Islam's Magic: In September, the New Islam Art Gallery at the Louvre in Paris Opened to the Public. Astonished by the Contents and the Structure of This New Exhibition Space-What Must Be One of the World's Greatest Collections of Islamic Art-Stephen Williams Reports from the French Capital

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MUSEUMS CAN BE COMPARED TO ICEBERGS. What is visible is just a tiny proportion of their mass. So it is with the Louvre, France's pinnacle art gallery (and home to the Mona Lisa) which, it is claimed, is the biggest museum in the world. It is certainly the most visited museum in the world. Within the Louvre collections are more than 15,000 Islamic artefacts and it is also the custodian of a further 3,400 pieces from the Musee des Arts Decoratifs.

Inspired by former French president Jaques Chirac, the president of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette, took the decision to create a new Islamic Art gallery within the museum's ornate buildings. It took around a decade to bring to fruition, and was an extraordinary engineering feat requiring the excavation of the museum's Visconti courtyard, underpinning the original buildings with huge amounts of cement, poured 12 metres deep, all the while keeping the Louvre open to the thousands of visitors that pour through its doors each day.

The Louvre was originally 12th century fortress built by King Philip II, becoming the French royal palace in Paris before, in 1642, Louis XIV moved his court to the Palace of Versailles. Following the French revolution, it was decreed that the Louvre should house national masterpieces, mainly those seized from the royal family. The collections were added to over the centuries and today the Louvre has more than 35,000 pieces of art, some of which are on display in 11 galleries, including the new Islamic gallery opened by French President Francois Hollande.

Hollande commented during the VIP opening ceremony in late September: "The honour of Islamic civilisations is older, more vibrant and more tolerant than some of those who pretend to be speaking in their name today. It is the exact opposite of the obscurantism that annihilates the principles and destroys the values of Islam by spreading violence and hatred." And, as Sophie Makariou, the new gallery's curator notes: "A museum cannot answer geopolitical questions but it can help us better understand and interpret the contemporary world."

The 3,000 square-metre Islamic gallery space is arranged over two levels, and is the first big addition to the museum since its controvertial 1989 glass pyramid designed by I.M.Peili was installed. The courtyard level has a hugely impressive roof comprising of 2,350 triangular glass units, weighing 135 tons that replicate, according to various observers, sand dunes, a magic carpet in flight, or a liberated veil. For its architect, Mario Bellini (who designed the galleries in partnership with Rudy Ricciotti), the fabric resembles "the wings of a dragon-fly", providing soft, diffused natural light. The roof's construction was designed with a mammoth programme of computer simulations and took two years of painstaking research. Its honeycomb construction cleverly obscures the 8,000 pieces of aluminium tubing that form the carapace, giving the impression of extraordinary lightness. …