In the mirror
She said goodbye with lipstick
To justify the project of extending a glass pyramid above the Louvre in the cour Napoleon, the Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei claimed he wanted to make a new “center of gravity” for a new museum. Although part of a complex rearticulation of the museum, Pei knew how to summarize the radicalness of his intervention in the pure form of the pyramid, a shape that, containing so many symbols, ends up signifying nothing. Moreover, he opted to make it as transparent as possible, at once disappearing like a ghost while having the presence of a giant in the middle of the Louvre’s collection.
Fifteen years earlier, the architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers had already introduced transparency and structural eloquence to the Centre Georges Pompidou, which razed blocks of the Marais to impose upon Paris a new cultural machine. Baudrillard observed how the surroundings became only a buffer zone for being able to access this new world through a new architecture, a “machine for making vacuums, such as nuclear centers, ”something whose insertion would create a suction of the whole French capital. The terms of this “suction” were established by the writer as political: “The center is a matrix for the development of a model of absolute security subject to generalization on all social levels, above all a model of dissuasion.” In that experience of the crystallization of a cultural center and the evisceration of its components, Baudrillard felt that as much as architecture modernized itself, the systems of oppression quickly would feed off of it: a prototypical monument to total surveillance.
Baudrillard connected a project of the mediatization of a cultural building to the state of (constitutionally) endorsed oppressive art, which became the rule in Northern democracies, with their cameras, wiretaps and drones. The Louvre’s pyramid appropriated that dissuasion that in the Pompidou appeared as a model and flanked it in its ancient collection. The Pompidou is a project of the twentieth century that combines the enjoyment of contemporary artwork with the entertainment of movie theatres and that of walking through its cafes in public squares and open spaces; the Louvre is more attentive to eighteenth-century desires of uniting hallways and hallways that summarize the history of all humanity. Within it are the celebrated Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, the Code of Hammurabi, one of the first laws on record, Egyptian treasures, Greek busts, innumerable representations of Saint Sebastian shot through with arrows, mythological exaltations of the Enlightenment made by David, Géricault and Delacroix. This enjoyment is experienced in particular wings and in closed areas: there are windows and skylights, but, in the background, the museum has, as its speciality, an organization planned during the eighteenth century that privileges intensive contact, without distractions, with the collection.
What is the relationship, then, of the collection with the pyramid? Beneath it there are no works of art. It primarily organizes museum circulation and solves practical problems such as access lines, etc. It is the threshold that isolates the artwork from the city: a portal, more so than a museum itself.
In the most recent interventions, however, transparency definitively entered through the wings and rooms, combining as one with the statues, objects and works of art in the space. The Louvre expanded beyond the original palace, having inaugurated in the city of Lens a building designed by Sanaa, and has been for some time now preparing another in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.
In Lens, the Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa inverted the relationship between opacity and transparency: services, support, and administration are rigorously hidden in two underground floors, and on the ground level, the collection is completely exposed in façades and internal glass panes. The structure is supported by very thin, white pillars that are diluted amidst the masses of polished aluminium that cover the façade. The pavilion arrangement integrates works of art into a single plane, whose definitions of metal and lighting design allow light to be controlled and customized for any type of exhibition.
The wings succeed as glass boxes, defined by the architects as “boats approaching one another in rivers, to gently connect with one another.” Its insertion into a site that was once a coal mine lets it completely loose in the landscape, dialoguing with a large arrival square from which one can see the entire building while enjoying a public space.
Transparent museums with very old collections are not new: we can trace them from MASP in São Paulo to Richard Meier’s glass box in Rome at the Ara Pacis. The question of the building in Lens is that it is a branch of the Louvre Museum, which subverts the basic intentions of the museum of uniting the history of humanity: now, it spreads out this history, creating a rhythm of containment and expansion for those whose glass walls are more than mere collaborators: the vacuum-making machine now sucks not only from space, but also from time: forty years after the inauguration of the Centre Pompidou, world history becomes the subject of scrutiny and the eyes of vigilant democracy—everything is allowed.
In Abu Dhabi, this inversion of the museological premise takes deeper contours. The project by Jean Nouvel is synthetic, like the pyramid in Paris: a dome that covers platforms, which combine over salt-water channels. Nouvel is an architect of complex work, but in this instance, he safeguards himself in solutions that reference other architectural elements, typical arabesques of his technical expertise, especially the Arab World Institute in Paris, which has on its façade adjustable latticework in a modernization of the typical light filters in traditional Middle Eastern architecture. At the Louvre Abu Dhabi the solution is analogous: the dome itself vaguely references Islamic mosques, but with a different property: its structure is emptied, filtering the light from above through a braid that equally dates back to ancient forms of light treatment. It matters little now how openings are laced through on a computerized parameterization program: the fact is that the roofing came to be realized as an opacity, an intermediary between open and closed.
Beneath the dome, the museum is a series of walls ending in closed rooms, at times opening to interior gardens, at others to the Persian Gulf. In the electronic models, it stands out that there are no lateral closures to the galleries—outside the white rooms and under the dome there is no seal—transparency is total in the corridors, which are left to merge with the exhibits: the pavilion, the roofing, the rooms and wings fall apart. Access to the spaces is by boat or upon fluctuating platforms, and the collection is only part of a complex that aims to create spaces of reflection, and of enjoyment of the teas of high gastronomy.
Of course, this subscribes to a twenty-first century museum model, in which history is a pretext to creating another context of consumption through banal fetishization. However, in placing itself over a wire, which connects the dome of Abu Dhabi to the pyramid in Paris, note how the Louvre prefers, in its subscription to contemporary architecture, a constant note of the cloudy tones of its original proposal of meandering through works of art between hallways and rooms detached from the world. The world itself is sucked within the collection, and not only that very successful one in the French capital, but also of the cities forgotten in the French countryside and above all in those Meccas of significant spending sponsored by the countries of the Middle East.
Walter Benjamin, in writing about the passages of Paris, with its transparencies, said that they were like “houses or corridors that have no outside—like a dream.” Departing from Baudrillard and approaching Benjamin, we can weave in the reasoning that, in the end, all the procedures undertaken in this wire of transparencies refer to the intention of making of a dream a concrete experience: the looting of Egypt in the Napoleonic missions, the pillaging of Italian artwork mixing with the new oppressions of the present, such as the persistent exploitations of populations with no civil rights in faraway countries of the East; everything is settled in a bewildering abstraction. If Horkheimer said that in the imposing and elegant Haussmannian order of Paris hides the brutal violence that made it possible, in these transparent museums, the testimony of barbarism is hidden: everything is less striking and ethereal. Amongst all the symbols, the most striking that applies to the pyramids is that of the burial: what that Louvre glosses over is the capacity for visceral transcreation of the museum itself, in which the memory of oppression and pillaging is never hidden and is always wide open, immediately advocating a critical appropriation.
This is a symptom of generalized cultural transparency, a process exhaustively discussed since the 1960s and reinforced at other points in the process, as the distant presence of architects in these countries, protected in their international offices where everything is solved from a distance, or even the intense transits of capital that eventually crystallized in frivolous monuments. The amplitude of this operation is transversal: its effects are not only limited to the structural framework of the concrete oppression of contemporary society, but also in the removal of all possibilities for the superstructure to impose unexpected resistance. The transformative force is put out: not just of the Louvre, but also of Arabia, of glass, of transparency, of Ancient Egypt, and of dreams.
The museu do louvre pau-brazyl is not a palace, it was not constructed over coal mines and not even over a promontory overlooking the ocean. It is a building of mixed use, but above all, one that is residential. In its collection, hidden in dressers and closets, is the whole history of forgettable people. The meaning of these things and the importance of their exhibition are uncertain and in this uncertainty is their power: our Louvre houses the secrets of everyday people. There is no sense in turning the Louvre building into a branch of the Louvre if it were to give to it the tones of transparency typical of the operations in process by the institution. Because the secret ticket that now is in the dresser of an anonymous person only has value for being within a dresser. The secret gala clothing that is in the closet on the ninth floor only serves if inserted within the meticulous structure that protects it: closet, room, corridor, hall, elevator, hall again, entrance door. The residential character implies secrecy, and museums do not fit within the notion of secrecy except as an exposed secret: the ceremonial boats that were only at available to priests in the Egyptian temples must be displayed, in the same way that the letters of famous twentieth-century writers are published regardless of their consent. The louvre pau-brazyl could take the path of celebrating this exhibition of banal memory, but that’s not what it does: this would break the secrecy inherent to life in motion, since its revelation is the carrier of a power only if it is not frivolous. The power of the museu do louvre pau-brazyl is that is subverts the contemporaneous currents of a “house-museum” or “palace-museum” or their generalities: it is a museum-house, a place in which rooms are opened or closed to the world depending on convenience and occasion.
It could be a house, a store, any space—except for a museum. For this, it is the most eloquent museum of São Paulo, a city in which the obsession for the private created a mythology of exhibition and of fending off what escapes from eighteenth-century notions, both domestic and foreign, of collecting and pillaging. The history of humanity will never fit within a palace, offering a very humble pretense that secrets can once again fit within a house.
This text was originally published in the book the autobiography of monalisa (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2016) and revised in June, 2021.