A dagger in its sheath
As the Louvre prepares to unveil its Arts of Islam wing, experts talk to Emmanuelle Landais about one of the museum's largest renovations, its most ambitious design project since the Pyramid
and the fascinating history of Islamic art
Built with the Islamic veil in mind, the latest architectural addition to the Louvre museum in Paris is shaping up to be as spectacular an addition as its glass Pyramid was 20 years ago.
An inner courtyard of the 800-year-old museum and former palace has been transformed to serve as the backdrop for the impressive structure. Hailed as the museum's biggest design achievement since the completion of the Pyramid, and one of the largest renovations in the Louvre's history, the museum's new Arts of Islam wing was modelled on a delicate sheet of silk.
As one of the last such spaces available to the museum to expand into, the Cour Visconti was never before made available to the public. Erected within it, a curvilinear glass roof covered inside and out with sheets of golden metallic links will shelter art from the Islamic era, grouped together for the first time in one enormous gallery.
Opening to the public later this summer - there has been no exact date given - more than 18,000 artworks from the Arab world and Europe will be displayed in its rooms, some for the first time.
Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, the Italian architects behind the glass-roofed structure, decided early on that the Cour Visconti would remain visible in order to achieve a "gentle and non-violent integration" of a decidedly avant-garde architectural design within a place of historic importance.
"The whole structure seems to be floating in mid-air," said Bellini during a media tour of the construction site last month. "There are no pillars, you see, and this was a very big challenge."
The roof, which proved to be a tricky build in particular, is supported only by eight very narrow tubes that are "leaning and dancing together" while carrying the weight of the veil to the bottom of the foundations, said Bellini.
The façades of the court were fully renovated and a 12-metre deep excavation was carried out to create the new space. The collections will be displayed over an area of roughly 3,500 square metres, subdivided into only two levels for which millions of cubic metres of earth had to be removed via a small 2.7m opening.
The first floor, at courtyard level, will house works from the seventh to the 10th centuries. The second, in the basement (or rather the "new" ground floor) will exhibit works from the 11th to the 19th centuries along with a prestigious collection of carpets.
The new museum area will be covered by what Bellini calls an "iridescent cloud" promoting natural light and diffusing a warm glow throughout the space. Thanks to this "luminescent covering", it will be possible to see the façades of the courtyard outside from inside.
The former French president Jacques Chirac set the project in motion in 2002 when he declared his wish to see a dedicated wing of Islamic art at the museum. The French state donated €31 million (Dh150m) to cover 30 per cent of the works. However, the cost of the construction and restoration for the project, which took more than four and half years, will have cost €98.5m.
The Louvre itself invested €1.5m, while the project's biggest sponsor, the Saudi Al Waleed Bin Talal Foundation, gave €17m as soon as the project was announced. A further €30m was raised from individual and corporate donations, while €26m came from the rulers of Morocco, Kuwait, Oman and Azerbaijan. The museum requires another €10 million to fully complete the project.