visitors to approach through intense shadow below a
heavy cube to reach the entrance before encountering
the illuminated artwork – a gesture which shows
vestiges of Pei’s approach at the Everson Museum.
The East Building of the National Gallery of Art
(Washington, 1978) marked an essential shift towards
transparency in Pei’s museum design language. This
was the moment that he introduced glass pyramids
for the first time. The seven small, scattered crystal
skylights on the plaza harvest natural light for the
underground concourse linking the East and West
Buildings. Originally Pei designed a brutalist concrete
ceiling for the central atrium similar to his previous
museums, but studies revealed that this created a
depressing atmosphere in the monumental space.
As a result, the ceiling was opened to daylight with a
triangular space frame system spanning the atrium,
including tubular bars to reduce the glare. The
distinctive new patterns etched by the sun brought a
pleasant counterpoint to the uniform atrium surfaces.
Before his breakthrough with the Louvre entrance, Pei
also used the glass pyramid motif on two commercial
buildings. At the IBM Somer Office Complex (1984) he
welcomed the company’s clients with a large elevated
glass pyramid between two triangular buildings. Due
to the reflective glass coating, the mirror image of the
sky overpowers the effect of transparency, obscuring
any inside view and leaving a monumental impression.
In contrast, the octagonal pyramid at the entrance
pavilion of the IBM Headquarters (Armonk, 1985) is
located at the front of the main building, but in this
project it appears more like the roof of a two-storey
pavilion than an iconic, grandiose form.
By copying the 51-degree angle of the Great Pyramid at
Giza, Pei reproduced a famous icon and symbolically
reinforced the Grand Louvre’s pursuit of high culture.
At the same time he modernised the antique symbol
with transparent glass. Providing a counterpoint to
the iconic main pyramid, Pei also added an inverse
pyramid and surrounded them with grass and water,
intensifying the Egyptian metaphors of life and death.
However, from a functional point of view, Pei sought
a solution in which he could create an optically
minimal volume in the main courtyard for the new
entrance, respecting the existing buildings. During
Pei’s La Pyramide Inversée, a skylight constructed in the Carrousel
du Louvre shopping mall, was part of the Phase II government
renovation of the Louvre completed in 1993