Kevin Harber

There’s no way to anticipate the capaciousness of the National Gallery of Art East Building—the sense of expansion you’ll feel once you take your first steps past the low-ceilinged security checkpoint and into the central atrium. Architects have been employing this effect—leading people from a compressed space into an expansively open one—for centuries, but in the context of the multilevel galleries in I.M. Pei’s 1978 jewel box, it feels new.

The East Building may be one of the most controversial museum buildings in America for its prioritization of form over function. While the atrium’s high ceilings foster a sense of grandeur, detractors of the museum’s design have pointed out that Pei left comparatively little space for the actual display of art, and that the space he did leave was disjointed and lacked a cohesive flow—a problem that the National Gallery addressed during a 2016 renovation.

It’s hard to downplay the East Building’s visual impact on the National Mall. Its north-facing side rises above its surroundings like the prow of a ship, its organizing visual theme of triangles echoed and repeated in every dimension. The Tennessee quarries that supplied the marble for the West Building were reopened to clad the newer addition, making for an aesthetic congruence between the sister structures.

More than anything, the design of the East Building is about a feeling—an embodiment of democratic concepts and Americans’ relationship to their capital city and government, certainly, but more than that the pure tactile joy of being in a place that feels as though it exists outside of time. “Like all successful buildings designed for public use, it is truly complete only when thronged with others like us, who, by entering, embark on a personal voyage of discovery,” writes Richard B. K. McLanathan in his 1978 book East Building, National Gallery of Art: A Profile.

The East Building houses modern and contemporary art, progressing from Picasso and Matisse in the early 1900s all the way to contemporary pop art. When visitors enter the atrium, they are greeted by the largest mobile ever crafted by renowned 20th-century American artist Alexander Calder. The farthest-facing wall is defined by Color Panels for a Large Wall, a 1978 work by American artist Ellsworth Kelly. This expansive central space feels like a deep breath, a cathedral that absorbs sound and stays hushed no matter how many people occupy it at a given time.

The design of the East Building was no easy feat for Pei, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, who at that point in his career had already designed the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and Dallas City Hall. His structure had to work in unity with the John Russell Pope–designed West Building, built between 1937 and 1941, and it also had to fit on the irregularly shaped, trapezoidal site that had been designated for that purpose in 1937, when the National Gallery was established.

Programmatically, the new building had two different functions: a museum for large traveling exhibitions and events, and a study center/office facility. Pei himself talked about the building’s intended purpose as a “very important center for social and artistic life in Washington”—a tall order if there ever was one. Pei envisioned three flexible towers located around the central atrium designed to permit the exhibition of one large show, or several small shows, with the sense of intimacy of a much smaller museum.

The East Building was dedicated on June 1, 1978, by President Jimmy Carter and Paul Mellon, son of Andrew Mellon, the philanthropist who founded the National Gallery by donating his own art collection. By the time the museum’s original iteration reached its 25th anniversary, in 1966, most of its original galleries had been filled. In the following year, Mellon’s children, Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce, offered funds for a second building to relieve some of the space constraints. The building’s open, airy design was heavily influenced by then–National Gallery of Art director J. Carter Brown’s fear of the anxiety felt by museum visitors when confronted with an overabundance of art.

Construction started in 1971, and seven years later the new wing opened to the public. Calder and Henry Moore, among other American artists, were commissioned to create original works. “The East Building inspired museums around the world to commission architectural projects that also sometimes competed with the art they were created to display,” The New York Times noted in its 2002 obituary of Brown.

As it entered the second decade of the 21st century, however, the National Gallery took steps to address this issue. On Sept. 30, 2016, the East Building reopened after a three-year, $69 million expansion financed by federal funding and private donations that added 12,250 square feet of new spaces for art, including a roof terrace specifically designated for sculpture and new pathways through the building. Pei recommended a former colleague, Perry Y. Chin, to create the designs for the expansion.

The permanent collection now begins on the mezzanine level, which formerly housed special exhibitions, allowing the collection to be presented in chronological order. Finally, it seemed, the museum would become a place that prioritized experiencing art from close range, rather than from a distance.

The AIA recognized the East Building, and Pei’s architectural contributions, with an Honor Award in 1981 and a Twenty-Five Year Award in 2004—the latter for passing “the test of time.” That has to do with timelessness, but it also has to do with timeliness in the case of Pei’s addition, which is to say that Pei’s addition, through its expansion, continues to participate in contemporary debates about art, its display, and its experience.