25-Year Award to Pei's East Wing
The architect chose the same marble as used in the original National Gallery, which was designed by John Russell Pope and opened in 1941. Pei's wing shows respect to the older building by repeating its strong east-west axis and offering a parallel facade across the court that separates the two buildings. The newer wing's marble walls, designed to look like the load-bearing blocks of the original building, are three-inch cladding in 2- by 5-foot (60- by 150-centimeter) pieces that wrap around corners to recreate the effect of solid stone blocks.
The building is a study in triangles: Pei created two complementary triangles for its two main functions of exhibit and office, with a triangular sky-lighted courtyard to tie the composition together. This sculpture court provides a protected space of 16,000 square feet (1500 square meters) for crowds waiting to see the exhibitions, as well as a stage for formal events. A 500-ton (450,000-kilogram) welded space frame supports the skylight — double-paned laminated glass that sandwiches an ultraviolet interlayer to protect the artwork from sun damage.
Following the building's triangle theme, the building at one point makes a striking knife-edged corner that turns 19 degrees from the east-west axis to meet the angle of the site. At the top, seven huge mirrored glass pyramids and a 50-foot- (15-meter-) long waterfall deliver light plus the sound and movement of rushing water into the concourse.
The museum houses large-scale traveling exhibits, an office facility for museum personnel, and the Center for Advanced Study of the Visual Arts. Thirty percent of its space is underground. Three exhibition towers around the court can house one large exhibition, or be broken into smaller spaces for a number of simultaneous shows. A study center describes its own smaller triangle, which wraps around a six-story-tall reading room.
When the East Building won a national AIA Honor Award in 1981, the jury statement emphasized the building's sensitive grid, meticulous workmanship, dramatic interior vistas, and integration of permanent artwork into public spaces. In the past 25 years, the building has changed little. This despite increased size of staff and collections and the interventions of computer technologies and more sophisticated mechanical systems.
In Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History, author Dennis Sharp wrote: "The new East Wing... sits on a difficult triangular site. However, Pei was able to exploit this feature, giving his wedge-shaped building a marvelous sense of presence and sculptural purpose... This building helped to shape attitudes to museum building throughout the United States in the 1970s and later."
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