Nude Pei

I. M. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is currently undergoing repairs. The cladding of the 33-year-old building is being entirely re-hung to rectify a problem with the anchors that support the marble slabs, a project that is expected to take four years and cost an astounding $85 million. It’s worth taking a look at Pei’s denuded building. The familiar triangular prisms turn out to be concrete frames in-filled with brick, quite unlike the effete geometry that we are used to. It is as if a businessman removed his pin-striped suit to reveal a muscle shirt. The robust beams and red brick recall nineteenth-century industrial architecture, a curious but not unwelcome presence on the Mall. It reminded me that Louis Kahn was one of four architects considered by Paul Mellon and Carter Brown (the others were Philip Johnson, Kevin Roche, and Pei). Although Kahn was designing an art museum for Mellon at Yale, he did not get the job. Had he, he might have produced something like the gutsy building that has suddenly appeared on the Mall.

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