by Dr. Lori Verderame
I.M. Pei designed some of the most illustrious buildings of the 20th Century. He received museum commissions throughout his career and won the commission to design the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
For the major American art museum located in the nation’s capital, I.M. Pei was called in to design the addition to the National Gallery. The East Building was a special commission as it houses the museum’s premier modern and contemporary art collection. His design satisfied administrators, visitors, guards, artists, curators, and fellow architects as he considered the needs of this public building and its visitors. For instance, he designed wide pedestrian walkways in consideration of traffic patterns within exhibition halls, added major confrontation walls suitable for exhibition signage, and included broad expanses for the most breathtaking installation views.
In the National Gallery’s East Building, I.M. Pei utilized a form that became a signature for the architect. He offered visitors an underground passageway between the two buildings connected by glazed pyramidal skylights. This was one of the first occasions when I.M. Pei reminded visitors that, in the history of architecture, the pyramid form shouts “Landmark”!
The pyramid form is also symbolic. I.M. Pei integrates the ancient Egyptian peak, apex, or pyramid into many of his designs, the most famous of which is the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. The Grand Entrance to the Louvre Museum was constructed from 1983-1989. On the site of the historic palace of the French monarchy, the Louvre collection includes arguably the greatest art collection in the world. I.M. Pei utilized the original palace architecture as a strong backdrop to his post- modern addition featuring a grand glass pyramid. The need for additional storage space, gift shops and a more identifiable entrance to the centuries old museum was the reason for the addition to the building.
The glass pyramid for the Louvre was suggested in order to combine contemporary architecture with art history. The use of the pyramid allows visitors to reflect back upon the mysteries of fine art as evident in the Pyramids at Giza in Ancient Egypt. This selection further emphasizes one of the most controversial forms of the 20th century. For the architect, the form seemed a strong choice for the entrance to the Louvre. As a reference to the angularity of Picasso’s cubist compositions, the innovations in art education from the Bauhaus, and the revolutionary progress made in the 20th century in art and architecture made the choice of the pyramid an obvious one. In this design, I.M. Pei acknowledged the importance of the basic forms all the way back to the ancient times.
I.M. Pei believed that every century should have an prominent symbol within the Louvre as every century is represented in the museum’s encyclopedic art collection. For I.M. Pei, the glass pyramid suggests both history and modernity simultaneously.
I.M. Pei was encouraged by his children to design one of the most popular museums in the United States. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio was constructed from 1993-1995. This museum, like many of I.M. Pei’s buildings in the International Style similar to the architecture of Philip Johnson, was designed using a great deal of glass and many of modern architecture’s most ingenious materials and forms. This structure takes into account many important aspects of post-modern architecture including a regionalist sensibility, the use of modern materials, and shows a consideration for the context and collections held within the building. I.M. Pei employed the forms of popular shopping mall architecture into this museum. As the shopping mall impacted architectural design and cultural socializing in the late 20th Century, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame borrows many of the mall’s most prominent features such as the large walkways and escalators. He designed a prominent first floor, entry-level museum store for the consumer society. The museum’s strategically located ticket and information desk allows crowds to move from the front doors to the all-important escalators upon which visitors effortlessly travel from exhibition gallery to gallery.
The collections of memorabilia housed inside the Hall of Fame are immediately referenced from the building’s exterior. For instance, the physical form of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame building refers to the symbols of the record industry. A grand patio and pavilion area accommodates live outdoor, stadium style concerts. At one entrance to the museum, a major exhibition area in the form of a record turntable and spindle serves as a gallery space. Finally, the major framework of the museum is a large pyramidal form in glass. This allows visitors to view other floors as well as the outside of the building while riding escalators between gallery levels. This building is a stunning structure, a marvel of museum architecture, and a major accomplishment for both the architect and the history of architecture.