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In Memoriam: I. M. Pei (1917–2019)

Photograph of I.M. Pei

I. M. Pei in the East Building Atrium, 1978. © Dennis Brack/Black Star. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gallery Archives.

“We at the National Gallery of Art are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of architect I. M. Pei. His death is a great loss to the nation, to the Gallery, and to each one of our visitors who has marveled at his timeless design of our East Building. Pei’s vision for the East Building was a gift to our nation.”

—Kaywin Feldman, director, National Gallery of Art

Opened in 1978, the I. M. Pei-designed East Building houses the National Gallery of Art’s collection of modern and contemporary art. Built with funds donated by Paul Mellon and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce (philanthropists and children of Andrew W. Mellon), and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the East Building has welcomed some 75 million visitors since it opened on June 1, 1978. Pei’s masterpiece has provided an eloquent setting for the display of great works of modern art from the permanent collection, some 300 temporary exhibitions, a library and rare book collection, administrative offices, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, which fosters international understanding of art and culture.

detail-east-bldg-day

The East Building of the National Gallery of Art and Fourth Street Plaza, designed by I. M. Pei.

While harmonizing with architect John Russell Pope’s neoclassical West Building, the award-winning East Building was designed in the modern idiom of its time. Magnificently realizing the long-term vision of Gallery founder Andrew W. Mellon and his children, the East Building has taken its place as one of the great public structures in the nation’s capital.

Born in China in 1917, Ieoh Ming Pei moved to the United States at age 18 to study architecture, and eventually received degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He opened his own firm in New York City in 1955.

On July 9, 1968, the trustees of the National Gallery of Art selected I. M. Pei to design a building to provide additional space for the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, as well as a new center for research in the history of art. The building was to be constructed on the plot of land directly east of the West Building that Congress had reserved for the museum at its establishment in 1937.

detail-pei-sketch

Designed at a crucial point in Pei’s long and productive career, the architect faced several challenges in planning for the East Building. The new building had to fit an irregularly shaped, trapezoidal site; conform to the monumental scale of the National Mall; and correlate with John Russell Pope’s classicizing West Building, completed in 1941. During the laborious design process, Pei and a small team of young architects explored many creative possibilities for the building’s plan, exterior profile, and roofing of the great atrium. In a moment of insight, 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."

Pei received many accolades for his work, including the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1979, the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983, and the Smithsonian Institution National Design Award for lifetime achievement in 2003. In 1991, the East Building was voted one of the top ten buildings in the United States by the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects and the building won the American Institute of Architects' Twenty-five Year Award in 2004.

Related Resources

Online Feature
A Design for the East Building

Online Feature
East Building Ground-Breaking

Online Feature
East Building Architectural Tour

Online Feature
East Building Reopening

Past Exhibition
A Design for the National Gallery of Art
March 27 – October 11, 1998

Past Exhibition
The East Building: Celebrating 25 Years
June 1, 2003 – July 6, 2004

Oral History Program
Oral History Interview with I. M. Pei, February 22, 1993
Transcript (PDF 1MB)

Audio and Video

Interview
Oral History Interview with I. M. Pei, February 22, 1993
Audio, Released: May 28, 2019, (87:06 minutes)

Speech
Dedication of the East Building of the National Gallery
Audio, Released: April 3, 2012, (9:59 minutes)

Film
National Gallery Builds
Video, Released: August 13, 2013, (12:43 minutes)

Lectures
A Centennial Celebration I. M. Pei at the National Gallery of Art
Audio, Released: May 2, 2017, (54:23 minutes)

A Centennial Celebration I. M. Pei at the National Gallery of Art
Video, Released: June 20, 2017, (56:35 minutes)

Elson Lecture 1998: I. M. Pei in conversation with Earl A. Powell III
Audio, Released: April 12, 2011, (55:12 minutes)

The East Building at Forty: Reflections from Curators Past and Present
Audio, Released: June 12, 2018, (168:43 minutes)

The East Building at Forty: Reflections from Curators Past and Present
Video, Released: August 14, 2018, (158:42 minutes)

I.M. Pei: A Celebration of His Life and Work
Audio, Released: July 30, 2019, (63:40 minutes)