Go to Chapter One Section

I.M. Pei
Mandarin of Modernism
By Michael T. Cannell

Chapter One: The Battle of the Pyramid

At 8:00 P.M. on May 10, 1981, election officials in Paris announced a shocker: Francois Mitterrand would be the new president of France. The prevailing expectation, voiced confidently in bistros and cafes, had favored the incumbent, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, despite Mitterrand's slight edge in the polls. After twenty three years of conservative rule, France had come to accept Giscard's rightist coalition as an immutable condition. Besides, Mitterrand's failed campaigns of the past burdened him with the bad odor of a perennial loser.

When news of the upset - the dumb, wondrous fact of it - sank in that spring night, a profane street party erupted, the kind of hooting jubilee that accompanies the triumph of underdogs. Celebrants gargled champagne in the tented courtyard off the Socialist Party's Left Bank headquarters. Honking cars strafed the Champs-Elysees. Bands of teenagers waved red flags and shouted, "Giscard on welfare!" A riotous arm-in-arm crowd carrying red roses, the Socialist emblem, and wine bottles massed on the Place de la Bastille, ancient celebration ground of the working class, where thirty thousand revelers sang the "Marseillaise" in a warm spring rain. Mitterrand also exploited the city's evocative geography to dramatize the biggest political shift in a generation. After his formal investiture in the Elysee Palace, he marched unexpectedly through the cobblestoned Latin Quarter historic haunt of intellectuals and artists, to the Pantheons, where, as all of France watched on TV, he solemnly mounted the steps in the poignant late-afternoon light while the Orchestre de Paris played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" Television cameras followed as he laid roses on the tombs of Socialist heroes, his footsteps echoing through the crypt. It was a stirring performance.

Mitterrand enacted socialism's long-deferred reforms in a hurry. In what came to be known as "the quiet revolution," the new president shortened the workweek to thirty-five hours, created a fifth week of paid vacation, increased welfare benefits by a quarter, hired thousands of new government workers, raised the minimum wage by a tenth and, most controversial of all, nationalized key industries and thirty-five banks. Mitterrand's budget also nearly doubled expenditures on the arts-a largesse unmatched in modern times-on the theory that a cultural awakening must accompany economic recovery if France was to realize the New Renaissance he envisioned. "The Socialist enterprise," he asserted, "is first of all a cultural project." He sought nothing less, he said, than the artistic ferment that had accompanied the French and Russian revolutions. Defending the plan before the National Assembly, his flamboyant, mop-haired minister of culture, Jack Lang, argued that the aesthetics of living were just as important as the standard of living. "Our predecessors' economic failure," he told legislators, "was first and foremost a cultural failure."

Mitterrand prepared for his socialist enlightenment by launching his grands projets, a building spree unprecedented in modern France. Over the coming decade he presided over the most far-reaching alteration of the Parisian cityscape since Baron Haussmann sliced wide boulevards through the medieval maze. From the beginning, Mitterrand intended to hire the architect I. M. Pei, a Chinese American of renowned suavity and charm whose East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., had opened two years earlier to enormous acclaim. Mitterrand had also been impressed by Pei's proposal for an office complex that would have brought order to a Manhattan-like mess of high-rises in the fringe neighborhood of La Defense at the Western end of the five-mile Louvre-Etoile axis. Pei seemed to have won the La Defense job until, at the last moment, it was awarded to a French architect with the right political connections.

In December 1981, Mitterrand received Pei in the Elysee Palace. The figure who entered the president's ornate study was slender and soft-spoken. His face was mottled with age, but despite his sixty-four years he radiated a restless ticking alertness and boundless enthusiasm.

Pei is known for his ability to converse with anyone on any topic in a voice that still carries traces of China, and his playful, expressive face lights up at the mention of his wide-ranging interests-French and Chinese cuisine, abstract art, gardening, travel and wine. "He comes." according to his partner Eason Leonard, "with a different set of batteries from the rest of us."

Pei dresses impeccably in conservative suits custom-tailored in Hong Kong. One architecture critic has described his wardrobe as "formal, but not so formal that you'd mistake him for a banker. It has just enough flair to let you know he's creative." His elegant presence is enlivened by a prodigious smile and merry eyes that shine perpetually behind owlish round-rimmed glasses. "He's like the greatest maitre d' at the greatest restaurant in the world," said the architect Arthur Rosenblatt, who oversaw much of the expansion of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pei imparts unshakable self-assurance and an ambassadorial sense of propriety. He knows how to be gracious without being obsequious. When Mitterrand asked if he would be available for a government commission, Pei politely explained that he no longer participated in competitions at this late stage of his career. As La Defense had demonstrated, the decisions were too often political. "Well," Mitterrand replied, "we are flexible."

A few weeks later, at his first presidential press conference, Mitterrand pledged to "restore the Louvre Museum to its intended purpose" by evicting the Finance Ministry from its palatial quarters in the nortern arm, the Richelieu Wing, and converting it to galleries under an ambitious renovation of the museum, which he would rebaptize Le Grand Louvre. It was to be the crown jewel of his grands projets.

The Louvre's own curators had repeatedly urged just such an overhaul to rescue the museum from disorder. With its dark blond facade sprawling for half a mile above a fringe of sycamore trees, the Louvre still resembled an imposing palace. But inside its ornate walls lay an institution in shameful decay. As it neared its bicentennial, the Louvre had degenerated into the worst of the West's large museums and a disappointing stop on the compulsory tourist itinerary. Incredibly, only two restrooms were available to the public. Visitors overran the cafeteria. The guards were notoriously disdainful. Mounds of dust had accumulated on moldings and picture frames in dim galleries. "Your lighting is impossible," Jack Lang told the director after attending his first official opening as minister of culture, "and your floors filthy."

Worst of all, the Louvre was confusing. After searching the perimeter for one of the narrow, poorly marked entrances-one curator said the most frequently asked question was "How do we get in?"-most of the 3.7 million annual visitors wandered among its labyrinthine corridors in search of three-star attractions: the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and, of course, the Mona Lisa, who smiled at packed crowds through bullet-proof glass. Less prominent treasures required a marathon walk down dingy, unmarked corridors. Even then, weary art pilgrims might find their treasure locked behind a placard listing its hours as "tres irregulieres." Too often the Louvre defeated its guests instead of inspiring them.

Parisians considered the Louvre a crucial part of their celebrated cityscape, but they rarely ventured inside. Only one-third of all visitors were French and a mere one in ten were Parisian. Tourist felt obliged to see it, but they didn't linger. The average visitor stayed only an hour and a half half as long as they lingered at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Louvre had also lapsed into the curatorial equivalent of a Third World country. Most modern museums are divided evenly between galleries and hidden support facilities like storage, administration and restoration labs. The Louvre's ration was so grossly atilt - galleries occupied fully 90 percent of the building - that curators called it "a theater without a backstage." Under these primitive conditions curator on occasion moved paintings by lowering them out of the windows. And they were forced to use splendid upstairs galleries blessed with high ceilings and enormous windows for storage because the basement lacked temperature and humidity controls. These deficiencies left curators with space to show only about one-tenth of their ill-kept riches. "It was in a pitiful state," one backstage visitor remembered. "I saw Greek statues left in corridors with paint dripped on them. The museum couldn't function."

The Louvre was dysfunctional in part because it had begun as a fortress. King Philippe Auguste had built its first incarnation around 1200 to defend the growing city from marauders. Two hundred years later Charles V encircled the Right Bank with a protective wall and converted the obsolete fort into a chateau with a fairy-tale silhouette of conical roofs and gilded spires. He dined inside with Knights and ladies at banquet tables set with crystal goblets beneath tapestries of hunting scenes. It was variously enlarged and embelished by royal inhabitants as they pursued greater comfort. Napoleon III made the last alteration when he added the Richelieu Wing to house his private apartments and the Ministry of Finance. By Mitterrand's era, the Louvre resembled one of those tribes hidden in the amazon headwaters, a little pocket of life enshrined in the past. Its bowels, including much of the plumbing, had lain untouched for a hundred years.

The kind of monumental renovation Mitterrand had in mind was customarily awarded by public competition. But with his Socialist Party in control of the National Assembly, Mitterrand was essentially an elected king, and he retained the right to name whomever he liked Besides the president fancied himself an aesthe in the tradition of Europe's cultured, art-loving rulers. Before he discovered politics at the Sorbonne, his passions had been Virgil, Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky. He had written ten books and traveled to Florence to research a biography of the Mecici prince Lorenzo the Magnificent. He thus felt qualified to dispense with advisory groups and rely on his own aesthetic judgment.

Mitterrand's inclination to hire Pei was seconded by Emile Biasini, a seasoned civil servant and former minister of culture whom Mitterrand had appointed head of a public agency to oversee the Louvre renovation. Throughout a nine-month tour of the world's leading museums, Biasini made a point of asking curteous when they would like Pei's named leaped of every tongue. In early 1982 Biasini asked Pei's friend Zao Wou-ki, a Chinese-born painter living in Paris, to introduce him to Pei. During a meeting arranged at the Hotel Raphael, Biasini invited Pei to submit his ideas for the Louvre. Pei politely repeated his aversion to competitions.

It was a brazen stipulation. The Louvre, after all, amounted to a lot more than other monumental commissions awarded Pei late in his career. It was a showcase of unparalleled visibility and one of the most coveted plots in the world - exactly the sort of public platform Pei needed to ensure his standing in posterity. "He must have perceived or feared that if there was a competition, and he lost, it would be humiliating," said the French historian Olivier Bernier. "He may also have perceive that Mitterrand was sufficiently anxious to hire him."

Mitterrand was eager. So eager, in face, that he dispatched Biasini to New York to offer Pei the job outright - the only grand project awarded without competition. Pei at first modestly demurred. "Whe Mitterrand firs asked me to do this project I really didn't believe it," Pei said. "It just seemed incredible that he would come to an American to do a project that is as important as any you can find in France. I told the president I considered it a great honor, but I couldn't accept it outright. I asked him if he'd be willing to give me four months, not to think about it - I'd already decided I wanted to do this - but really to see if I could in fact do it."

Pei told no one about the offer, not even his partners. With his wife, Eileen, as his sole confidante, he made three secret excursions to Paris. He stayed at the Hotel Crillon on the Place de la Concorde, a short jaunt from the Louvre through the Tuileries Gardens, and rambled for days through the museum and its surrounding streets cogitating on the dilemma at hand: how to graft a contemporary design onto a classical landmark. (Pei says he thinks about design in his native Chinese. The vociferous guardians of French culture ***** would have derived little comfort from the image of an American plotting the Louvre's future in Chinese.)

He studied the works of Andre Le Notre, the greatest of French landscape designers, and traversed the Louvre grounds until a satisfactory solution came to mind. "I would not have accepted it if I hadn't studied the problem for months," he said. "I concluded that it had to be done, and that I would be able to do it." On his fourth visit, Pei presented his concept to Mitterrand and Lang. "I had no pyramids in mind yet, but it was obvious that the center of gravity on the new Louvre had to be the Cour Napoleon." Pei was referring to the gravel courtyard enclosed by the museum's enormous U-shaped wings. When the Ministry of Finance vacated the Richelieu Wing, the Cour Napoleon would become the museum's center point. Pei proposed to put a new entrance in the middle of the courtyard leading to an underground reception hall - if Mitterand would allow it. "Tres bien," Mitterand said. "Tress bien."

A riffle of surprise swept through the arrondissements when Mitterrand revealed that he had retained Pei. Despite Pei's prodigious credentials as an institutional image-maker, his appointment provoked buzzes and clucks of disapproval, particularly from French architects, who viewed him as an interloper. "The French were surprised, if not stunned, or even outraged," remembered Pei's son Didi, an associate partner in his father's firm.

In one sense, I. M. Pei was a baffling choice. Parisians are famously skeptical of any foreign intrusion, let alone that of a New Yorker poised to rejigger their national treasure-house. That a Socialist government outspokenly critical of American cultural "imperialism" would recruit an American architect for a monumental national commission was too ironic to ignore. Mitterrand's selection was almost guaranteed to invite widespread grousing. From the beginning, Mitterrand and Pei seemed a liaison dangereuse.

On the other hand, Mitterrand astutely recognized that Pei's National Gallery addition had caught the American public's fancy by establishing the modern-day museum as a theatrical event for a mass audience, not just a somber repository of art. Pei's airy, open atrium enlivened by escalators and balconies struck some Stateside critics as sadly suitable for the consumer phenomenon that blockbuster art shows had become. But Mitterrand interpreted this trend as a democratization of culture in keeping with his Socialist agenda. He tape the infusion of American vitality would reanimate the moribund Louvre - and France's lagging position within the art world.

The Paris of Mitterrand's childhood had reigned as the undisputed capital of the arts and the adopted home of Picasso, Legue, Calder and Miro. When the avant-garde mantle passed to New York's abstract expressionists in the 1950s, the world had stopped looking to Paris for exciting new art. By the time Mitterrand took office, the cafes where Fauvists and Cubists had once held forth were catering to foreign tourists. Jack Lang, the would-be architect of France's cultural reawakening, acknowledged that France would have to recapture lost glitter if it hoped to reverse its postwar decline in the visual arts. As a Chinese-American, Pei offered the best of both worlds; he could import his New World flash and efficiency without appearing conspicuously American. His mandarin ancestry somehow inoculated him against French xenophobia. In this case," Pei said, "I think being a Chinese-American has not hurt. History, you see, is important to the French and I hope that I was able to convince them that I came from a country with a long history and I would not take this problem lightly."

Sequestered in the private eight-floor studio of his Midtown Manhattan office, Pei and his most trusted aides secretly drafted plans for a five-acre limestone catacomb containing generous storage space, electric carts to transport artworks, a 400-seat auditorium, information booths, conference rooms, a bookstore and a gleaming, luxurious cafe - all implanted in the Louvre's ancient bowels. From this hub, visitors would move just 100 feet - as opposed to the existing 1,000-foot end-to-end marathon - along underground arteries radiating outward toward clearly marked collentinna exhibited in the three wings. A fourth passage would lead west to a stylish shopping mall built beneath the Carousel arch. When 165 new rooms opened in November 1993, the revamped Louvre would become the largest museum in the world. An army of curators would reavange 70,000 art works over great swaths of history. Many pieces would see the light of day for the first time after languishing for decades in musty storage rooms.

Parisians were mortified to learn that Pei might defile the Cour Napoleon with some sort of glitzy dropping. "French critics started to scream, `What? How can you build there? You're going to destroy one of the most important urban spaces in Paris, if not the world," said Didi Pei. In actuality, that area was the Finance Ministry's parking lot day by day and a notorious humosexual cruising zone by night - hardly one of the city's proudest outdoor spaces. It's only distinguishing features were two trash-strewn plots of grass, a few defeated trees and an inconspicuous equestrian statue of Lafayette donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

"The center of gravity of the museum had to be in the Cour Napoleon," Pei said. "That's where the public had to come. But what do you do when you arrive? Do you enter into an underground space, a kind of subway concourse? No. You need to be welcomed by some kind of great space. So you've got to have something of our period. That space must have volume, it must have light and it must have a surface identification. You have to be able to look at it and say, `Ah, this is the entrance.'"

Pei's solution was a 70-foot glass pyramid caable, in theory, of ingesting 15,000 visitors an hour. He based its proportions on the classic Egyptian pyramid at Giza and surrounded it with a trio of baby "pyramidons" and three triangular reflecting pools with fountains.

Pei offered his "luminous structure-symbol" as an ingenious way to avoid upstaging the Louvre. No solid addition imaginable could gracefully blend with the time-darkened old palace, he reasoned, but a translucent pyramid, frankly of its own time, would repectfully defer to the heavy presence of the sorrounding building by reflecting this tawny stone. The pyramid is the geometric shape that encloses the greatest area within the smallest possible volume, so it would stand as unobtrusively as possible. It was, Pei assured them, "a natural solution." There was one more pleasing twist: the ancient form made of high-tech material would be at once much older and much newer than the Louvre.

This was not Pei's first pyramid. He had already used a cluster of glass pyramids to light an underground corridor connecting Washington's national Gallary with his modern addition Before that he had drafted a truncated glass pyramid for an abortive design for the Kennedy Libray in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It would be very embarrassing," observed the architectural historia Robert Clark of Princeton, :if the French government found out that what they had was really a warned-over JFK memorial."

Nonetheless, Pei's pyramid fit the strict geometric spirit of Le Notre. It would align with other abstract landmarks - the Arc de Triomphe and the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde - ornamenting the splended vista that sweeps from the Louvre through the Luileries and continues up the Champs-Elysees in one unbroken line to the Place de l'Etoile and, by implication, to the setting sun in the west. Moreover, the pyramid appears through French history: in seventeenth-century topiaries, in the tip of the obelisk that stands in the Place de la Concorde and in the visionary gatewys, factories and crematoriums conjured up by eighteenth-century architects Etienne-Louis Boullee and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. There is, in fact, a Place des Pyramides just off the Louvre's northern flank.

When Olivier Bernier asked if he had drawn inspiration from Ledoux's unbuilt designer, Pei looked at him "with grat indignation," Bernier recalled "and he said, `That had nothing to do with it!'" Pei curously disavowed any debt to historical precedent. He selected the pyramid, he insisted, by sheer analysis.

Its understandable that Pei might have been a bit touchy. The Louvre is notorious for repelling architects. "Haphazard in appearance," wrote art critic John Russell, "it has in fast been more pondered over more planned and replanned and schemed-for than almost any other building in Europe." Francois Mansart produced no fewer than fifteen separate schemes after Louis XIV invited him to redesign the Louvre three hundred years ago. All were rejected. In 1665 the Sun King summoned another preeminent architect, Italy's Giovanni Lorenzo Bernine to complete the Louvre's east lacade. As chief architect of Saint Peter's and the most celebrated sculptor of his time, Bernini was famous enough to attract roadside crowds as his carriage passed en route to Paris. The king welcomed him with fanfare befitting visiting royalty. Some months later a foundation for his undulating Baroque facade was cermoniously laid. Construction was poised to begin in earnest when the French distaste for Italian excess asserted itself, and after much embarrassed hand - wringing the Sun King awarded Bernini a pension and a parcel of gifts and sent him back to Italy in a cloud of intrigue and disgrace. Bernini left behind only the memory of a fiasco and a marble statue of Louis XIV on horseback, which the king took with him when he abandoned the Louvre altogether and moved his court to Versailles in 1667. This lesson was not lost on Mitterrand. Anxious to award a recurrence, the president made a public promise to Pei: "What happened to Bernini will not happen to you?"

Despite Mitterrand's reassurances a firestorm of protest swept Paris after Pei presented his design to an advisory body called the Commission Supericune des Monuments Historiques on January 23, 1984 Press accounts reported the delegates' "stupefacion" and "alarm" at seeing a glass pyramid disfiguring the Louvre's semisacred grounds. The commission's former chief architect, Bertrand Monnet condemned the scheme as "beyond our mental spare" and "a gigantic, ruinous budget.

"One after another they got up and denounced the project," Pei said, "My translator was so unnerved that she started to tremble. She was scarcely able to translate for me when I came to defend my ideas."

After the last delegate had his way, Pei and his bewildered associates retreated to a bistro on the Rue Villedo. "The Franch can be particularly snotty," observed Anna Mutin, a member of Pei's group. "The questioning was hostile and the words were not always nice. At lunch afterward, Pei was puzzled by all the opera. He thought he'd explained the reasons. He concluded that he'd walked into a trap."

Fortunately for Pei, the commission had no binding authority and Mitterrand bestowed his unqualified approval on the design. "It is a great help," Pei said, "to deal with one man only."

Mitterrand's endorsement did not prevent his countrymen from rolling their eyes at the unsavory prospect of a glitzy carbuncle disfiguring La Belle France's elegant neoclassical countenance. The obscene expectation triggered, one of those boats of public disputation that periodically animate tout le Paris. "We found out," remembered Didi Pei, "that is wasn't quite so easy as Mitterrand simply as saying yes.

Pei bashing become passionate cause celebrated by a grab bag of historians politicians and extraneous self-appointed committees. United under the slogans "No pyramid for Paris" and "Hands off the Louvre," the anti-pyramid faction included the museum's own curator of paintings, Bruno Foucart, who compared the pyramid to a tacky diamond, and its director, Andre Chabaud, who resigned in protest, describing the plans as "unfeasible" and rife with "architectural risk." The conservative writer Jean Dutourd of the prestigious French Academy write in a sulfurous editorial that La Pyramide would "reflect the colors of the sky, like the Ewing building in Dallas." The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called it funereal and better suited in his view,to the Piere-Lachaise cemetery.

All of France, it seemed, struck up an anti-pyramid chant. Michel Guy, a former minister of culture and founder of an opposition group called the Association for the Renovation of the Louvre, wrote a voluminuous criticism comparing the design to "an airport or a drugstore." He urged an alternative scheme that he argued would humanize the Louvre by dividing it into several smaller, more manageable mini-Louvres, each with its own entry. "The key word is 1modesty,'" Guy told an interviewer. "I think that this project is immodest and pretentious."

Not to be left out everyday Parisians expressed their disapproval by wearing buttons that asked, "Pourquoi la Pyramide?" Pei's daughter, Liane, saw women spit at her father's feet as they passed on the street. "My jaw just dropped open," she said, "but he was very poised. His attitude was, Well, grin and bear it. After a particularly ugly interview or press conference he would just chuckle. "That was tough,' he'd say."

The encircling French newspapers gleefully documented each new salvo in what they dubbed "the Battle of the Pyramid," a wry allusion to Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. Predictably outspoken in its distaste for the new Socialist programs, the conservative daily Le Figaro vilified Mitterrand's patronage of the Pyramid. "The whole layout is absurd," wrote on the Le Figaro critic, but what could you expect when the project was conceived an offer in New York?"

Le Canard Enchantne ran a story under the banner "Mitterramses I and His Pyramid," The Parisien called it "The Astonishing Chinese Pyramid." "You rub your eyes," wrote a Le Monde commentator. "You think you're dreaming it seems that you've gone back to the era of castles for sale and Hollywood copies of the temple of Solomon, of Alexander, of Cleopatra.... It doesn't seem justified to treat the courtyard of the Louvre like a Disneyland annex or a rebirth of the defunct Luna Park." Le Figaro published a survey showing that while 90 percent of Parisians favored the renovation, the same number opposed the pyramid.

The Battle of the Pyramid became more than a spat over the Louvre; it was a philosophical debate over the future of French culture. The French proudly regard themselves as arbiters of taste. In a country where the evening news airs fashion-show footage and top chefs like rock stars, even the uninterested absorb current issues of taste, just as every American at least notices who won a celebrity court trial. In France, issues of taste are unavoidable, and usually political. With characteristic Gallic hauteur, Parisians regarded Oeu's alteration to the pleuresque fabric of neuclassical Paris as not just an intrusion but a ghastly threat to France's national character, its Frenchness.

As the architectural embodiment of the country's past glory and its cultural hub since the revolution, it carries greater symbolic wright than any comparable American institution. The Louvre's history is, by and large, the history of France. When the Prusians and the English occupied Paris in the wake of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, no atrocity perpetrated by the foreign soldiers provoked Frenchmen so much as their attemps to reclaim from the Louvre the artworks plundered during Napoleon's European campaigne. "The evolution of the Louvre is, in fact, an allegory of the evolution of that elusive concept: L'Esprit Francais," wrote John Russell. It is an enormous building which, as much as any in France, justifies the concept of La Gloire."

Entire chapters of French history have unfolded within the Louvre's walls. It was home to eleven kings and the site of courtly masquerades and massacres alike. Louis XIII cruised its Grande Galerie in a petite carriage drawn by two mastiffs., Catherine de Medicis flung massacred Huguenots from its windows. It served variously as fortress, riding academy, prison, market, library, arsenal, treasury and hayloft. It was home to Chardin and other artists and the founding facility of French ballet. Its desecration swelled French hearts with righteous outrage.

Behind much of the anti-pyramid hysteria lurked the xenophobic sentiment that France's cultural independence-particularly from America depended on safeguarding the country from foreign boorishness. Parisians feard that Pei's glass splinter would reshape the city's profile and open the door for further contemporary vulganism. They had already seen the ancient Les Halles food market, with its nineteenth century pavilion and iron umbrellas, replaced by an American-style shopping mall, and they had witnessed the encroaching presence of ghastly commercial towers in the fringe neighborhoods of Montparnasse and La Defense. By admitting glass and steel into the very heart of the city, Pei unwittingly fell into the role of Foreign Interloper of Dubious Tast, and ambassador of made-in-America junk culture polluting Europe with min-American colonies like McDonald's and Hyatt Hotels.

Pei also entered a political power struggle. The ousted Conservatives regarded the ruling Socialists as a horrid aberration of the natural order, and they latched onto the pyramid as a symbol with which to publicly discredit its presidential patron and steer public sentiment away from his Socialist programs. Pei's pyramid thus became the fulcrm upon which French politics seesawed.

French leaders remained mindful of the visible manifestations of power long after the demise of the monarchy. As rebuilder of postwar France, Charles de Gaulle had beribboned the countryside with highways; in the Beaubourg district, Georges Pompidou had erected the brutalist museum that bears his name; and Valery Giscard d'Estaing had initiated the museum of nineteenth-century art in teh renovated remains of the old Belle Epoque Orsay railroad station. Although he campaigned as a champion of the common man, Mitterrand proved that he too was susceptible to the vanity of power. In addition to the Louvre, his so-called grands projects - French curators privately called them "the grand monsters"-included a flashy new opera house near the Bastille and an enormous futuristic arch, more than twice the height of the Arc de Triomphe, marking one end of the city's great axis. Although several grands projects - including a science and industry park in the outlying area of la Villette, a center for Arab studies and the Museo d'Orsay - were initiated by his predecessor, Mitterrand was happy to take credit for their completion. (He may also have been reluctant to cancel them, lest a Conservative successor retaliate against his Grand Louvre.)

If pressed, most Parisians would have acknowledged the president's time-honored right to leave his mark on the city. But it struck many as unseemly even hypocritical, for a socialist to enshrine his presidency with of all things, a pyramid - the archetypal power symbol. The Mitterrand who, as a presidential candidate, had promised dignity and security for little people, who had assailed Giscard for dividing France into "the exploited and the exploiters," now resembled socialism's own Sun King.

Mitterrand and his aides no doubt invited rancor by high-handedly predicting that, after twenty three years of right-wing stinginess, France's cultural resources would flourish anew under their enlightened patronage. Nor did they hesitate to posture as the heirs to everything progressive about the French Rev- Ministry of Culture Jack Lang was fond of saying "Before us darkness after us light. It was a slogan that rankled ousted cultural officials who had thanklessly upgraded many old arts facilities and built among other things, the popular Pompidou Center, which, with its extroverted tangle of pop art plumbing was a rare example of progressive architecture in Paris.

Pei withstood the worst trial of his long career with the jounty disposition for which he is famous. "I never got the impression that he was discouraged or depressed," said Mihai Radu, a junior designer assigned to the project. "He perceived it as part of his job to make people understand his work. He's a very level person. I've never seen I.M. when he wasn't smiling, and he was smiling even then."

© 1995 Michael Cannell

Back to the top