The Architect of Abstraction

By Semes, Steven W. | New Criterion, October 2019 | Go to article overview

The Architect of Abstraction


Semes, Steven W., New Criterion


Soon after the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., opened in 1978, I visited the new structure designed by L M. Pei & Partners. The structure, both impressive and controversial, was the first to introduce sophisticated modernism into the predominantly classical monumental zone, perfectly embodied in John Russell Pope's magnificent National Gallery building next to it. What I most remember from that first visit was a curiously intimate encounter with the triangular geometry that orders the entire structure. There was an installation of tiny French Impressionist paintings in one of the smaller galleries. I entered the room and immediately began looking closely at the pictures hung on the left wall precisely at eye level. Alone in the room and completely absorbed by the art, I stood close to the wall and moved slowly from left to right, examining each framed work intently. After passing several of the paintings and approaching the last on that wall, I became aware that I had wedged myself into the acute angle of the triangular room and my back was up against one of the paintings on the adjacent wall. I delicately extricated myself without damaging the paintings or setting off any alarms, but marveled at how the architect's uncompromising allegiance to a geometrical pattern could interfere with the basic purpose of viewing the art. It seemed that a stylistic quirk had usurped common sense. The older West Building, needless to say, has no triangular rooms.

Ieoh Ming Pei, who died on May 16 at the age of 105, was not the first architect to subject an entire building and virtually everything in it to the rigor of a geometrical system. Frank Lloyd Wright, especially in his later years, also experimented with plans based on parallelograms, hexagons, octagons, triangles, and circles, extending his modular systems to the furnishings and the smallest details. By the 1960s, mainstream modern architects were eager to integrate such abstract geometries with new modular structural systems such as space frames, geodesic domes, concrete waffle slabs, and tensile structures. They employed repetitive industrialized processes to order spaces according to a predictable pattern of recurrent units.

Modernist architects really had no choice but to pursue this route. Until the years just before the Second World War, the dominant metaphor inspiring building design was the human body, with its proportionally related but individualized parts comprising an organic whole. Pope's National Gallery, opened in 1941, was one of the last expressions of this idea in American public architecture. The Modern movement replaced this literal humanism with another model, the machine, characterized by an iteration of standardized parts. The new "engineer's aesthetic" jettisoned the formal and hierarchical composition of spaces and masses, rejected familiar elements like columns and arches, and abandoned traditional proportions and ornament. All architects had left was geometry and structure.

The year after Pei's East Building was completed, the Pompidou Center opened on the Place Beaubourg in Paris, the work of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. The two buildings illustrate the two principal ways modernist architects responded to the challenges of creating a new architectural language: the building-as-abstract-sculpture and the building-as-machine. In the first, buildings were conceived as minimalist objects--Le Corbusier's "masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light"--whose expressive power came from the contrast between unadorned solid walls and strategically placed openings. Pei's 1968 Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse was an early example of this approach in the United States. Pei claimed that not only should the building display art, but it should itself be art. Toward this end, he used reinforced concrete and cubic stone to create effects of massiveness and permanence, taking Le Corbusier's 1955 Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, France, as his model, though without the curvilinearity and spatial ambiguity of the French example. …

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