National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
A Design for the East Building - Building Design

Exhibition Information | Introduction | Building Design | The Atrium | Images

Building Design

Concept | Exploration | Imaginative Studies | Final Form | The Scale Model

Concept
In a moment of insight, I. M. Pei solved the problem of the site's irregular shape by dividing it into an isosceles triangle and a smaller right triangle. He later recalled, "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."

Early Pei sketch of NGA East Building The early sketch, at left, shows the division of the site into two triangles. The West Building is represented by the lines to the left of the drawing, with the arrow suggesting its strong east-west axis.

I. M. Pei. Early conceptual sketch for building plan, National Gallery of Art East Building, fall 1968.
Crayon and graphite on tracing paper


In the quick study of the urban context for the building, below, Pei showed the profile and proportions of the East Building in relationship to the West Building and the U. S. Capitol.

I. M. Pei. Early conceptual sketch for building profile with Capitol, National Gallery of Art East Building, fall 1968.
Pen on back of receipt
East Building profile sketch

Exploration
During the fall of 1968 and winter of 1969, Pei and his design team explored the underlying geometry governing the structure of the new building. Many of their ideas are recorded in quick working studies, some relating closely to Pei's initial plan based on two triangles and others testing alternative possibilities. Each study may reflect only brief discussion, but taken together they provide insight into the design process.

Early Pei sketch of NGA East Building This drawing shows the theoretical point at which the lines formed by the Pennsylvania Avenue and Mall sides of the site would converge, and the relationship of the building's footprint to this larger shape. The small surrounding drawings explore other geometrical plans and a possible raised skylight structure for the building.

I. M. Pei & Partners, National Gallery of Art East Building Design Team.
Working studies, c. September 1968. Pencil on tracing paper



In this sketch the architects are studying the interior geometry of the isosceles triangle and considering how to accommodate circulation between floors. An alternative design for the building's Fourth Street facade and various roof treatments appear in the surrounding drawings.

I. M. Pei & Partners, National Gallery of Art East Building Design Team.
Working studies, c. October 1968. Felt-tip pen on tracing paper

East Building profile sketch

East Building profile sketch This design explores the possibility of occupying the entire site by adding, at the east end, an additional module to Pei's initial conception. The result emphasizes parallel lines instead of triangles.

I. M. Pei & Partners, National Gallery of Art East Building Design Team.
Working studies, c. October 1968. Crayon on tracing paper

Imaginative Studies

Even before Pei and his team had determined the final ground plan for the new structure, they were exploring other aspects of the design. In quick sketches, they studied a variety of ideas for the building's facades and examined ways to bring light into the museum to enliven its interior and illuminate works of art.

East Building study-1 East Building study-2 East Building study-3
I. M. Pei & Partners, National Gallery of Art East Building Design Team.
Studies for Third Street and Mall facades, nos. 1, 2, and 3.
Pen (or pen and graphite) on tracing paper

The design of lively and interesting facades for the Mall and Third Street was an important concern of the architects. The three studies above explore variations on a possible treatment of these facades. The East Building is the only structure on the Mall without a public entrance facing in that direction.

The drawing at lower left is for a design that would allow light to penetrate the interior of the building through skylights at several levels. The drawing at lower right shows a plan close to the final design of the Fourth Street facade, but with a horizontal band of windows above the entrance. The architects' discussions are reflected in notes on the drawings.

Study for geometry of light Study for 4th Street facade
I. M. Pei & Partners,
National Gallery of Art
East Building Design Team.
Study, "Stepping down the geometry for light."
Pen on tracing paper
I. M. Pei & Partners, National Gallery of Art East Building Design Team.
Study for Fourth Street facade. Pen on tracing paper

Final Form
Pei's rare drawings are typically little more than quick scribbles to communicate his ideas in meetings or conversations. He observed that he would "put ideas in the head and eliminate them in the head....Drawing is not fast enough, for me anyway."

Late Pei sketch of NGA East Building
I. M. Pei. Working sketch for building plan, National Gallery of Art East Building, winter 1969. Pen and graphite on tracing paper

Early in 1969, Pei's design was refined and elaborated to near-final form. The two triangles of the architect's original conception were pulled apart to create a slot that would emphasize the separateness of the two spaces: one for the museum's public functions and the other for its study center. Three towers were beginning to emerge at the corners of the isosceles triangle, balancing the east-west axis of the West Building.

The Scale Model
This model was made to show how the museum would appear after the East Building was completed. In its first version, shown in the photograph at lower left, the building's Third Street and Mall facades had deeply recessed windows that created a grillelike pattern. Later, these facades were completely revised. In the final version, shown in the model and in the photograph at lower right, the Third Street facade became a sleek plane articulated by bold horizontal bands of marble. The Mall facade was transformed into a window wall, partially angled back to reflect the building's geometry and broken by a tall window to illuminate the library within.

early East Buiding model   final East Building model
Scale model of East and West Buildings showing initial design for
Third Street facade,
c. 1970-1971
  Scale model of East and West Buildings showing final design for
Third Street facade,
spring 1971

Pei's original plan for the plaza between the East and West Buildings included a circular pool, an echo of the grand rotunda of the original building. Eventually this plan was replaced by scattered skylights ("crystals") and a waterfall to add light and motion to the concourse linking the two buildings underground.

Exhibition Information | Introduction | Building Design | The Atrium | Images