It was a warm summer morning a few years ago, and once again I was in Paris on a pre-work weekend sojourn.
I travel to many cities around the world for my work, and have developed a “system” whereby I arrive in a city on the Saturday morning and spend a weekend there before the Monday work week start, whenever possible and especially when long-haul flights are involved. It gives me the opportunity to indulge my adventure bug, if only for a short time, and it makes my work trips more “civilized”, while also allowing me to get to know a place better before doing business there. Paris, naturally, is a favourite city for a pre-Monday weekend sojourn.
As soon as I got into town, however, I had to remake my plans: I had overheard chatter that “le pyramide” had “disappeared” (“blink and it’s gone”)!
So, I skipped my usual breakfast and macaroons routine and head straight to the part of the Tuileries gardens close to the Pyramid. Yes, of course they meant the pyramid of the Louvre – where else? – and in fact, I went directly to the Cour Napoléon, the large central courtyard of the Louvre complex within which the Pyramid is normally to be found, with the delicate triangles of reflective waters and fountains surrounding it.
And here it was, an optical illusion: one side of le pyramide had been covered with enlarged black-and-white photos of parts of the Louvre palace that is partially blocked by the pyramid, making the pyramid seemingly “disappear”. While le Monde lauded a “lost point of view” and the art of subtraction, the “disappearance” lasted only for a few weeks before the pyramid was “restored”!
My Mum reminds me once in a while of my childhood fascination with all mathematical shapes – especially how I used to go up to every kid I could find and ask them “how do you take 4 triangles and make a square?”. Yes – the answer is (in) the pyramid!
I am yet to make it to the ancient Egyptian pyramids (dommage that the political situation has been so unstable for so long) but I still remember as a young child hearing the stories about the addition of the brand new glass pyramid structure to the age-old museum complex and how seminal that event was. It is truly wonderful that a new, modern glass pyramid structure installed in my lifetime (in 1989 and 1993) can “live” in harmony with the grand old building complex that is only 4 years younger than the French Revolution! (The Louvre had first opened as a museum in 1793 and achieved its present horse-shoe shaped rectangular form by 1874.)
There are actually 2 pyramids: the visible one that is the glass and steel structure rising above ground, but also a second one that is the “reverse pyramid” underground, meant to reflect sunlight to the room while also linking the three major buildings, below which is a complex of new spaces for research, storage and maintenance.
What did I think of the “disappearance” as I wandered around that courtyard I have grown to love? Did I miss something? I kind of did: I miss that “sparkling glass heart” that injected some modern energies into that traditional, formal space and immediately made it more updated, more upbeat and more relevant for its time. I miss that extra layer of texture in the space, the new symmetry that was the pyramid superimposed onto the old symmetry of the quadrangle. As the architect, the Chinese-American I M Pei, himself said, the glass and steel structure “signif[ied] a break with the architectural traditions of the past … it is a work of our time“.
“Is le pyramide still there?”, Parisians asked. Just as they asked, 25 years ago when le pyramide itself was added, “is le Louvre still there?”. Now that someone had made it “disappear”, it is kind of funny to remember that, at the time, the original installation of the “gigantic gadget” itself had inspired much fear, objection and questioning.
More than 25 years later, the pyramid is much adored and has almost become a symbol of Paris. Perhaps the New York Times had been prescient in comparing the remodeled Louvre when it opened to the Tour Eiffel: writing that it is “exquisitely detailed, light and nearly transparent … [Y]et it is also a monument intended to take its place in the city’s grandly scaled urban fabric, a structure that, for all its overt modernism, has a strictly geometric formal quality that ties it to the Parisian cityscape“. Further:
Like the engineer Eiffel, Mr Pei has played on the French love of both technology and monumentality, and he has created a structure that neatly marries the two. The pyramid is, first and foremost, an exquisite object, less a real building than an elegant abstraction, floating in the Louvre courtyard amid a set of new reflecting pools and foundations. By day it is crisp; at night it emits a soft glow … [It] has a delicacy that makes it feel more like some kind of magical machine”.
There is a very Parisian spirit behind the disappearance of this “magical machine” too: as the artist said, it was meant as a dedication for the work of Pei as well as to honour those who “have the will and the courage to change the world”.
In an age where technologies are enabling “augmented” realities, I learned the art of subtraction right here in Paris, in front of the Louvre. The subtraction of the “magical machine” reminds me of the magic it is. Fittingly, the eye-trick technique involved in the “disappearance” follows a long tradition that can be traced at least to the Renaissance when a few well-known artists and architects crafted works that became the technique called trompe d’oeil. Perhaps as a modern take on that tradition, a “virtual reality” was created right there, physically, in front of our eyes without the need for anyone to put on an Oculus headset or to flash a smart phone. A timely comment indeed.