I.M. Pei — Design That Endures

National Gallery of Art atrium

photo ©John Siebenthaler

The National Gallery of Art East Wing

News of architect I.M. Pei’s passing this week at the age of 102 touched off memories of my early years spent as a commercial photographer shooting everything from rock bands to cookie-cutter real estate housing developments to a nightmarish oxy-acetylene catalytic torch that could melt concrete. One of those adventures included two days in Washington, D.C., for an assignment at the then still new National Gallery of Art East Wing.

Though usually associated with his unconventional Egyptian pyramid inspired design solution at the Louvre, my path crossed his for a very brief moment the time I photographed his landmark atrium, with its signature Calder mobile floating lazily overhead while my client’s grove of ficus trees softened the sharp angularity of the structure’s beautifully polished marble surfaces, in the nation’s capitol.

If It’s Thursday It Must Be Washington

National Gallery of Art East WingThe gallery shoot was part of an extended romp around the heartland, with previous stops on the road that week in Wichita, Milwaukee, and the still under construction Minneapolis Zoo. It was the last leg of an exhausting schedule, which perhaps explains why I failed to take advantage of the unique access I was granted to this memorable national landmark.

Not that I’d ever be described as being a student of architecture’s role in modern culture today, but my knowledge back then of recognizable firms pretty much started and stopped with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

And that’s how I landed right in the middle of this most celebrated structure, with relatively unfettered access to its rooms and galleries housing priceless exhibits, all kept safe and secure within the walls of Mr. Pei’s amazing achievement.

A few weeks after wrapping up the assignment — back when the results from analog taking to viewing were measured in days waiting for lab processing rather than digital seconds — I began editing the dozens of rolls of film shot, and picked out two Kodachromes for Cibachrome prints to send to Mr. Pei on behalf of the client. Ha! As if he didn’t already have access to gorgeous photography from the best in the business. Normally, that kind of small effort might go unremarked, or at best acknowledged by a low level assistant.

When Courtesy And Correspondence Was Still Vogue

Instead, I.M. Pei, one of the world’s most celebrated architects, took time to compose a most thoughtful personal note thanking me for the effort. I’m glad I hung on to it over the years, and even more relieved I was able to retrieve it for inclusion in this remembrance of the time I brushed up against architectural royalty.

I.M. Pei personal note

I never met him. Didn’t know anything about him prior to that assignment. But for a brief moment in time I was immersed in the physical and spatial experience he wanted me to enjoy.

It’s clear from reading the tributes to his singular talent that his genius was tempered with humility and a common connection to the public that would, and will, enjoy his inspired vision for decades and more to come. I wish I’d had the opportunity to offer him personally my gratitude for his talent.