We were driving past the Pavilion de Flore, which punctuates the southwestern extremity of the Louvre’s Grande Galerie, when my neighbor suddenly gripped my arm and exclaimed, “Mira! Estos techos! estas chimineas! Hombre! Estupendo!” (Look! Those roofs, those chimneys! Man alive! Stupendous!) Such was the reaction of the famous Spanish cartoonist, Antonio Mingote, to his first exposure to the Louvre, some twenty years or more ago.
For me this was both an exciting and sobering experience. Having lived for so many years in Paris, I had grown used to the tall chimneys and rooftops of the Louvre and had ended up taking them for granted. It had taken this visiting Spaniard to make me realize just how stupendous the Louvre’s tall roofs, domed pavilions, and soaring chimneys really were.
In 1852, when Napoleon III decided to complete what his more illustrious uncle had already begun^by clearing three streets of run-down houses in order to connect the northern wing of the Tuileries Palace to the Louvre along the handsomely arcaded Rue de Rivoli—he entrusted this task of palatial enlargement to two conservative architects, Lodovico Visconti and Hector Lefuel, who today are virtually forgotten. Neither being a genius nor burning to be furiously “original,” they prudently decided that the Louvre could best be aggrandized by the construction of two monumental, tall-roofed wings, complete with six magnificent domed pavilions, similar to those which the great Renaissance architect, Philibert Delorme, had designed for Catherine de Medicis’ Tuileries Palace. They further decided to decorate, the cornices with stone statues, representing French lawmakers and thinkers, painters, architects, and poets—in all, more than one hundred. When finally completed in 1857 the structure was considerably larger than . Louis XIII’s Cour de Marbre rose at Versailles, and notwithstanding its relative lack of architectural originality it was the most palatial and grandest forecourt in the world.
Up until fairly recently this magnificent forecourt served as a daytime parking lot for museum curators and senior officials from the French Ministry of Finance, located in the northern wing of the Louvre. The forecourt, now known as the Cour Napoleon, was further disgraced by clumps of trees and bushes and an incongruously placed statue of Lafayette. But a few years ago all the cars were ordered out, the trees and the statue were removed. The result, particularly impressive in the evening, was a wonderfully lamp-lit square, dominated by the brooding domes and the soundless voices of its lordly statues, which seemed to be conversing with each other or with the wandering visitor below. Nowhere in the French capital was the rich continuity of French history so grandly and eloquently evoked as here.
Today, however, the magic spell has been broken. The ghosts of the past no longer flit across the square, the statues no longer converse. For the huge forecourt (120 yards wide, 250 yards deep) is now partly filled by a strange glass , tent, held together by metal struts and ribbing, which destroys the vue d’ensemble one used to have, and makes the stately square almost carnivalesque. The jarring 20th-century intruder is the famous 70-foot-high glass pyramid designed by a Chinese-American architect, I.M. Pei. The pyramid “shelters” a circular entrance ramp leading down to an “enchanted” underworld of ticket-dispensing counters, information desks, bookshops, a bank, postoffice, restaurant, and cafeteria—from which throbbing concourse, effortlessly borne upwards again on three escalating carpets, the perfectly oriented and possibly “tanked-up” sightseer can now penetrate the labyrinthine galleries of the “Grand Louvre.”
Exactly what kind of verdict historians of the future will pass on this less-than-crystalline excrescence when they chronicle the second seven-year reign of François II, I have no idea. But they are likely to conclude that the manner in which this pyramid was chosen and then imposed on a passive, willingly bamboozled French public was a masterful exhibition of manipulation, pulled off by someone who has few equals in the art of transmuting an autocratic vox Dei into a seemingly democratic vox populi.
In the “precedent” of that tubular monstrosity known as the Centre Georges Pompidou (or “Centre Beauborg”), competing designs were solicited and some 280 obtained before erection, but the decision to have I.M. Pei design a single, new, “eye-catching” entrance to the Louvre was made personally by François Mitterrand, with the enthusiastic cooperation of his effervescent Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, in the summer of 1983. When, six months later, the glass pyramid project was presented to the Commission supérieure des monuments historiques, responsible for the conservation and restoration of French buildings of historic worth, its startled members were given exactly three hours to debate the merits of this project,” which had been cleverly sandwiched in among a score of other questions—among them one recommending the preservation of certain synagogues and churches, and another recommending the construction of a subterranean garage for cars and buses under the eastern end of the Tuileries Gardens. Since this latter proposal, which was intended to rid the immediate vicinity of the museum of the swarms of sightseeing buses ruining the splendid westward vista up the Tuileries Gardens, was welcomed by virtually every member of the historic monuments commission, it was later intimated through carefully planted “leaks” and an ingenious process of amalgam that the commission had approved all of the Ministry of Culture’s recommendations virtually unanimously—whereas in fact most of the members had shown themselves anything but enthusiastic over the idea of planting a glass pyramid smack in the middle of the Cour Napoleon. The project for the “Grand Louvre” having thus been “approved” by the responsible commission, it was transmitted on January 25, 1984, to the president of the Republic, who in early February gave it his “definitive accord.”
This autocratic decision stirred up a hullabaloo, which raged on for more than a year. Supporters of the project went into dithyrambs over this “piece of Lalique crystal,” this “visible tip of an iceberg,” this “feather on top of a hat” which (unlike some unobtrusive Paris metro entrance) was to act as a “signal” to errant tourists, as they groped their way around the “Grand Louvre,” looking for an entrance.
Finally yielding to the clamor for a full-scale model, the sponsors agreed in April 1985 to have a crane hoist four wires into position, to enable the critics to “judge for themselves.” Impressed because he could see right through this deceptive exercise in not-so-solid geometry, Jacques Chirac cautiously declared that he was “not at all hostile to the realization of this pyramid.” No wonder! A new round of parliamentary elections was due in a few months’ time, and the conservative mayor of Paris knew that if he made a faux pas at this point and declared himself ferociously opposed to this avant-garde wonder, he would promptly be consigned by his socialist adversaries to the trash-heap of diehard reactionaries.
Less predictable than this implicit capitulation to the “wave of the future” was the vox populi. By this time the reading and listening masses of France had been thoroughly worked over by a clever propaganda campaign designed to prove that, as I.M. Pei had explained to the left-wing newspaper Liberation, “The pyramid is in the tradition of Le Notre”—that is, of Louis XIV’s great landscape gardener, who, having thoughtfully died a century or two before, could not possibly contradict this sweeping affirmation. According to a public-opinion survey undertaken at this time, 48 percent of those polled said they favored the pyramid, 34 percent were still opposed. Even more instructive were other revolutions: 85 percent of those interviewed did not know just what the Cour Napoleon consisted of, 50 percent had never heard of I.M. Pel’s plans to build an alluring subterranean “forum” under the pyramid and in the middle of the square, and 50 percent had never visited the Louvre!
These findings, in my opinion, confirm the underlying validity of what Jean-François Revel, apropos of French intellectual fads, wrote in 1975: “The profound desire of the bourgeois public in societies of consumption is to be both flattered and fooled. Flattered, by having a minority-type, aristocratic culture reconstituted for its personal enjoyment in the midst of a class culture which deprives it of its elite status. Fooled because it agrees to accept this select, minority-type culture as a simulacrum, as a phantom substitute for the real thing . . . fooled too and by itself because this culture, presented as revolutionary and even ‘proletarian,’ is, as it knows perfectly well, simply a phase of worldly narcissism.”
The fascinating thing about that 1985 poll is that it involved a majority of persons who had only a hazy idea of just what was involved, but who were nevertheless willing, on the basis of hearsay, to declare that in principle and a priori they were for the erection of an ultra-modern glass pyramid in the middle of the forecourt of the world’s grandest neo-Renaissance palace. Where I disagree with Revel, who, of course, was analyzing a slightly different phenomenon—intellectual snobbery practiced by pseudo-intellectuals—is in thinking that those who are so easily satisfied with this kind of bogus avant-garde elitism and synthetic snobbery are fully aware that they are indulging in “worldly narcissism.” Are they not, even more subconsciously, the unwitting victims of surrealist confusion? With the tubular, Leger-type monster of the “Centre Beauborg” having paved the way, what could seem more “normal” than to plant a pyramid in the middle of the Louvre, in the manner, say, of Giorgio di Chirico? In a world already saturated by an incessant stream of mixed-up metaphors, it was doubtless inevitable that good taste and common sense should succumb to the oh-so-fashionable, kaleidoscopic confusion of our times.