Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Toilet and the Da Vinci Code

When I was a student at MIT, I.M.Pei was the architect we all loved to hate. This famous MIT alum (Class of 1940) has designed several of MIT's buildings over the years (as well as many famous or important buildings around the world). Most of these buildings have nicknames in addition to their formal names, rarely used for some buildings, as well as their numeric designations. Students and faculty at MIT usually call buildings by their number: the Landau Building is Building 66 ("Landau Building" is almost never used), and the Dreyfus Building is Building 18 (Dreyfus Building?? I'm not sure anyone ever called it that), and the Green Building is Building 54 (though "the Green Building" is often used for this one). If you look at MIT's very cool online map, where you can search by name or number, you'll notice that even there the numbers come first.

I.M. Pei's MIT buildings are all fairly dramatic examples of cutting-edge design for their times. Many MIT students, unenlightened to the principles of modern design, thought they were all pretty ugly. Buildings 54, 66 and 18 are what I always thought of as the "waffle buildings", because the facades have a design like a giant concrete Belgian waffle. These were all dark grey concrete, a color that didn't do much to improve their attractiveness.

The Bathroom

Pei's MIT Media Lab building E15 (or Wiesner Building, but it was rarely called that), was really radical and distinctive. It was built while I was a student, and with its white tile and decorative portal, it almost instantly became nicknamed "The Bathroom" or "The Pei Toilet". The decorative portal, a massive concrete "gateway" to the building's courtyard, was gleefully called the "Soap dish and Towel Bar".

The Da Vinci Code

I was reminded of all of these buildings recently when I went to see The Da Vinci Code. An important part of the movie takes place at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The Louvre Pyramid, a major addition to the museum finished in 1989, is now probably I.M. Pei's most famous work. The movie shows it clearly, almost lovingly caressing it with the camera.

In jarring contrast with the surrounding buildings, the angular glass and steel structure rises out of the middle of the courtyard like a phoenix, golden and shining. [Images
1, 2, 3]

I went there years ago, shortly after it opened. I still remember the feeling of light and space I got standing in the underground level with the sunlight streaming down through the glass ceiling.

Many people hate the Pyramid, considering it the equivalent of a pimple on the nose of the beautiful Louvre. And yet, given that the Louvre needed an expansion, how would you do it? Try your best to match the existing buildings, with their old-fashioned, expensive, and labor-intensive building techniques? Knowing that the best you would ever be able to do would be something mediocre bandaged onto the old buildings? Or would you really go for it, making a bold strike to create something dramatic and unique? Something that balances and contrasts the ancient with the modern, the opaque with the transparent, and the decoratively-curved with the clean and angular? The contrasts go on and on, and it's clear that I.M. Pei took the bolder course.

I find much of Pei's work boldly ugly. The John F. Kennedy Library, for example, is a boldly-designed but dreary set of concrete blocks and glass. And finding out after-the-fact that the Raffles City project in Singapore is one of his designs explained to me why I disliked that place.

But the Louvre Pyramid? Ah, that I like.


MIT has a wealth of avante-garde buildings by famous architects, as well as a large art collection. They even provide a walking tour map to see these.

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