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'Angry glances in the street': how Paris met Pei's Louvre pyramid

AFP  |  Paris 

The modernist I. M. Pei, who has died aged 102, was once pilloried for plonking a glass into the courtyard of the Louvre, but his controversial creation is now a landmark of the French capital.

The Chinese-American endured a roasting from critics before the giant glass structure opened in 1989, with up to 90 percent of Parisians said to be against the project at one point.

"I received many angry glances in the streets of Paris," later said, confessing that "after the I thought no project would be too difficult".

Yet in the end even that of modernist "carbuncles", Britain's Charles, pronounced it "marvellous".

And the French daily Le Figaro, which had led the campaign against the "atrocious" design, celebrated its genius with a supplement on

In March, the celebrated its 30th birthday and it remains a cherished architectural landmark.

Pei's masterstroke was to link the three wings of the world's most visited museum with vast underground galleries bathed in light from his glass and steel

It also served as the museum's main entrance, making its subterranean concourse bright even on the most overcast of days.

Pei, who grew up in Hong Kong and before studying at with the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, was not the most obvious choice for the job, having never worked on a historic building before.

But the then French was so impressed with his modernist extension to the in that he insisted he was the man for the

The was in the midst of attempting to transform with a series of architectural projects that included the and de La Defense, a huge modernist archway in the west of

Already in his mid-60s and an established star in the for his elegant and City Hall, was unprepared for the hostility of the reception his radical plans would receive.

He needed all his tact and dry sense of humour to survive a series of encounters with planning officials and historians.

One meeting with the French historic monuments commission in January 1984 ended in uproar, with unable even to present his ideas.

"You are not in now!" one of the experts shouted at him during what he recalled was a "terrible session", where he felt the target of anti-Chinese racism.

He had won the Pritzker Prize, the "Nobel of architecture", in 1983, but even that didn't seem to assuage his detractors.

Jack Lang, who was French at the time, told AFP he was still "surprised by the violence of the opposition" to Pei's ideas.

"The pyramid is right at the centre of a monument central to the history of France," he said, referring to the Louvre's former role as a royal palace.

"The project also came at a time of fierce ideological clashes" between the left and right, he added.

A whole wing of the was then occupied by the French ministry of The museum's huge

"was an appalling car park," Lang said.

But the Louvre's then director, Andre Chabaud, resigned in 1983 in protest at the "architectural risks" Pei's vision posed.

The incumbent, however, is in no doubt that the pyramid is a masterpiece that helped turn the museum around.

is all the more convinced of the fact having worked with Pei over the last few years to adapt his plans to cope with the museum's growing popularity.

Pei's original design was for up to two million visitors a year. Last year welcomed more than 10 million.

For Martinez, the pyramid is "the modern symbol of the museum", he said, "an icon on the same level" as the Louvre's most revered artworks "the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace".

Pei is not alone in being savaged for changing the cherished landscape of

In 1887, a group of intellectuals that included and published a letter in the newspaper to protest at the building of the "useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower", an "odious column of with bolts".

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Fri, May 17 2019. 10:05 IST