Entering the Louvre: a Greenhouse Effect. The pyramid-entrance achieves a reasonably subtle balance between lightness and monumentality
THERE aren't many museums in the world that you enter through the roof. But thanks to the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei - not to mention the ambitious notions of President Fran,cois Mitterrand of France - the Louvre, or ``Le Grand Louvre,'' as it is now being proudly called, is one.Skip to next paragraph
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As most of the world must now be aware, the new main entrance to Paris's Louvre is in a glass pyramid set up in the middle of the museum's Cour Napol'eon. And this pyramid-entrance, designed by Mr. Pei, is really a large skylight, a glass roof.
Yann Weymouth, architect in charge of the project for I.M. Pei and Partners, has pointed out: ``Pei wanted our design of the surface to be landscape, not architecture, in the great tradition of Andr'e Le N`otre'' - and thus the pools and fountains. And in fact the pyramid does have, to coin a phrase, a kind of greenhouse effect: diamond-lozenge panes and an interior spiderweb of a stainless-steel tension structure `a la Buckminster Fuller, with three baby pyramids, like ducklings in tow, marking the three wings of the museum.
There is a slight feeling of a garden center about it all. The only thing that's missing - which, seriously, is rather a pity - are plants or trees. But aesthetics instead of botanics - it's a fair-enough exchange.
The pyramid has had its share of doubters in the five years from conception to completion. A few still speak out loudly - like Derek C. Pey, writing earlier this month to the International Herald Tribune:
``...Many American shopping centers display more original architecture, lighter construction and more luminosity. But of course they lack the titillating affront to the old monuments surrounding it.'' French visitors are heard muttering about Mr. Mitterrand's audacity in having this monument to his reign built.
But in fact the decorative ``old monuments'' - never, surely, the world's most thrilling architecture, anyway - survive the ``affront'' pretty well. The pyramid achieves a reasonably subtle balance between lightness and monumentality, between cheek and modesty, between drawing attention to itself and deferring to the old buildings.
It is only as you approach the new entrance from the M'etro through the now publicly accessible Richelieu Passage that this glass structure seems momentarily too large: It blocks the view through the passage's end-arch.
As for its luminosity, it could, presumably, have been even more transparent than it is, allowing even clearer views of the old buildings, and a thin layer of urban dust was coating it during my visit in spite of the promise of frequent cleaning. At night, though, it is brilliantly lighted from inside, and the warm effect then is simply magical, a real enhancement.
Going inside the pyramid is also quite an experience. Indeed, it is something from which designers of entrances to subways or metros could learn. You enter at street level, though it is not literally a street you have come from, but the Cour Napol'eon. Once inside, you cross the platform and then down you plunge, by escalator, spiral staircase, or open-topped elevator (for the disabled), to the depths.
The depths, however, turn out to be a vast accueil, or gathering place, which is brilliantly lit by the ``skylight,'' and there's not the slightest sense of claustrophobia or subterranean dinginess.
It's a heroically scaled, splendidly spacious, stone-clad hall, and it seems perfectly able to accommodate the mega-crowds that - out of touristic duty or genuine affection - increasingly invade this sacred old temple of art in search of the ``Mona Lisa,'' the ``Venus de Milo,'' the ``Winged Victory,'' and other favorite symbols of the Greatness of Art.
I say ``seems'' because there remains a mystery. One of the clear purposes of the Grand New Louvre's grand new entrance is to make public access easier. It brings with it a welcome variety of modern facilities hitherto unknown in this palace-turned-museum, things like computerized information services and video monitors and a post office and a place to change the baby's diapers.