Paris licks its candy columns back into shape

After years of neglect, controversial sculpture is given a £3.6m facelift

One of the least-loved monuments in Paris will re-open today after a €4m (£3.6m) facelift. A truncated forest of black-and-white, candy-striped columns which has graced, or disgraced, the Palais Royal since 1986 has been restored by the French state.

Two years ago the 260 columns, resembling a kind of liquorice allsort Stonehenge, were so dilapidated that their creator threatened to have them destroyed. Daniel Buren, 71, an internationally acclaimed monumental sculptor, accused successive French governments of "vandalising" his most celebrated, and controversial, work "by neglect".

His fury was compounded by the fact that his columns stand beneath the windows of the Culture Ministry in the southern courtyard of the Palais Royal, a few steps from the Louvre. Yesterday Buren declared himself to be delighted with the restoration. "The pleasure I feel is impossible to describe," he said. "The columns now look as they were always supposed to. I would even say that they look better than they ever did ... certainly better than at any time in the last 12 years."

The work was commissioned under the left-wing presidency of François Mitterrand in the mid-1980s to represent a dynamic, new France thrusting through the surface of the ancient French capital.

The "Buren columns" replaced an unsightly car park. All the same, their erection amid the early 17th-century splendour of the Palais Royal was attacked by political and artistic conservatives as a "desecration" and an "over-intellectual, expensive absurdity".

The work – conceived by the artist as a "walk-in" statue – has remained the least loved of the Parisian "grands travaux" of the Mitterrand era. Its official name is "Les Deux Plateaux" or "the two levels".

There is a subterranean section, covered by metal grilles. Streams of water are supposed to flow around powerful flood-lights which project changing colours and shifting patterns on to the columns above.

In 1999 one of the floodlights came loose. It was pushed back into place with a lump of concrete. The other lights fused and were not repaired. A year later the running water dried up for reasons unknown and was not restored.

The underground sections of the sculpture filled up with rubbish and coins. One of the columns was destroyed when a service vehicle backed into it. The others became a slalom course for skate-boarders, a climbing frame for children and a jumble of photographic plinths for tourists.

After Buren's protests in late 2007, the Culture Ministry agreed to rebuild the sculpture as part of a wider restoration of the Palais Royal. The reconstructed work was officially opened last night by Buren and the Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, the nephew of the late president.

"The electricity is working again, the columns are illuminated and the water is flowing," said Buren. "The columns have been repainted and protected by new techniques. They will not be able to become dilapidated like they did before ... Anyone coming to the Palais Royal now will see a completely different work."

But why should a work of art only 24 years old need to be rebuilt at a cost of €4m? Buren insists that neither he nor the public are to blame. "It is visitors who bring the statue alive," he said. "Children and teenagers love to invent games with the different columns. They didn't damage the work ... It was just never maintained properly."