The Louvre has always been more than simply a museum. It is a political tool, a symbol of France's cultural identity. It 'occupies the French subconscious', as Emile Biasim, former president of public works at the Louvre, told I M Pei when the Chinese-American architect was appointed in 1981 to carry out a massive extension programme. To celebrate the museum's bicentenary President Mitterrand this month opened a whole new wing, the aile Richelieu. Pei's pyramid, which opened in 1989 to mark the bicentenary of the revolution, was just the tip of the iceberg in the Projet Grand Louvre. Earlier this year, a subterranean shopping mall opened, extending the museum underground out towards the Tuileries gardens and lit by a dramatic inverted pyramid. The Richelieu wing increases the museum's hanging space by 25 per cent. A fourth phase, to be completed in 1996-97, includes landscaping the northern end of the Louvre courtyard so that the museum will seem to stretch seamlessly out towards the Tuileries and the Place de la Concorde.
The new wing - appropriately named after Louis XIV's finance minister - has been made possible by the ministry of finance, which reluctantly moved out of its handsome 19th-century buildings along the rue du Rivoli to new offices at Bercy, the fast-growing business district to the east of Paris. Working with French architects Jean-Michel Willmotte and Michel Macary and British engineers Ove Arup & Partners, Pei has roofed over the wing's internal courtyards to make two deep sculpture courts, restored the gilt-encrusted suite of rooms designed for Napoleon III and converted the offices that wrap around the courts into four floors of new galleries.
Of all the grands projets that he has initiated, Mitterrand has been most closely involved with the work at the Louvre. It was the first projet he announced. And, unlike the Grande Arche at La Defense, the new opera house at La Bastille, the new Bibliotheque de France and other schemes - where the designs were chosen following open architectural competitions - at the Louvre Mitterrand simply called Pei into his office and appointed him on the strength of his extension to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and an unrealised scheme he had done for an office complex at La Defense.
The satirical press in France dubbed Mitterrand 'Mitterramses I' and the 'socialist pharaoh' after the opening of the pyramid. The Richelieu wing, however, lacks the pharaonic power of of the pyramid. Like the new shopping area, the cour du carrousel, the new wing is not intended as an overt symbol. Instead, the architects have had to concentrate on carving out as much usable space as possible from the ministry of finance's awkwardly shaped offices.
If Pei's entrance to the museum is like an Egyptian pyramid, the new wing is more like a Minoan labyrinth. The new galleries are laid out in a mazy web of rooms and passages. Staircases emerge in unexpected places. Take the stair up to Napoleon III's resplendently restored suite and suddenly, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, you emerge in another era. And always there is a sense of more and more and yet more rooms to follow.
But then the Louvre is one of the biggest museums in the world. And, although thoroughly baffling to the first-time visitor, in many ways these small rooms provide a more satisfactory atmosphere for viewing works of art than the vast salles of the older parts of the Louvre where small works are overwhelmed.
The tours de force of the wing, however, are the two sculpture courts: the cour Marley and the cour Puget. Here, in contrast to the maze of smaller rooms that wrap around them, the space is suddenly large and airy. Although they are not identical, each court is entered at the building's lowest level. Standing here, deep down in the bowels of the museum and surrounded by high stone walls, feels a bit like being at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. Flights of stairs take you up to a series of stepped floors which, at their highest level, lead through into the first-floor galleries. With elegant and dramatic hi- tech steel-and-glass roofs to bring daylight down into their depths, the courts are like indoor gardens - Italian Renaissance gardens where sculptures stand among landscaped terraces.
Pei, when he talks about the inspiration for his work at the Louvre, often likens the pyramid to the work of Le Notre, the French 17th-century gardener. Like the axially planned gardens at Versailles, the pyramid is a powerful organising force at the Louvre: the point from which the entrances into the three wings of the museum emanate. It also adheres to a well-established French interest in simple geometric forms, which can be seen in the work of French Neoclassical architects as well as the more recent Grande Arche at La Defense and Dominique Perrault's plans for the new library. The pyramid links the Louvre with French history and thinking. It also physically ties the building in with the rest of Paris by seeming to march in line with the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe.
Although it is unlikely to have been thought out on the part of the architects, the aile Richelieu is similarly rooted in the French psyche. The sculpture courts are too casual to seem like Le Notre's formal gardens. But the sculpture courts and so-called ground-floor galleries (in reality well below ground level) abut the old city walls, which are visible in places. So the visitor is walking hand in hand with the past. The new roofs, meanwhile, offer a reminder of the French passion for modernity and technology. And the labyrinth? Well, one has only to think of Picasso's obsession with the Minotaur, or the Surrealist magazine of that name.
The refurbishment is not perfect in every detail, but it works on several levels. Not since that day 200 years ago when the Louvre first opened to the public has it been just an art gallery. But now, more than ever, it seems to have stretched its tentacles deep into the subconscious of the French.
Musee du Louvre: Paris (010 33 1) 22.214.171.124.
Naomi Stungo is assistant editor of the 'RIBA Journal'.
Tim Hilton's Exhibitions column returns next week.
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