Sunday, December 14, 2008

ARCHITECTURE-For I. M. Pei, History Is Still Happening

Museum of Islamic Art By I. M. Pei Architects

ARTmostfierce always has been a big fan of I.M. Pei Architectural designs and this one in particular comes as no surprise. Please read article by Nicolai Ouroussoff of the NY Times.

Published: December 12, 2008
DOHA, Qatar

Connecting the Past and the Present
I CAN’T seem to get the Museum of Islamic Art out of my mind. There’s nothing revolutionary about the building. But its clean, chiseled forms have a tranquillity that distinguishes it in an age that often seems trapped somewhere between gimmickry and a cloying nostalgia.

Part of the allure may have to do with I. M. Pei, the museum’s architect. Mr. Pei reached the height of his popularity decades ago with projects like the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Louvre pyramid in Paris. Since then he has been an enigmatic figure at the periphery of the profession. His best work has admirers, but it has largely been ignored within architecture’s intellectual circles. Now, at 91 and near the end of a long career, Mr. Pei seems to be enjoying the kind of revival accorded to most serious architects if they have the luck to live long enough.

But the museum is also notable for its place within a broader effort to reshape the region’s cultural identity. The myriad large-scale civic projects, from a Guggenheim museum that is planned for Abu Dhabi to Education City in Doha — a vast area of new buildings that house outposts of foreign universities — are often dismissed in Western circles as superficial fantasies. As the first to reach completion, the Museum of Islamic Art is proof that the boom is not a mirage. The building’s austere, almost primitive forms and the dazzling collections it houses underscore the seriousness of the country’s cultural ambition.

Perhaps even more compelling, the design is rooted in an optimistic worldview, — one at odds with the schism between cosmopolitan modernity and backward fundamentalism that has come to define the last few decades in the Middle East. The ideals it embodies — that the past and the present can co-exist harmoniously — are a throwback to a time when America’s overseas ambitions were still cloaked in a progressive agenda.

To Mr. Pei, whose self-deprecating charm suggests a certain noblesse oblige, all serious architecture is found somewhere between the extremes of an overly sentimental view of the past and a form of historical amnesia.

“Contemporary architects tend to impose modernity on something,” he said in an interview. “There is a certain concern for history but it’s not very deep. I understand that time has changed, we have evolved. But I don’t want to forget the beginning. A lasting architecture has to have roots.” This moderation should come as no surprise to those who have followed Mr. Pei’s career closely. I recall first hearing his name during construction on his design for the Kennedy Library in Boston in the mid-1970s. The library, enclosed behind a towering glass atrium overlooking the water, was not one of Mr. Pei’s most memorable early works, nor was it particularly innovative, but the link to Kennedy lent him instant glamour.

The building’s pure geometries and muscular trusses seemed at the time to be the architectural equivalent of the space program. They suggested an enlightened, cultivated Modernism, albeit toned down to serve an educated, well-polished elite. Completed 16 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the library’s construction seemed to be an act of hope, as if the values that Kennedy’s generation embodied could be preserved in stone, steel and glass.

In many ways Mr. Pei’s career followed the unraveling of that era, from the economic downturn of the 1970s through the hollow victories of the Reagan years. Yet his work never lost its aura of measured idealism. It reached its highest expression in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, a composition of angular stone forms completed in 1978 that remains the most visible emblem of modern Washington.

Since that popular triumph Mr. Pei has often seemed to take the kind of leisurely, slow-paced approach to design that other architects, no matter how well established, can only dream of. When first approached in 1983 to take part in a competition to design the addition to the Louvre, he refused, saying that he would not submit a preliminary design. President François Mitterrand nevertheless hired him outright. Mr. Pei then asked him if he could take several months to study French history.

“I told him I wanted to learn about his culture,” Pei recalled. “I knew the Louvre well. But I wanted to see more than just architecture. I think he understood immediately.” Mr. Pei spent months traveling across Europe and North Africa before earnestly beginning work on the final design of the glass pyramids that now anchor the museum’s central court.

In 1990, a year after the project’s completion, he left his firm, handing its reins over to his partners Harry Cobb and James Ingo Freed so that he could concentrate more on design. More recently he has lived in semi-retirement, sometimes working on the fourth floor office of his Sutton Place town house or sketching quietly in a rocking chair in his living room. He rarely takes on more than a single project at a time.

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