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REACHING FOR NEW DEPTH AT THE LOUVRE

The main new attraction in this city of famous landmarks is a big ugly hole in the ground. Visitors to the legendary Louvre pace the arcade leading to the museum entrance and ignore pushy African vendors to stare in the gaping hole with mixed curiosity and dismay.

This unlovely dig, full of dinosaur earth-moving machines, is the principal reminder of France’s massive Le project Grand Louvre --masterminded by President Francois Mitterrand himself. The goal is to expand the quarters of the great museum and bring it all up to date. Architect I. M. Pei is the master designer of a plan to put a large mall underneath the Cour Napoleon and plant a 65-foot glass pyramid on the surface.

The plan has detonated controversy in all quarters. Everybody seems to be happy about the prospect of the ministry of finance moving out of the Richelieu wing that borders on the rue de Rivoli so that the collections can have new galleries, but observers are worried that the pyramid will appear too modern and that the underground structure will look like a shopping mall in a Metro station.

Recently, a visiting L. A. critic was granted a tour to see how the project is progressing. He arrived an hour early, so to kill time he strolled down the quai of the Seine to ruminate.

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Whatever else may be said of the Louvre project, one must admit that it mirrors the stupendous scale of contemporary culture. When we think of debt it is in terms of unimaginable billions of dollars. Hunger is measured in terrifying millions of souls starving in Africa and its solution involves more multimillions of people giving uncountable dollars for amounts of food that can only be measured in mountains.

The circumstances make one wonder if, for example, the current international fashion for dining out in a kind of ritualistic worship of food is not a reaction to an instinctive suspicion that all these grandiose numbers really mean that the planet’s herded hordes of humans are using up its resources at a rate where soon no amount of anything will be enough to slake voracious appetite. Maybe we are consuming on such a colossal and frenzied scale out of general and unacknowledged fear.

Maybe not. Why be gloomy? The whole grandiose phenomenon is as easily understood as a general celebration of technological civilization at its apogee as it is as a symptom of overblown culture on the brink of extinction. Could be both. Nothing so big can be simple.

Whatever is behind it all, its effects are crystal clear in the arts. Nothing attracts much attention that is not on about the same scale as Saint Paul’s cathedral or the great pyramids of Giza. If it’s musical comedy, it has to be on the order of London’s “Starlight Express"--where jaded audiences are barely kept amused by a large cast on roller-skates whizzing about on elaborate ramps whilst pretending to be trains. If it’s a rock concert, nobody quite gets cranked up until it takes on the dimensions of Live Aid--where the whole electronically plugged-in world becomes the audience via satellite.

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It is all so enthrallingly awesome that it is easy to forget to ask what becomes of the individual artist in the vaulting caverns of the contemporary aesthetic. Well, if he must have attention on a par with everything else he becomes Christo and drapes a canyon or wraps the Pont Neuf. The other alternatives seem to be to either honorably settle for old-fashioned human scale or to become involved in some sort of collective effort where individuality still counts.

That last sounds self-contradictory but it comes in response to a vision of Los Angeles that swam into the mind’s-eye of the traveling critic who had been contemplating the seasoned magnificence of London and Rome as well as Paris. Each is encrusted in legend and myth and has a host of instantly recognizable landmarks that fuse into a collective visual image of the city.

Los Angeles has legend and myth in plenty and quite a few trademark images like palm trees and the Hollywood sign but they don’t fuse. The critic stared gloomily into the Seine, realizing that his hometown is invisible to the mind’s eye. All it sees is our magnificent invisible light that makes the tackiest street look beautiful on a nice day. What Lotus Land needs is a project as visually audacious and as apt as the Louvre dig. But what?

Slowly there materialized the familiar image of the Victor Clothing Co. building in downtown Los Angeles with its immense blue bride and groom and recently painted blazing montage of the ’84 Olympics.

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That’s it. Mural the buildings. Paint a huge mural on every dowdy wall in downtown Los Angeles. Heaven knows there are enough of them. Call in Terry Schoonhoven, Kent Twitchell, all the artists who did freeway murals, add the East Los Streetscapers and just paint the bejesus out of the place. Twitchell could do the heroes of the town and Schoonhoven its fantasies of itself while the others chime in with its folklore.

Recently the Community Redevelopment Agency came up with a new plan to encourage art downtown. Murals are the way to do it, according to the critic’s non-hallucinogenic hallucination while staring in the Seine. Murals are breathtakingly apt in a city closely associated with huge movie images, hybrid populist culture and its own pioneering in big wall paintings. Murals would unify the area visually, encourage pedestrian traffic and provide Los Angeles with a memorable visual identity in absolute scale to Contemporary Baroque culture.

It is such a good idea that it will certainly never get done. Rio de Janeiro will do it first. Or Miami.

The idea of Los Angeles being beaten out of a great idea by Miami was too horrible to contemplate, so the critic came to his senses and marched off to look at the Louvre’s Big Dig. He was met at the chain-link construction barrier by 20-year-veteran Pei partner Leonard Jacobson, a New Yorker who oversees construction at the Louvre. Hardhats donned, they set off to stroll the hole joined by a raffish young Frenchman of Russian extraction who said he was “trop petit” to be identified in print. Besides, he infiltrated the party into restricted areas and thus wished to remain anonymous.

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The art critic quickly realized that the project was not far enough along to make even a provisional estimate of how the whole hole would serve the museum. What he really faced here was a construction story that he was unqualified to write by both training and temperament. His mind, flailing about to make familiar sense of it all, hit upon the notion that it was all art after all, a late manifestation of a ‘70s Earthwork, far more magnificent and dense with meaning than most, if not quite as neat.

Jacobson’s description of the project-in-the-works was a metaphor of the flinty obstacles to bringing renewal in a culture as freighted with history as France. On the site of a palace whose origins go back to the 12th Century, you do not just dig a nice basement and start to pour cement. You run into foundations from previous incarnations, fortifications and towers of immense historic interest. Some of these--such as a 16th-Century circular tower--proved so significant that construction plans were modified to incorporate them into the underground mall as living history within the museum.

In the meantime, teams of archeologists have been at work salvaging all manner of sites, including domestic dwellings that once stood within the confines now embraced by the Louvre’s long arms. Near the edge of the Cour Napoleon stand tents where row upon row of household utensils from as far back as the 16th Century are lovingly reconstructed glass by glass and pitcher by pitcher.

Jacobson confessed to a certain amount of amiable tension between the hard-hats and the preservationists. The former are trying to finish work by the end of 1987, a politically sensitive date for Mitterrand who will be campaigning for re-election. The archeologists seem to have forever. The former wish to dig with a crane, the latter with a spoon.

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Just as one was beginning to develop some appreciation of the historic resonances of the project, Jacobson began to enumerate the engineering problems. Apparently the principle one has to do with the fact that the excavation is to be deeper than the Louvre’s foundations. This means that the Pei people dig a bit and then prop up the Louvre from below using a complex method involving infusions of cement and steel webbing. Over and over. Again and again. And the whole thing must be accomplished without undue rattling of the building, which bristles with seismic sensors.

J’ai mal a la tete,” confessed the critic.

“Just lift up your hard-hat a minute and it’ll go away,” advised Jacobson while the critic wondered if earthworks artist Robert Smithson had ever done anything this complicated. “Foundations have to be shored up and archeologists satisfied at the same time that we keep a fire road open so the trucks can get in in case there is a blaze. The Paris fire department has really strict regulations. We can’t dig where the access road is unless we rebuild it somewhere else.”

It began to sound like the project was comparable to Michelangelo rendering the Sistine ceiling with a crow-quill pen while being endlessly attacked by mosquitoes.

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By now the little band had descended into a labyrinthine space under the building and was attempting to penetrate into the Cour Carre, the beautiful enclosed court being renovated under other aegis. The actual passage was tortuous enough without the encounter with a concierge-like young woman who could not let them pass without calling her superior--who could not give her permission without calling his superior who was not authorized to give the go-ahead without checking upstairs.

The two Americans were now lost in tangles of rapid-fire French and slow-motion bureaucracy. Jacobson said the whole incident was a metaphor of the “political thicket” surrounding the project.

“They are now speaking with the mayor’s office,” explained the raffish Russian solemnly. “They are sending some Louvre officials to accompany us.”

Eventually two museum functionaries with crested pockets materialized, handed each other large keys, opened a door, saw the little band safely across a board over a puddle and vanished.

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“That’s it?”

“Formality,” explained Jacobson.

Suddenly the trio was alone in the classic courtyard surrounded by warm, freshly cleaned tan stone walls and enough pediments, columns, architraves, arches and sculpture to amuse an academician for years. The experience was somewhere between arriving in Oz and penetrating to the treasure room in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Rather hypnotically the trio began to ascend the exterior scaffolding, coming face to face with splendid decorative sculpture and detail. Quite suddenly, the visiting critic found himself nose to nose with giant allegorical figures and realized he was very high in the pinnacle of the pediment.

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He made the mistake of looking down.

“Feeling a bit giddy,” he confessed.

“Climb higher,” said the raffish Russian, “It’s the best cure.”

Everybody scrambled up the tilted roof, careful to avoid skylights since touching them would have set off the alarm system. They sat doubly breathless at effort and wonder. Paris unfolded before them in panorama from the Eiffel Tower to Sacre-Coeur and Notre Dame. The critic said something inaudible and somebody asked him what it was.

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“I said I really hope L.A. paints murals on its buildings.”


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