Modern Building Among the Palaces

Posted April 27, 2009 at 3:59pm

As it has often been said, I.M. Pei created a triangular solution to a trapezoidal problem.

With his design for the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, which was dedicated on June 1, 1978, Pei was “aspiring to erect a modern building at the end of a row of neoclassical palaces,— wrote one of the 11 contributors to “A Modernist Museum in Perspective: The East Building, National Gallery of Art.—

The book, edited by architect Anthony Alofsin, is part of the Studies in the History of Art series from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and looks at the significance of the East Building throughout the past three decades.

The organic development of the building, both architecturally and in the context of history and culture, is the common thread throughout the book’s essays.

Because Pei was charged with designing a modern building on a site that he felt was “full of tradition and sacred to so many Americans— — and one that was situated on a 19-degree angle where the iconic Pennsylvania Avenue converged with the National Mall — his underlying theme from conception was that of symbolism.

“The atrium provides a gathering space— in front of the galleries, Alofsin said in an e-mail. “As such it operates almost civicly like an indoor piazza despite its angular geometry. Instead of limiting the direction of movement to a fixed path, the atrium allows visitors to pause and make a choice about where they would go, which is in effect a fundamental concept of democracy itself.—

In one of the illustrated essays that comprise “Museum in Perspective,— Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, explained how Pei “stressed the need of making the museum the center of the cultural life of a community.—

“The East Building is a constituent part of the National Gallery of Art and represents an important site of national cultural patrimony,— Alofsin said. “The book’s purpose is to pay homage to this remarkable building by looking at it critically and from many perspectives. Those perspectives extend beyond the East Building to other museums inside and outside the United States.—

In 2004, in recognition of the East Building’s 25th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects recognized the gallery with one of its highest honors, saying it was an “architectural design of enduring significance … that has stood the test of time.—

Also to mark the milestone, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the research institute within the National Gallery of Art, put on a symposium, “The East Building in Perspective,— which took on a role of in-depth critical and historical assessment of the building.

At the time, Alofsin was the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow at CASVA and he took on the task of creating the first comprehensive look at the building in the context of architectural history.

He already had the cast of authors on hand, as the symposium participants became the essayists. After five years, “Museum in Perspective— brings the symposium ideas to the masses.

Swinging Pendulum’

The East Building was created during a time when “modern architecture was under fierce attack,— wrote contributor David Brownlee, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The controversy when Pei’s designs were first introduced — on the left by those who were past modern and onto postmodern, and on the right by those who believed anything with the word “modern— in the style wouldn’t fit into Washington, D.C.’s neoclassical fabric — are all very much in the past, Alofsin said of those criticisms.

“I think there are few, if any, reservations about the building these days, and it remains highly popular with the public,— he said.

Architecture “is subject to the swinging pendulum of style,— Alofsin said. “The era of postmodernism that arose when the building opened receded long ago, and aspects of modern architecture have been revived in the last decade into what I would call neo-modernism. But the East Building represents a different kind of modernism; it is at once timeless yet has its origins in the geometric minimalism of late 1960s and 1970s.—

Other authors talk about the “institutional innovation— that Pei created with the East Building. Libraries and auditoriums are commonplace in most museums now, but in the 1970s, various authors argue, Pei’s design was the first to place research and learning at the forefront.

“The public enters the building and moves through its spaces,— Alofsin said, “but does not realize they are experiencing only half the building. Beyond the public sphere is the other half, built around a second dramatic atrium where the administrative offices, library, research facilities, and CASVA are located.—

Alona Nitzan-Shiftan, whose research focuses on the historical and political contexts of architecture and is one of the book’s authors, emphasized that the East Building’s design is organic to the layout of D.C. She writes of Pei’s mission to create a “participatory architectural experience evocative of civic pride— and explains how the three “towers— (as one sees them from the outside) represent Washington’s urban layout.

Brownlee reiterates this concept, writing that the East Building belongs conceptually in the “noble company— of the Parthenon for its place within the city. “Like all great architecture,— he wrote, “it weaves itself into the cloth of our civilization while establishing its own distinctive pattern.—