Pei creates another legend Architect gives rock an elegant glass home it has its own Stones


Cleveland -- The glass pyramid is there, in all its monumental glory.

So are the abstract geometrical volumes, with their crisp, clean lines. And the vertigo-inducing stairs and escalators that encourage a steady flow of people inside and out.

The $92 million Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened this weekend on Lake Erie, was built to celebrate an art form that grew to become an international language, America's musical gift to the world.

But it also stands as a tribute to the powerful architectural language of its lead designer, 78-year-old I. M. Pei. If architecture truly is frozen music, then this seven-story creation would be "The Best of I. M. Pei,' an anthology of all his trademark design moves rolled into one career-capping building.

From the spacious terraces that encourage people-watching, to the colorful stabiles suspended beneath the glass tent, to the smart cafe and retail spaces that blend commerce and culture, Cleveland's Rock Hall reprises many of the themes that Mr. Pei has explored in past projects, such as the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington and the Louvre expansion in Paris.

But if this is not his most original project, it is masterful enough to achieve the two principle objectives he had at the outset:

First, it gives the Cleveland an instant icon that reflects the rejuvenation of its waterfront and downtown business district. Its signature shape, which has been likened to a record player with a stack of 45s on the spindle, will symbolize the "Cleveland Comeback" in much the same way the Sydney Opera House and the Seattle Space Needle stand for the vitality of their respective cities.

Second, it provides a world-class institution for a industry that never even had a home. Before last week, Graceland was the nation's most-visited Rock and Roll attraction, with 650,000 visitors a year. Mr. Pei's new shrine to rock and roll is expected to surpass that figure easily, drawing more than 1 million visitors every year. It promises to do for Rock and Roll what Mr. Pei's other museums have done for the visual arts.

Unlikely choice

From a design perspective, the Rock Hall's story is not so much one of a brillant new concept unleashed on the world as it is about the power of architecture to dignify and elevate the culture it enshrines.

In retrospect, the building's success as an emblem for the music industry is largely due to the selection of Mr. Pei, a partner of Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners of New York, and one of America's most celebrated designers. Yet in many ways, Mr. Pei was an unlikely choice for the commission.

Rock and roll, after all, was for years the music of youth, rebellion, counterculture. It challenged the establishment.

With projects such as the John F. Kennedy Library, Dallas City Hall, and a slew of corporate office buildings and campus museums, Mr. Pei was the ultimate establishment architect.

What's more, he knew little about rock and roll when he got the commission. The closest he got to listening, he admits, is when he told his kids to turn down the volume. He prefers Benny Goodman. To a man who spent his childhood in China, Rock and Roll music is "as distant as the stars," he said last week.

But none of that mattered to the sponsors of the museum, a New York based Rock and Roll Foundation. Its co-founders, Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun and Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner, sought him out because of his ability to create exciting spaces, not his taste in music.

"We knew that if any one could approach it with the proper spirit, he could," Mr. Ertegun said during the opening ceremonies last Friday.

Pure Pei

The building that resulted from this collaboration is pure Pei -- a sculptural object as much as a functional building.

Rising on a man-made cove that is like a mini version of Baltimores' Inner Harbor basin, the building consists of a five-story-tall glass tent with the profile of a pyramid, and a seven story concrete tower clad with white metal panels. On either side of the tower are "wings" that jut into space, providing much of the visual interest and tying back into the pyramid.

Inside, the exhibits and public spaces present the world of Rock and Roll through a variety of media -- video, film, photography, sculpture, text and music. There is no required way to go move the building. But after entering the pyramid, most visitors will start at the bottom, where a large underground exhibit hall provides an overview of Rock and Roll and the bulk of the memorabilia. From there, visitors will spend the rest of their journey working their ways toward the top, where the Hall of Fame is reached by a spiraling "stairway to heaven."

Along the way they will be treated to sights and sounds from 40 years of rock and roll, including songs and images guaranteed to bring a flood of memories. Museum staffers and consultants assembled the collection in a scholarly way, as if they were working for an historical society. As a result there is something for everyone, from old-time radios and vintage TV footage to displays containing Michael Jackson's sequined glove and Madonna's bustier.

Some observers have tried to read images into the building's unusual forms. They suggest that the semi-circular entry court is a disc, and the white volumes represent a turntable with a tone arm and stylus. Others see a giant jukebox.

In his self effacing way, Mr. Pei makes clear it wasn't his intention to create a building in the shape of a record player or any other object associated with rock and roll, as Philip Johnson might have done.

He said his buildings are about light and form and space. He said he went on a crash tour of Rock and Roll sites, including Graceland and New Orleans, and attended concerts by Phil Collins and Simon and Garfunkel. Armed with that exposure, he said, he tried to create a building that captures "the energy of the music" and the "passion of youth."

Pros and cons

As beguiling as the Rock Hall may be as a compilation of references to other Pei projects, it is not without its shortcomings.

The space under the glass tent in Cleveland is not nearly as magnificent as the space beneath the larger pyramid at the Louvre. The spatial organization is not as easy to follow as it is at the East Wing of the National Gallery. The upper levels do not take advantage of views nearly as well as the those of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell. And because the floors get progressively smaller the higher one climbs in the building, -- they may also tend to get more crowded.

There are also problems with the way the building fits into the shoreline site, which was selected after the first choice became unavailable. Far from downtown, the building has little parking of its own, and the pedestrian approach is unpleasant to navigate. The setting is not nearly as dramatic for a "foreground building" as Pier 3 is for the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- another seven story, pyramid topped building to which theRock Hall bears more than a little resemblance.

Moreover, from certain angles the composition is clunky and visually out of balance, with the tower appearing too squat and the wings off center. For a building on the waterfront, it does very little to bring people to the water's edge.

Yet for all the shortcomings, there are aspects of the building that more than make up for these shortcomings. The materials are crisp and elgegant, with the white metal skin standing out against the sky. Like all of Mr. Pei's best work, it comes alive most when it's flooded with people and natural light. From

certain angles, it can be amazingly photogenic, especially at night.

Although Mr. Pei didn't try to concoct any literal images the way Philip Johnson might have, his shapes do lend themselves to interpretation by others. There's an intriguing dialogue between the order of the glass tent and the more free-form wings. Is that a metaphor for the difference between hard rock and soft rock, perhaps, or the chasm between top 40 and alternative music?

There are also more than a few nice touches to building, even when they references are back to other Pei cobb freed buildngs. The stabile beneath of the glass tent consists of three cars from a U2 tour, a fitting update of sorts on the Alexander Calder mobile at the National Gallery. The third level dining terrace is a wonderful spot for people watching and planning where to go next.

One of the most memorable spaces is the Hall of Fame, located in a 45-foot-square cube at the building's highest point. The designers didn't want to create a conventional room filled with plaques or busts. So they darkened the chamber and lined the four walls with screens showing computer generated images of the inductees, flickering on and off like apparitions.

Surrounding these images are signatures of the inductees, etched on black glass. The ceiling evokes the night sky. This is one of the few spaces in the building where no music is playing -- a touch that invites contemplation and introspection.

Degree of respectability

The extent of Mr. Pei's influence is perhaps best seen most clearly in the way the building provides a context for viewing the collection, in exhibits designed by Bruce and Susan Burdick of San Francisco.

Many of the objects on display will be familiar to viewers, either because they were part of performers' tours or were sold in association with them. One entire section is devoted to covers of rock "fanzines," such as 16 and Creem and Rolling Stone. It wasn't long ago that many of them were on the newsstands. Now they are displayed behind glass walls like priceless works of art.

What makes the Rock Hall different from any museum, said exhibit designer Bruce Burdick, is that "this is the first museum in which the visitors already own the art." They have the records. They know the words. The task for the museum designer is to enable fans to look at what they have in a different way.

This is where the choice of Mr. Pei paid off most handsomely.

In another setting, displays such as the wall of magazine covers could have come across as trite and meaningless. For that matter, so could the hall of wax-style mannequins displaying costumes such as Gene Simmons garb for Kiss.

But by hiring the same man who designed the National Gallery and the Louvre, and giving him the budget and wherewithal to use the same architectural vacabulary for this project, they gained a building that helps to present their collection in the best possible light.

It was up to the exhibit designers to follow through with meaningful exhibits, and they did. But simply by creating high-quality environments reminiscent of his past work, Mr. Pei has conferred a degree of luster and respectibility to the collection that a lesser architect might not have been able to confer. For an fledgling institution in search of a credible identity, that was more than half the battle.

High art

The design challenge posed by the Rock Hall raises many of the same issues that have been debated over the centuries about art, said Robert Bergman, former director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and now head ot the Cleveland Art Museum.

Throughout history, he said, people have questioned whether certain forms of expression deserve to be put on a pedestal inside a museum. Until the 16th century, for example, western artists traditionally painted only royalty and nobility. When Annibile Carracci painted a butcher in 16th century Bologna, people were shocked. But eventually that style of "genre painting" came to be seen as a legitimate and popular form of art.

In more recent times, people have questioned whether photography is art, or whether Andy Warhol's Brillo Pad boxes to belong in a museum.

"Pushing the envelope as far as what is considered 'acceptable art' is a constant in history," Dr. Bergman said. "What goes into the temple is always changing. If it weren't, life would be wierd. There would be no forward progress."

This ability to push the envelope -- to create a setting in which the artifacts of Rock and Roll can be seen as "high art" rather than "pop art" -- is Mr. Pei's greatest achievement in Cleveland.

Before Mr. Pei began work, no one knew what a Rock and Roll museum was. Now, he and his colleagues have defined it. In the process, they have given their temple an air of respectability that is likely to please long-time rock fans and help win over the skeptics as well, while boosting the prospects for a successful waterfront rejuvenation along Lake Erie..

As one deejay put it, 'Rock and roll is here to stay, thanks to Mister I. M. Pei.' "

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