rethinking pei

everson stair viewThis year marks  I.M. Pei’s 100th birthday, and next week I’m taking part in the first half of a trans-pacific celebration of his career.  Pei isn’t totally a new research topic for me–Jason Alread and I wrote about his extraordinary sculpture gallery at the Des Moines Art Center (1966-68) in a 2007 article in the Journal of Architectural Education, and Pei played at least a background role in Kahn’s career, consulting with him on the concrete formwork systems he used for his early high-rises while Kahn was working on the Salk Institute.

So the invitation to contribute to Rethinking Pei’s first session, in Cambridge, MA, was a welcome one, as it has given me an opportunity to dive more deeply in to his work in Des Moines, and also the context to that building, in particular the almost simultaneous Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse (1962-68), New York.  This project started earlier than the one in Des Moines, and it was Pei’s first foray into large scale cultural work after an early career as a strictly development architect.

pei elevation

The Everson was to have been the anchor project to a masterplan for Syracuse’s downtown designed by shopping mall designer Victor Gruen–a masterplan that was never implemented.  Pei, realizing that the museum would have to hold its own while other elements were constructed, created an intentionally closed building–four cantilevered galleries rooted to the ground by circulatory and structural stalks, all rendered in corrugated, rough concrete.  The resulting minimalist sculpture was striking on Syracuse’s admittedly banal downtown urbanscape, and it created a sublime central courtyard, which Pei graced with the first of his many spiral concrete and travertine staircase.

dmac courtyard

Four years later, in the midst of seemingly interminable delays, Pei began work in Des Moines, extending the rambling plan of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s original limestone building (1946-48) by linking one end of its S-shaped plan with a link between its gallery and education wings.  This was a brave scheme, as it enclosed a much-loved courtyard that had been designed to terminate a long garden axis and rose garden.  But Pei did not so much block this axis as punctuate it.  Through his careful placement of glass and concrete, he ensured that the building was largely transparent along the axis, and that it matched the gradual drop of the site with a double-level gallery.  Again, he used rough-hewn, corrugated concrete as a structural and finish material, all aligned with the original axis and rising to a soaring, butterfly-shaped skylight.

dmac sculpture gallery interior

The conference includes some pretty luminous names–Leslie Robertson, who has always been one of the office’s most valued engineering collaborators, and William Pedersen, of Kohn Pedersen Fox, among them.  There are also a number of academics who will be covering Pei’s extensive career, from the National Council for Atmospheric Research in Boulder to the Louvre Pyramid–possibly the most recognizable piece of postwar architecture on the planet.  I’ve often made the case informally that Pei’s work at the Art Center deserves to be included among his best, and I’m looking forward to making that case in Cambridge next week.  The second half takes place in Hong Kong in December–for better or worse I’ll be listening in by web to that one.

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