J. Carter Brown

By Pei, I. M. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, September 2004 | Go to article overview

J. Carter Brown


Pei, I. M., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


THESE REMARKS were delivered at the memorial service for J. Carter Brown, Washington National Cathedral, 17 July 2002.

Family and friends of Carter Brown. I consider this a great honor, to be asked to offer some reflections on the life, or a small slice of the life, of Carter. I recall our first meeting. It was a fleeting one on Benefit Street in Providence. I was asked by his father to come to talk about the possibility of designing a math building for Brown University. Nothing came out of it, but I met Carter.

In subsequent years, I met him once or twice at Joe Alsop's house in Georgetown, so we really did not know each other very well until 1968. It was my great luck to be selected by Paul Mellon and the board of trustees, then, of the National Gallery, to design the East Wing of the National Gallery. Carter as assistant director was given the charge to supervise the planning, the design, and the construction of the East Wing.

Before I go on to talk about Carter, I would like to read to you a quotation from Mr. Mellon. Mr. Mellon was very important to both of us, not only to the National Gallery. He once said, "Art has brought so much pleasure to my own life, it seems to me that the best I can do or hope to do is to expand the opportunities for others to enjoy the same." That could have come out of Carter's mouth. That thought, and great passion, are the hallmarks of Carter Brown.

In May 1969-dates aren't important here-I had barely put lines on the drawings for the East Wing. It was Carter who suggested, "Perhaps before you do, let's go and visit some of the great architectural monuments-and museums, of course-in the Western world." I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I didn't have to do a thing. Carter planned it all. So the first thing he asked me to do was to plan on coming to Europe for about two weeks, which for me was a great pleasure, and to meet him first in Athens. He had already planned a ten-day trip throughout Europe, traversing six countries and eleven cities. An example: upon my arrival in Athens, he said, "I. M., we don't need to go to the Acropolis, we've both been there, let's go to Bassae. I've never been there myself, but I've wanted very much to go." Bassae is the location of the temple of Apollo designed by the architect of the Parthenon.

Now Carter did a lot of research and he was well versed in the history of not only the arts but also architecture. This gives you an example of the kind of interest the man had, not only in the arts but in everything else that is connected with the arts. Now this was a trip to look into art and architecture, and as he was an art historian himself, we visited many museums. But he never allowed himself to spend too much time on paintings, which he knew well, but rather concentrated on the design of museums that exhibit art.

His greatest interest at that time, and I think it remained throughout his life, was light. He wanted to see how light played on paintings and also on volumes and spaces of buildings. He was not satisfied with most of the museums that he saw. He found fault-actually, there's a reason why the East Wing does not have a daylight gallery-he found fault in daylight coming into museums that are not protected and not adjustable. He took me to Naples to go up to the Capo di Monte, to show me a museum I had never visited before. The skylight had movable Venetian blinds. They were entirely disarranged, so much so that it was so unattractive that he said, "Look here, we should never have anything operable in our museum." And we didn't. I think the only museum I would say that he looked upon as being successful in managing daylight was the museum outside of London by Sir John Soane. Outside of that, he said, daylight is wonderful for paintings, but until we can control it, let's not use it. Well, he and I both regretted that.

Now also on this whirlwind trip, we made many, many stops, sometimes three cities in one day, just driving around.

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