When the Neo-classical masterpiece by John Russel Pope, The National Gallery of Arts in Washington D.C, needed a comrade expansion, one of the most celebrated architects of the twentieth century got the commission. I.M. Pei, who faced a cascade of challenges in the construction of this one of a kind museum, delivered an exemplary and revered Modern dialogue for the cityscape to admire.

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National Gallery of Art, East Wing ©Flickr

Here is a crisp look into the design, challenges, and features of this progressive geometrical work of art.

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I M Pei at the opening of National Gallery of Art, East Building, June 1, 1978 ©Dennis Brack/Black Star

The planning of the East building began in 1968, and the building was opened to the public nearly a decade later. The infrastructure had to fulfill two sets of requirements: an additional space to display modern artworks and traveling exhibitions, and a separate research center. The pivotal aspect of the expansion, which also made the commission challenging was the trapezoid-shaped plot of land designated for its construction. The proximity to the National Mall on the south side, abutting Pennsylvania Avenue at an angle in the north, also posed rigid geographical limitations added to the obstacle of harmonizing the new design with the West facility, built in a strict and traditional Neo-classical style, and its heavy East-West axis.

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Tennessee marble used in the National Gallery of Art ©Flickr

“I sketched a trapezoid on the back of an envelope. I drew a diagonal line across the trapezoid and produced two triangles. That was the beginning.” I.M. Pei recalls how eureka struck him at the oddest hour, and he started to scribble at the back of a scrap of paper as he spoke to the National Gallery of Arts Archives. The initial conceptual scribbles of the design are preserved here. He solved the irregular geometry of the site by planning out an isosceles triangle as the exhibition area and the smaller triangle as the study-center/office facility. Triangles then become repetitive guiding units for the entire structure. His design team tried out various alternatives that stemmed from this geometrical concept. It led to the possibility of having a raised skylight with triangular glasses, options of designs for the façades, and the interior circulation patterns.

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Early conceptual sketch for building plan, National Gallery of Art East Building in the fall of 1968 by I.M Pei with Crayon and graphite on tracing paper ©www.nga.gov
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Working Studies BY I.M Pei and his team on tracing paper for geometrical interplay ©www.nga.gov
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(Top) Studies for Third Street and Mall facades, nos. 1, 2, and 3.(Bottom left) “Stepping down the geometry for light.” (Bottom right)Study for Fourth Street facade. Allpen on tracing paper ©www.nga.gov

Three towers at the end of the isosceles triangle maintained the massive East-West Axis of the complex and oriented the visitors. To further unify the East and West blocks, the construction is done with the same Tennessee marble.  An inviting central atrium was the welcome feature of the Gallery. These 16,000 square feet of sculptural space were adorned with crystals (scattered skylights) and a waterfall to elevate the monumental interiors. This wasn’t the first approach to the roof. The humungous task to imagine how the atrium’s coffered ceiling would look was assigned to Artist Paul Stevenson. His perspective drawings relayed how overpowering the coffers would be. Thus, Pei and his team moved away from the idea and towards a sculpture of steel-framed modules complementing the triangular form of the building, filling the giant atrium with natural light yet not overshadowing the exhibits.

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Perspective studies for garden court by Paul Stevenson Oles, 1 December 1970. Graphite on paper ©www.nga.gov

The space-frame structure was built on such a massive scale for the very first time. Systematic planning was done to ensure first-class technological intervention to cover the entire span of 16,000 feet with giant five-tonne nodes welded to form tetrahedrons measuring 30 feet by 45 feet. These steel-framed modules were isosceles triangle-shaped, and their base was in the ratio of 2:3 with its sides, same as that of the entire building. The craftsmanship to pull-off this giant structure in place was lauded with twenty-three awards and high praises.

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Paul Stevenson Oles. Perspective study for space frame, National Gallery of Art East Building,1971. Graphite on paper ©www.nga.gov
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(left) I. M. Pei & Partners, National Gallery of Art East Building Design Team. Study for space-frame nodes, 15 March 1971. Pen on tracing paper. (Right) Unfinished space frame from above, 25 July 1977. Photograph by Stewart Brothers ©www.nga.gov
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Atrium inside the East building with skylights ©commons.wikimedia.org

Today’s world is replete with examples of green buildings that have sustainability at their core. However, this brainchild of I.M. Pei was not built to foster an energy-efficient lifestyle as, during the time of its construction, these issues did not concern the society at large. The incorporation of natural illumination through glass ceilings or windy courtyards were aesthetic elements, to enliven the exhibits inside, that were blessings in disguise, making the Gallery carbon neutral. That being said, enough thought still went into the design. After studying the city’s climate, the solar potentials were tapped fully by strategically orienting the building on the site and allowing light to enter the façade at several levels, which helped to cut down the HVAC costs. Prismatic skylights were also used to illuminate the underground tunnel connecting the East and West blocks. These were to become signature features for Pei’s future museums.

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Lobby of East Building ©commons.wikimedia.org
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Southwest corner of East Building ©www.archdaily.com
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Prismatic skylights over underground tunnel ‘Concourse’ connecting East and West blocks of the Gallery ©commons.wikimedia.org

Almost thirty years after its construction, Pei’s technological breakthrough in façade treatment for the East building was met with vehement criticism. The curtain wall system incorporated for clean, modern lines had resulted in structural failure. The critical opposition that questioned why Pei gave up tried and tested ways of classic construction, however, did not prove to be a setback to his modern thinking. After a few years of renovation, not much changed inside, and the Gallery was re-opened for public viewing.

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Southwest corner of National Gallery of Art, East Building during renovation ©commons.wikimedia.org

The striking geometry of the East building and technical innovation, from a time when novel approaches were only for the dauntless, are unmatched even today. Thousands of visitors from around the world swarm to the Gallery to not only look at the masterpieces inside but to see the workings of one of the greatest architectural minds of the world in action!

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Inside the National Gallery of Art, East Building ©www.archdaily.com
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Inside the National Gallery of Art, East Building ©www.archdaily.com
Radhika Jhamaria
Author

Radhika Jhamaria, an Architecture undergrad at NIT Jaipur, loves to travel and explore the world as a design enthusiast. She believes that one should always follow their heart and she pours hers into literary escapades. You may occasionally find her strumming her beloved guitar.

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