The Louvre Pyramid – Concept, Controversy, Construction

After 800 years of construction, the biggest changes to the Louvre took place in the 20th century. You would never guess from looking at the Louvre Pyramid today that this site was once an important part of the fortifications of Paris. Every major ruler of France has tried to leave their mark on Paris, and particularly on the Louvre — from Phillipe Augustus and Francis I right up to Napoleon and François Mitterand.

After eight centuries of additions, renovations and beautification, and a series of kings, emperors and presidents, there was still work to be done in the 20th Century under French President François Mitterrand. By the 1980s the number of people visiting the museum had grown to such a size that the original entrances simply could not handle the crowds. In addition, with the number of pieces in its collection, the Louvre Art Museum needed more room.

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The Louvre Pyramid – The Concept

Louvre Pyramid

For a couple hundred years the Palais du Louvre, the building itself, in addition to housing the museum, was also home to the office of the bureaucrats of the French Ministry of Finance. This lasted almost to the end of the 20th century, in hindsight an incredible waste of the building.

The Cour Napoléon, the central courtyard, was used as a parking lot for their cars! The work that President Mitterrand commissioned in 1984 in the Grande Louvre Plan started with moving the Ministry of Finance to new quarters and clearing out the central courtyard.

The Cour Napoléon Parking Lot

The Cour Napoléon Parking Lot

We just want to say that again — the main Louvre courtyard was used as a parking lot for bureaucrats' cars. It seems odd today, but here's the photo to prove it. It was taken just as the work on the Louvre Pyramid was starting, and you can see the lines of parked cars. You can also see the incredible amount of traffic passing the Louvre, something the mayor of Paris is planning to change.

Anyway, with the government offices moved out, that made the central courtyard available as a space to build a new entry. In a novel concept, architect I.M. Pei placed the new main entrance underground, in the center of Cour Napoléon and plunked a steel-and-glass pyramid on top of it. Pei's design didn't meet with universal approval and the reviews of his plans were mixed.

In addition to the ticket and entry areas, Pei created an underground network of shops, connection to the Metro, exhibition spaces, a cafeteria, even a tourist bus depot. The New Louvre (as he thought of it) opened in 1988. Since then attendance at the museum has doubled and now amounts to over 9 million people every year.

With those kind of crowds you can see why we recommend skip-the-line techniques — like signing up for a guided tour of the Louvre, or making sure you have a Paris Museum Pass.

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