Blam! And You Thought You Knew Architecture (I.M. Pei)

One of my best friends, Roland, recently sent me a response to a cocky little email I had sent him awhile ago just after I had visited Paris for the first time. On seeing I.M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid in the Louvre, I pronounced it Mitterrand and Republican France’s middle finger to the monarchism of Louis XIV. Roland’s eye saw more, so much more that I have been driven to sharing his email below. I think it is the most illuminating, learned and madly enjoyable critique of an architect’s work that I have ever read.


I’m in the middle of writing another little ditty to you and then I see that you are (or were) in Paris. I didn’t know you were going and if I did I would have written this for you before you left. Actually this is over two years old. I should have given it to you before I saw you in March 2004.

You wrote me an e-mail long ago with your observations on French culture and particularly I.M. Pei’s (pronounced “Pay”) the Louvre. You saw this stark modernist thing sitting right there and it caught your attention. You thought it was Chirac’s gigantic F___ you to France’s past. Not quite. Please be seated for the following lecture on modern architecture of I.M. Pei presented by noted architectural historian Dr. Roland. Exams will be on Tuesday.

Good afternoon. (ab&h, if you continue to throw those spitballs, I will be forced to send you to the headmaster’s office!) Today’s lecture is about the modernism of I.M. Pei. First we will discuss Pei’s use of modernism in the pyramid in front of the Louvre. Contrary to what one would think of at first glance, his pyramid is not an affront to the 2nd Empire style architecture of that portion of the Louvre. What is going on here is what you may have heard in art called “comparison and contrast.”

Let us look at form and break it down. This area of the Louvre is an interior courtyard surrounding the pyramid. What is the characteristic of the style of the buildings? They are all 19th century additions in a very ornate style, very richly and heavily decorated. What is the characteristic of the pyramid? It is a modernist style of steel and glass whose lack of texture suggests smoothness. You see? Highly textured versus smooth. This is the type of thing that is done to highlight the differences and bring out the uniqueness of both qualities. One contrasts with the other, not for the purposes of embarrassing the other or to say F.U., but to bring each other into greater relief. Next, we can see that the older building, being built of stone, is opaque. In contrast, the pyramid is made of glass. This highlights a juxtaposing of solidity, weight, permanence against transparency and light. The old buildings stand proudly on the ground pronouncing their import. The pyramid introduces a new subterranean level, which we must consider. The old buildings invite us to go up into them, but create clogged traffic flows that mess up the vista of the plaza and make it less appealing. (I can remember being accosted by little ragamuffin Gypsies constantly running up to me trying to sell/steal something, which took away something from the experience. Please excuse any bourgeois condescension here.)

The pyramid invites us to acknowledge the previously unconsidered subterranean and directs traffic flows down into it. Here the pyramid provides an accent to the composition that forces us to look at the old buildings again and concentrate on what their architectural statement actually is. In turn, the old buildings force us to look at the pyramid and ask more questions about it. Never does the pyramid function by itself, or overshadow the older buildings. As I said before, it “accents” them. It doesn’t call attention to itself for its own purpose, but only in serving the purpose of the composition as a whole. Now that the contrast between the old and the new has forced us to look at the pyramid more closely, even as we have just looked at the Louvre itself more closely, we delve to a different level of analysis.

We notice that the pyramid is built in a modernist style. But wait a minute, the pyramid is a very ancient form, in fact, the most ancient form of architecture. So we have an old form in a new style—again, contrast. Now let’s add the Louvre to the mix. Isn’t the Louvre supposed to the old building? But wait, again! The pyramid is harkening back to a form that’s older than the building that’s supposed to be the “old” one! Once again we have contrast. That which is really an old form is actually the newer form in this composition. That which is the newer form is, in many respects, the older form in the composition. In this way the two forms dance back and forth, never really allowing us to rest—never allowing us to take them for granted and constantly creating the slight tension that provokes passion, thought and interest.

Now for the coup-de-grace—context. Ask yourself which civilization does the pyramid bring to mind. Egypt, of course. Who in the modern world brought Egypt to Europe? That’s right, the French. One might say that they brought Egypt into their ongoing conversation about civilization, mankind and his origins known as European thought. But Pei asks us to think about this one minute. Is France really bringing Egypt to Europe or has Egypt brought civilization to the world? Who’s old? Who’s new? So is the Louvre really introducing the pyramid to us, or is the pyramid introducing the Louvre to us? Who’s the Daddy here?

Now look at the above and see all the different ideas. Note how they juxtapose—jumping back and forth. The “old” building is really the newer form. The old form is in a newer style. One is solid, the other opaque. One is above ground, the other primarily below. The “old” buildings, facing the pyramid, are really the newest additions to the Louvre. Once again, we are not allowed to rest, get complacent and be comfortable.

Now let’s look at two other places where Pei has used the same tricks. And you should know both of them because they both are in Boston! You’ve seen them a million times. One of these you (should) know very well!

The first is the John Hancock building in the Back Bay section of Boston. (Feel free at this time to do a Yahoo image search for “John Hancock Building” and “Boston.” Find a pic of the building plus Trinity Church at various angles (more). The John Hancock building is also a design of I.M. Pei where he had to deal with the relationship of a modern structure to an old one. The square footage requirements for the design were great, making the building outsized for the neighborhood. How did Pei handle this? First look at the site plan. He made the floorplan into a rectangle instead of the usual square (or something like a square). He then took his rectangular floorplan and turned it sideways to the neighborhood that might be most offended by its size, Back Bay. In so doing, he turned the skinniest side to them making the building almost disappear. Think of a person turning sideways instead of being seen straight on from the front. This works so well that you don’t even feel the presence of the building when walking in the square. (Normally buildings of this size hover over you and make you feel as if they are about to fall on you.)

This, of course, leaves us with a flat, broad side on the other two sides doesn’t it? Its mass couldn’t be avoided right? Well, what he does, instead of trying to hide its mass, is to use the whole side like a huge mirror. What does the mirror reflect? Trinity Church. Trinity Church is the main attraction in the square. That church was designed by H.H. Richardson and is a very important work that exemplified the now famous “Richardson Romanesque” style. Pei knew that this is the very thing tradition-conscious Back Bay people would want to protect. He knew that their first fear was that this new monstrosity would overshadow their precious church. So he made the entire building defer to the older church. He mirrored the whole building. It was quite fortunate for him that this style was “in” at the time. This allowed the building to step itself back in importance (Size usually conveys importance. This is why so many artists paint large paintings. A small painting of the exact same subject would not fetch proportionately as much. But I digress…)

Anytime anyone looked at the building, all they would see is the church, despite the building being hundreds of feet taller and thousands of square feet larger than the church. Which direction does the huge mirror face? It faces downtown, where a large number of people who would be interested could see it. Do you see the same contrast used at the Louvre? Something large and important must not be large while something small is to be made all he larger because of how it is handled. There’s that juxtaposition again. By deliberately not calling attention to itself, it, by turns, calls attention to how well placed it actually is and how well it works within the environment, which just might call more attention to it!

Next consider texture. Once again, the new building is smooth and the old building is ornamented. One building is highly textured and the other is like several sheets of smooth glass.

The church is heavy in its Neo-Romanesque styling yet the larger building seems as light as air. Now look at a picture taken from the base of the Hancock. Notice that the mirror now, no longer reflects the church, but the sky. One really has to look carefully to see whether you are looking at the sky or the reflection of the sky in the uppermost mirrors. The fact that it is 800 feet tall and mirrored makes the top of the tower virtually disappear. This also makes the tower seem much lighter and less likely to feel that it is oppressively leaning over you.

See the same contrasts? Light/dark, big/small, stone/glass, heavy/light. Now criss-cross them. Make the heavy thing seem lighter than the smaller thing, which should seem lighter by comparison, etc. Use that to highlight the differences, not obscure them.

What’s the next example, which as I said, you should know well? Any guesses? IT’S The Christian Science Plaza in Boston! Pei also designed this and it was the first thing I thought of. I know that you didn’t pay to much attention to CS and all that stuff pertaining to it, but I thought that you would at least catch that. Yes, Pei did the church plaza and he used the same tricks here as you saw in Paris and at the Hancock building aforementioned. (Please open picture now) If you can see the old Mother Church is in the Neo-Romanesque style and the Extension is Neo-Classical, you have identified the two “old” elements of the design. Can you find the contrasting new element? It’s not just the new buildings—it’s the pool. Yes, the pool functions as the same type of element in the design as the Hancock tower does a few blocks over.

While interesting in and of itself, it creates a soft reverse image of the “hard” and formal buildings on the plaza. I’m sure you will find a number of pictures of the plaza at night with its pool shimmering and all the lights lit. Notice the columns in the formerly named “Colonnade” building. Notice the repetition used to create a rhythm, drawing the eye all the way down the plaza. Note that the newer buildings could overwhelm the older ones but they never do. They are brought down a couple of notches on the grandiosity scale so as to allow the churches to continue to capture the center of interest. Please look for the same ideas and their various uses in other areas in this design.

This concludes our lecture for today. Remember, you exam is Tuesday. I think you now can supply your own critique from here on as it is 2am and I’m getting tired.

Dr. Roland

Professor of Pencil Sharpening


About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

5 Responses to Blam! And You Thought You Knew Architecture (I.M. Pei)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Freedom Fries!!!
    Freedom Fries!!!
    Freedom Fries!!!

  2. Afromusing says:

    lol! this was fun.

  3. Anonymous says:

    From a professor of not pencil sharpening, can you come and give a guest lecture, please? I’m tired of me, the kids are tired of me, and we all want to scream for ice cream….

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is a beautiful example of good architecture–in writing. Very elegant.

  5. Jay says:

    Wow. Eh, that was actually very interesting to read – esp for one not interested in architecture except as a means to shelter.

    Anyway, I wanted to tell you that Thge Da Vinci Code also has interesting thoughts on Pei’s pyramid at the Lourve. Some of it must obviously be fiction but still, you should read it.

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