Why Parisians who spat on American-immigrant architect I.M. Pei in the streets mourn his death today
Who is the American-immigrant architect whose radical Louvre Pyramid design nearly caused the French government to collapse? I’m speaking, of course, of I. M. Pei — whose death this week at the age of 102 is being mourned around the world.
Born in Canton in 1917, raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Ieoh Ming Pei was educated as an architect in the U.S. — where he both lived and worked for over eighty years. As a young architecture student, Pei was deeply influenced by the work of France’s Swiss-born prophet of architectural modernism, Le Corbusier. Hence Pei began making radical proposals for redesigning the historic Great Axis of Paris as early as 1969. In line with the legendary (and much hated) Baron Haussmann in the 1800s, Pei suggested that Paris could be reimagined by strengthening and extending the direct line of monuments between the Louvre and the Arc de triomphe and beyond.
It was a grand, sweeping, almost delusional plan — breath-taking in its visionary scope. Yet although Pei did not initially succeed in winning the competition for his visionary Grande Arche de La Défense under French President Pompidou’s administration in the 70s, he was later able to win the competition to redesign the entrance to the Louvre Museum in 1984 under the new government of President François Mitterrand.
That’s when all the shouting started: At the time, the vast Coeur Napoleon plaza that forms the U-shaped interior courtyard of the Louvre was literally being used as a parking lot. Even so, the citizens of Paris did not take lightly to the idea of an American architect performing double-bypass surgery on the very heart of France’s cultural heritage. As Pei biographer Jill Rubalcaba reports,
“On January 24, 1984, Pei unveiled his plans to the ministry of culture. He was ambushed. Members read prepared statements denouncing a plan they had never seen before. The attacks were so nasty,” Rubalcaba adds, that “Pei’s translator broke down into tears and could not go on.”
Pei’s daughter even recalls her father being spat upon in the streets of Paris.
Not since the design for the Eiffel Tower was first unveiled had a soon-to-be-beloved Parisian monument earned such bitter denunciations. French President Mitterrand, Pei’s political sponsor, was not spared the public’s wrath:
Enraged Parisian headlines denounced “Mitterrames I and His Pyramid.” Sinking in the polls, Mitterrand’s government teetered on the brink of collapse.
Frightened that Mitterrand’s government would fall before the project could be completed, Pei even took the bold, almost-desperate step of constructing the Pyramid first — long before the cavernous excavations it covered could be completed. “It was a bit like building the roof before the house,” Pei’s son, himself an architect on the scene, explained later.
But building a building inside a building didn’t exactly make things any easier. Soon even the content of the glass panes themselves became controversial. To minimize glare and maximize transparency, Pei had demanded that the glass be manufactured without iron oxide. “Impossible!” cried the French glass industry.
Only when Pei threatened to have the glass manufactured in Germany did the French glassiers relent.
Perhaps the boldest move on Pei’s part was to ask a Massachusetts-based yacht-design firm to build the steel cable rigging that held the sparking glass panels almost invisibly aloft. The brilliant result gives the structure an almost unbearable lightness of being — as if one were watching taut translucent sails unfurling in a transparent gale. But it also means that the most famous modernist monument in Paris is supported by American steel rigging.
Decades later in his novel The Da Vinci Code, the American author Dan Brown famously places Pei’s Pyramid at the heart of a global conspiracy. But Brown added one tantalizingly false detail: the allegation that there are exactly 666 panels of glass in the structure, not to mention the even wilder claim that President Mitterrand had demanded exactly that number. Good fiction, but false fact.
In a sense this fictionally Satanic plot simply raises all the other insults pointed at Pei and Mitterrand to a Christian/cosmic, comic level:
In Brown’s fictional universe, Mitterrand and Pei are now forever linked together in league with the devil to hide the secret of Christ’s lost lover.
Admittedly, some early publicity about Pei’s Pyramid did specify just exactly that number: 666. That said, endless recalculations have since proven beyond the shadow of a demonic doubt that the actual physical number of combined triangle and rhomboids is closer to 678.
So damn, perhaps President Mitterrand does not actually turn out to have been an active ally of the Satanic Anti-Christ after all. Nor does I.M. Pei emerge as his demonic henchman. Case closed.
Instead the Pyramid’s unveiling in 1989 was greeted with gasps of wonderment and wild storms of applause — a global standing ovation that has never ceased since.
Perhaps no other building on earth more gracefully combines modern and the ancient aesthetics in such a gloriously (and apparently effortless) exaltation of light, line, and lyricism.
Much like the Eiffel Tower, clearly visible from the Pyramids’ base, Pei’s Pyramid has become a true global icon — a second universal symbol of Paris.
If in Goethe’s words “Architecture is frozen music” then Pei’s Pyramid is like a slice of pure naked frozen light.
Instead of that Satanic 666 I would venture to propose that the year 1989 — the year the Pyramid was first unveiled by a triumphant Mitterrand shaking hands with his American architect — matters most.
For 1989 was a double-bicentennial of sorts: the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and the Rights of Man; and the simultaneous second bicentennial of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In this sense, Pei’s Pyramid can be seen as the second-best French-American birthday gift ever presented, just one step behind the Statue of Liberty.
And by any measure 1989 was a truly epic year in the history of global liberty on a planetary scale: including the fall of the Berlin Wall in Europe; the collapse of Apartheid in South Africa; and the tragic Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China (in which Chinese students unveiled their own pure white papier-mâché Statue of Liberty).
Arguably, no one on earth was as well-placed to understand the full significance of that gesture as I.M. Pei, whose own life-journey had begun in China in 1917, exactly as the First World War was ending — and more than forty years prior to the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949. Somehow from there, Pei’s genius had lifted him on an arc from New York to Paris, now to stand at the very heart of the Louvre itself in 1989 (that former palace of the mighty French Kings turned into a museum in the wake of the first French Revolution).
In a very real sense, modern world history seemed to come full circle in 1989 — right at the very tip of Pei’s naked glass pyramid.
Clearly visible from Pei’s Perfect Pyramid was the Obelisk that Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt had brought from the deserts of North Africa (towering now over the Place de la Concord where thousands died at the guillotine). Framed by Napoleon’s Arch du Carrousel — precisely in line with Baron Haussmann’s and Pei’s shared vision — a single unobstructed linear view now leads the eye directly on through the Arch, past the Obelisk, and on to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées in the far distance.
Indeed thanks to Pei, this Great Axis now continues several more miles beyond the Arch de Triomphe to the sparkling financial glass towers of La Défense — itself crowned by an ultra-modern Grande Archeso tall that the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral could be slipped inside.
Alas Pei himself was not ultimately chosen as the architect of this Arch, whose pure white Carrera marble tiles make it look, to me, like an enormous bathroom fixture. Indeed by comparison to Pei’s graceful translucent Pyramid at the opposite end of the Great Axis — an enduring monument to the artistic triumphs contained in the Louvre — the Grande Arche de La Défense strikes me as a sterile opaque homage to corporate culture.
So too the strangely empty concrete plazas and gleaming glass towers of the purpose-designed La Défense financial district itself, which seems to have been designed as if the protégés of Le Corbusier’s now-long-discredited hyper-modernist urban planning ideals had systematically and purposely eliminated every pleasant feature of Parisian life (from its side-walk cafés, so notably absent here, to its carefully filigreed and infinitely individualized ornate stone buildings). Indeed much like the equally sterile plaza which occupies the former site of Paris’s once-legendary Les Halles market, directly underneath La Grande Arche lurks yet another vast American-style underground shopping mall.
There is, of course, a similarly-hideous American style shopping mall hidden directly underneath Pei’s Inverted Pyramid.
So instead of pointing directly toward the buried relics of Christ’s lost lover, Pei’s Inverted Pyramid instead points downward toward the American style corporate consumer capitalism that has, in this very physical sense, undermined almost everything that once made Paris the global capital of art, beauty, the human spirit, and wonder.
Just as the cryptic code in Brown’s novel is finally unlocked by the secret key-word “Apple,” an apple of another kind unlocks the not-so-hidden secrets beneath Pei’s actual Inverted Pyramid — which serves simultaneously as the skylight of this vast underground shopping plaza.
Indeed the retail outlet closest to the Inverted Pyramid’s naked glass tip is none other than the Paris Apple Store: complete with a Biblical reference that even Dan Brown’s “symbologist” protagonist in The Da Vinci Code failed to notice: the icon of an enormous Apple — with a bite taken out of it.
Perhaps it is actually Eve, or the Serpent who first offered her an Apple, who lies hidden in plain sight beneath the tip of Pei’s Inverted Pyramid.
Meanwhile, soaring effortlessly into the light far above, the graceful frame of the Pei’s Perfect Pyramid will doubtless survive many centuries longer than Apple Inc.’s all-too-brief— and increasingly disturbing — American global corporate dominion.