléon beneath are currently being reassessed as part of a plan for the creation of decentralised reception areas, information desks, and rest areas in other parts of the museum and its surrounding.”


7th August 2006

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