In 1985, when I.M. Pei proposed his design for a 70-foot-tall glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre Palace, skeptics reacted in horror. The design was viewed as an apotheosis of modern glass-and-steel engineering and, to some, a flagrant affront to the Louvre’s neoclassical grandeur. But since the project’s completion in 1989, the Louvre courtyard, once a dismal parking lot, has become a cherished public gathering space and a popular tourist destination, attracting over 8.5 million visitors a year. Perhaps an even greater testament to the pyramid’s critical acceptance is the relative lack of uproar surrounding the first major architectural intervention at the Louvre since Pei’s makeover: a 150-ton undulating glass roof designed by architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti to hover over the museum’s new Arts of Islam gallery.
Starting on September 22, the new two-story gallery, nestled in the Visconti Courtyard, will be the permanent home to the Museum’s extensive collection of Islamic art. The interior of the gallery was conceived by architect and museographer Renaud Piérard to situate the over 2,500 objects on display in place and time. But the defining feature of the gallery is Bellini and Ricciotti’s floating, iridescent roof. The undulating structure is an attempt at a “gentle and non-violent integration” of the contemporary with the historical, as the architects described in Architecture Today. Taking form at the Louvre over two decades after Pei’s pyramid, the immense woven steel canopy is an impressive but surprisingly subdued statement on the evolution of computer-enabled design.
Looking back at the controversy surrounding Pei's pyramid over two decades ago, Fast Company writer Ken Carbone aptly described the abstract glass geometries (there are three smaller glass pyramids flanking the courtyard centerpiece) as the “proverbial tip of the iceberg,” the visible marker — albeit an iconic one — of a much larger design concept that unfolds in the Louvre’s subterranean levels. Pei's design, as many have come to realize, is a work of urbanism; the sweeping makeover connected the museum with the city and reconfigured it to meet the demands of its growing popularity. On the other hand, the new gallery's golden roof is perhaps too literal an interpretation of the architects’ design prompt, as museum goers are to be greeted with an exotic magic carpet-like structure as a means of accessing the Islamic World (represented, in part, by a collection of carpets on the ground floor).
Still, as anyone will recognize, the undulating design is no small feat of engineering; its elastic form makes Pei's glass pyramids look comparatively planar and offers a striking contrast to the surrounding neoclassical symmetries. Perhaps a “gentle and non-violent” ornament is just what the Louvre's new gallery needs.