Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The NGA's landmark East Building, reconsidered

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NGAEast1.jpgSometime between now and the end of President Obama’s first term, the National Gallery of Art will likely settle upon a renovation plan for its East Building. Perhaps coincidentally, the National Gallery and Yale Press have published a substantial new volume on the East Building: A Modernist Museum in Perspective. The book consists of papers delivered at a 2004
symposium organized by the NGA’s Center for Advanced Study in the
Visual Arts and was edited by University of Texas professor Anthony Alofsin.) [Image: NGA East Building.]

The book is a reminder that 30 years after the East Building opened, the I.M. Pei-designed landmark is still one of the most controversial museum buildings in America. As you might expect from an NGA-organized symposium and in an NGA-published book, contributors line up in praise of the East Building. But the topic they don’t address says as much as the topics they do: Scholar after scholar examines the building as civic center, as America’s Lobby, as a product of late-’60s, early-70’s design, but what’s most striking is that none of the book’s 11 contributors has
much of anything to say about the building’s galleries. In a book that takes admiration as its jumping-off point, that absence is effectively an acknowledgement that the East Building presents art terribly.

As the NGA’s administrators and trustees determine the scope of the forthcoming renovation, they’d be wise to learn from their own publication, to take it as a case-study that explains how the East Building happened, what went right and wrong and why, and what the next steps might be.

NGAEast2.jpgFirst: The success. Architect Richard Gluckman has called the East Building “a monumental piece of sculpture,” and he’s right. It is the most significant and beautiful structure on the National Mall. The library, while technologically out-of-date, is a wonderful, inviting place to work and study, and the NGA’s offices provide ideal views of the U.S. Capitol. [Image.]

As Universite du Quebec a Montreal professor Rejean Legault details in an engaging essay, the materials and craftsmanship in the East Building are top-notch. They should be: The 450,000-square foot building cost $320 million in today’s dollars. By comparison, the Steven Holl’s brilliant 165,000-square-foot Bloch Building for the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City also features superb workmanship and the creative use of materials. It cost $86 million.

(Legault is also one of the few essayists to subtly address the East Building’s failings. He carefully refers to “the contradiction between the building’s formal and functional expressions.”)

NGAEast3.jpgThe most illuminating essay in the book comes from Alona Nitzan-Shiftan, a lecturer at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. Nitzan-Shiftan examines how the NGA came to be sited as it was, how Pei designed it to aestheticize democratic concepts, and to symbolize Americans’ relationship to the capital city and to their government. To be sure, this building-as-microcosm-of-the-republic was a little bit of marketing-BS: Nitzan-Shiftan notes that Pei cannily chose Yann Weymouth as his collaborator on the East Building. At the time Weymouth just happened to be the son-in-law of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and a political activist with ties to the Kennedy clan. [Image.]

Of special interest as the NGA is considering renovation plans is Nitzan-Shiftan’s description of the planning of the building as almost anti-art. She writes that the NGA leadership originally wanted to call the building “The National Art Center” but was steered toward calling it “The National Gallery of Art Educational Services Building” as a way of playing to the national mood for education and betterment. Nitzan-Shiftan goes on to detail the concepts that the NGA leadership thought were important to manifest in the building’s design, including that it be a place that would “symbolize the activities of the Gallery and its dissemination of information at every level, from that of the specialist to the first-grade teacher.” Pei himself described his building as being motivated by creating a “very important center for social and artistic life in Washington.”

In other words: As the building was being planned, the display of art was not a motivating concern. 

Tomorrow: What went wrong.

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