Architecture of the East Building: Variations on an Isosceles Triangle

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on February 25, 2009

Famed architect I.M. Pei's love affair with geometrical forms is evident in the repeated use of triangles in the East Building. Actually, the triangle-based layout of the building was an ingenious answer to a challenging problem that Pei faced -- an oddly-shaped site across from the old (now West) building of the National Gallery of Art. The limitations of the site presented multiple challenges. Somehow he had to link it visually with the old gallery, and yet it had to fit in with the surrounding buildings on the Mall as well. With nearby heavy hitters such as the Capitol dome to contend with, the new museum also needed to stand out somehow, to make its own architectural statement.

Enter the simple isosceles triangle, used to divide the essentially trapezoidal site into two sections, the larger triangle containing the gallery per se, and the second triangle housing offices and a research center. While the older West Building is a forthright, four-cornered building, almost staid and predictable in its traditional right angles, Pei’s building reads differently from each perspective, presenting complex, almost shifting triangular shapes. The East Gallery is now widely hailed as one of the finest modern buildings in the country.

Within the triangular components are – you guessed it – more triangles. Entering the main building, the visitor enters a world of almost animated fractal geometry, with the interplay of light and shadows creating interesting resonances within the larger space. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to speak of harmonics here, as the building seems to resonate, particularly in the large, brightly lit atrium, which features a strategically placed mobile by Alexander Calder. Calder designed this mobile specifically for this space, and it’s wonderfully successful, always in perpetual slow and stately motion, powered only by the air currents in the building.

Another feature that is striking is the roof over the atrium, an impressive array of interlocking triangular shapes. The glass ceiling casts triangular shadows on the marble walls and onto the tiles of the triangular-tiled floor. If anything, one could fault the almost obsessive use of triangles in the building.

But I can’t. I love it.

On a number of occasions, I’ve come into the East Building not to see anything in particular (though I may browse through an exhibit or two), but to just stroll in the atrium and look around. The atrium and upper levels are particularly restful, cool sanctuaries on a hot summer's day.

My most recent visit was to see an exhibit (which runs through March 22, 2009) entitled, "Pompei and the Roman Villa." Alas, it seemed that nearly everyone in town had had the same brainwave of the ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon in February, and the exhibit was packed. I walked quickly through what seemed like the cramped exhibit space (it isn't, it just seems that way in contrast to the atrium), coming out with relief onto the mezzanine level of the gallery.

There I found a bench overlooking the atrium and simply sat waiting for my husband to emerge from the exhibit. I happily contemplated the shadows cast from the ceiling, the lovely way the staircases and walkways traversed the open space, and the infinite leit motif of triangles. Really, I have to say that at times the building itself upstages almost everything else.

Outside, across a street paved with cobblestones, is another delightful feature. There are seven glass tetrahedron sculptures in the plaza, each catching myriad reflections of the surrounding buildings, the sky, and people standing next to them. These playful structures are a huge hit with children, who often play a sort of fun-house-mirror hide-and-seek among the sculptures, but they also have a very practical purpose, serving as skylights for a subterranean concourse level that lies between the old and new galleries. In fact, the fountain next to the tetrahedrons flows down to form a glassed-in waterfall visible in the gallery cafeteria below.

While I’m not a big fan of the large museum cafeterias in general, I’ve always thought the subterranean waterfall in the National Gallery’s cafeteria is one of the nicer surprises on the Mall.

A second favorite surprise, by the way, can be seen in the Sculpture Garden next to the West Gallery. There, if you walk slowly by an outdoor sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein entitled, "House 1," you’ll find it.

Sorry, but I’m not telling. It is, after all, a surprise.
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Washington, D.C., 20565
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