Sunday, March 14, 2010


Pyramids, whether the vast, great Pyramids of Egypt or I. M. Peis glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, or even a tiny pyramidal paperweight, exude a sense of strength. Nothing, after all, can knock over a pyramid. If nothing else, it is stable. But it is also easy to identify and easy to understand. There is no mystery to a pyramid, at least as a pure geometric form. But for almost everyone the pyramid has the added advantage of a deep well of associations. A pyramid is Egypt, if you want it to be, and even if you do not share the ancient Egyptians belief that the gilt - covered point at the top could make manifest the sun god Ra as it reflected the morning sun, you cannot fail to feel that all pyramids somehow connect you to ancient civilization.

M. Pei quite ingeniously took advantage of these associations when he designed the glass pyramid that was constructed in 1989 to serve as a new entrance, and effectively a new symbol, for the Louvre in Paris. A structure of glass and steel in the middle of the courtyard of the Louvre seemed, at first, like the least appropriate thing imaginable. It was not only introducing modernity to a sixteenth-century space, it was bringing a quality of sleekness and an aesthetic that we might associate more with industrial design than with a former royal palace in France. But Pei defended his design on the basis of the ancient lineage of the pyramid. It was, he argued, not a modern shape at all but one of the oldest and most basic shapes in architecture; he was only building it out of modern materials.

Pei turned out to be right. The glass pyramid and the old wings of the Louvre that surround it coexist with a remarkable degree of ease. The pyramid creates an elegant punctuation mark in the middle of the courtyard; the rest of the Louvre provides a perfect backdrop for the light, airy presence of the pyramid. Not the least of the reasons the Louvre pyramid turned out to be successful is that, to return to Steen Eiler Rasmussens ways of looking at things, it represents lightness amid heaviness, and transparency amid solidity. The pyramid works well also because of its size, which is big enough to hold its own in the large courtyard and serve as a fitting entrance to the vast museum, yet small enough not to overpower the older buildings. And the precision of Peis detailing helps as well, by making clear that the pyramid, for all its stylistic difference from the rest of the Louvre, represents continuity in the sense that it, too, is an exquisitely wrought, one-of-a-kind object, the farthest thing in the world from a mass-produced, contemporary commercial building.

You could not say that about the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, designed by Veldon Simpson, which also has a glass pyramid, executed with none of Peis finesse. The Luxor pyramid, which encloses a set of fairly conventional hotel rooms around an open atrium, is sheathed in a nondescript, brown-tinted reflective glass, making the building indistinguishable from a commercial office building but for its shape. The space in the center of the Luxor is awkwardly laid out; the clarity that the pyramid promises from outside is not delivered within. The fact is that pyramid are not particularly practical forms for most building functions, which is why there are few of them around that are not monuments of some kind. Peis pyramid at the Louvre is only an entry pavilion leading to an underground lobby, and so it had few real functions. It could be open and transparent, a pure, abstract shape in glass like the Apple cube in front of the General Motors Building, also an entry pavilion. But at the Luxor in Las Vegas, the notion of the design was to create a casino hotel with an Egyptian theme, and the architects had to accommodate all kinds of conventional functions, many of which they couldnt fit at all and had to relegate to adjacent, boxy wings.

The pyramid was used as an iconic symbol and as a container for a portion of the hotels rooms and public spaces, but the constraints of its shape were such that it would have been impossible to put the entire hotel and casino into it unless it were to be built at a size so gargantuan as to make no sense, since most of the space in the middle would have gone to waste.

- Paul Goldberger

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