I.M. Pei's East Building

By Hinnish, Heidi | School Arts, April 1999 | Go to article overview

I.M. Pei's East Building


Hinnish, Heidi, School Arts


Solving Problems of Form and Function

When Andrew Mellon gave the original West Building of the National Gallery of Art to the nation, he had already anticipated the museum's eventual expansion. In a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, Mellon specified the "Mall building space on the north between Third and Fourth Streets, NW shall be reserved for future extensions." This stipulation in Mellon's gift was later included in the legislation establishing the National Gallery of Art.

For many years, Mellon's claim of the adjacent "Mall building space" for the museum seemed premature. The West building opened with many of its galleries incomplete or vacant. By the mid- 1960s, however, circumstances had radically changed. The museum's galleries were filled and new space was needed for large-scale, modern artworks.

Mellon had chosen architect John Russell Pope, one of the leading architects of the first half of the twentieth century to design the West Building. Not surprisingly, Mellon's son Paul, looked to a forward-thinking architect of the second half of the twentieth century, I.M. Pei, to design the East Building. On June 1, 1978, the East Building was dedicated to the people of the United States.

The Artist

Ieoh Ming Pei (pronounced: eeyo ming pay), the son of a banker, was born in Canton, China, and grew up in Shanghai. Pei came to America in 1935 to study architecture, first at the University of Pennsylvania, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Pei's reputation and architectural contributions are worldwide. He has designed hotels, hospitals, airports, and corporate centers; some of his best known works are libraries and museums. Major museum commissions include: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, the new entrance to the Louvre in Paris, France, and most recently, the Miho Museum in the Shigaraki mountains of Japan. Stylistically, Pei is considered by many to be a modernist because of his strict adherence to geometry and the use of elementary forms, yet his architecture defies simple categorization.

Working Within Limits

The task facing Pei was daunting. He would have to resolve several problems concerning the building's form and function. The small trapezoidal plot reserved for the building was a difficult site for a grand museum structure. Its north side was limited by the angle created by Pennsylvania Avenue, and its south end abutted the National Mall. Building lines on both sides were restricted because the land was adjacent to the President's inaugural route. Still, the new building on its small site would need to match the monumental scale of the Mall and harmonize with the neoclassical West Building.

Located at the base of Capitol Hill, the building site was a swampy patch of land where early members of Congress once paused to shoot ducks en route to the White House. By the 1960s the land was used for tennis courts, and more importantly, was the last undeveloped plot on the north side of the National Mall.

Pei's plan for the East Building employed forms that worked with the shape of the land. Shortly after a meeting with Gallery trustees, Pei jotted down ideas about how best to fit a building into such an irregular plot. He explained, "I sketched a diagonal line across the trapezoid and produced two triangles. That was the beginning." His sketch showed an isosceles triangle that would contain the exhibition space, and a right triangle that would accommodate administrative offices, a library, and a study center for art research.

The isosceles triangle ingeniously becomes the unifying motif of the building, repeated in the marble floors, steel frame and glass skylights. Even the building's hexagonal elevators, and trapezoid-shaped office desks reflect the acute and obtuse angles of the isosceles triangle.

East Meets West

A major function of the East Building is to display modern art to its best advantage while at the same time blending with the West Building. …

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