Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The East Building of the National Gallery of Art

In 1968, after visiting the Everson Museum, Paul Mellon, the chief benefactor, and J. Carter Brown, the director of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., contracted I.M. Pei to design a second building of the National Gallery. Mellon felt that the architect had a “philosophical mean.” “It’s not a large building,” he later said of the Everson, “but it has majesty. Visitors understand they’re in a special place.” Mellon explicitly stated that he wanted “a building to house art that would be a work of art in itself."

Pei’s East Building, which opened in 1978, stands on the trapezoidal plot of land neighboring the neoclassical West Building designed by John Russell Pope and completed in 1941. At the time, it was the last major undeveloped site between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall. Pei exploited the awkward location by dividing the trapezoid into two triangles--each a separate entity, one for exhibitions, the other for the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (C.A.S.V.A.).

You believe it to be a monumental achievement in the history of modern architecture. It is a bold expression of artistic ability and architectural propensity. Your eye cannot resist the building’s slicing, dramatic angularity and the steadfast solidity of its massive, geometric forms. Pei’s prominent role in the dawn of the age of architectural minimalism was largely the result of works like the East Building.

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