Sight and Sensation: Observations on I.M. Pei’s Approach to Composition

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This paper examines I.M. Pei’s approach to the problem of form and space generation. Although Pei has not set out a comprehensive statement on his process for conceiving architectural form, there are specific ambitions discussed throughout published interviews and evidence of definite circulatory, spatial, and volumetric devices in the built work. The paper reveals clues to Pei’s sensibility in this work, a sensibility which, it is argued, privileges dynamic, nonperspectival relations accommodating multiple viewpoints as distinct from what the architect himself characterises as static conditions resulting from single vanishing point perspective. As an underlying proposition, and in order to provisionally place Pei’s work within architecture’s larger historical trajectory, the idea of a nonperspectival conception of space as formulated by Giulio Carlo Argan is used in an analysis of the composition techniques in Pei’s thinking and practice. In order to test this proposition, the paper considers published interviews and undertakes an initial examination of the Everson Museum of Art (Syracuse, 1961-1968), the National Gallery of Art East Building (Washington D.C., 1968-1978), and the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center (Dallas, 1982-1989). The paper asks such questions as: Which concepts of space are at work in the projects? What differences in strategy and effect are revealed in the three projects and do they align with Pei’s stated ambition to create an architecture of movement formed by multiple viewpoints? More pointed is the question: Do the projects realise different kinds of space and if so is one better aligned to theories of sight or sensation? In addressing an underlying SAHANZ 2018 conference theme concerning the relationship between conceiving and shaping architectural space, the paper reveals untheorised aspects of Pei’s manner of composing built form, and makes a modest contribution to scholarship on post-1950s architectural theory.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHistoriographies of Technology and Architecture
Subtitle of host publicationProceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand
EditorsJoanna Merwood-Salisbury, Michael Dudding, Christopher McDonald
Place of PublicationWellington
PublisherSociety of Architectural Historians Australia New Zealand
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)780473457136
Publication statusPublished - 13 Oct 2018


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