I.M. Pei said that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum was a milestone commission. He never declared any project to be his finest work, but the fact that Jacqueline Kennedy chose him over the giants of his time — among them Louis Kahn, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph — announced that the relatively young architect was their peer, and the assignment brought him world acclaim.
The building’s completion coincided with my arrival in Boston, to join The Architects Collaborative, a firm founded by Pei’s friend and mentor Walter Gropius. Like every architect in Boston, I went to see the library as soon as I could. Revisiting the building now, it’s remarkable to recognize how Pei’s ideas have retained their power 40 years later.
With the exception of the John Hancock Tower, designed by his firm partner Henry N. Cobb, Pei’s work in Boston and Cambridge was not focused on commercial development. His buildings express the world of ideas — academic, cultural, and institutional. His most important local work, which includes the JFK Library as well as four buildings at MIT, the west wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, and the master plan for Government Center, symbolize great aspirations as they encourage intellectual, civic, and creative pursuits.
Pei, who died last week at 102, was truly the architect as artist — he is best known by the public for buildings that are objects unto themselves. Pei’s buildings are works of art, and it’s no accident that the JFK Library, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and other Pei masterpieces are bold statements in form, framed by great open public spaces.
And yet, Pei was not simply a monument maker. His buildings at MIT are part of a context, resolving complex campus geometries. MIT deliberately thought of buildings as facilities that would be repurposed according to the advancement of engineering and science. The historic core of the campus has a regular planning module — it’s classical but really quite utilitarian, with buildings designed to adapt as technology evolved. Starting with the Green Building in 1964, Pei broke all those rules. It’s a tall building with a small footprint that serves as a counterpoint to the neoclassical Great Dome of Building 10. It anchors a large public space. He created three more distinctive buildings at MIT over the next 20 years, and his architecture is a conceptual gateway to the Kendall Square innovation district that has grown up around MIT since the 1980s.
The JFK Library perfectly expresses Pei’s fascination with geometry and his agility with geometric forms, as well as his mastery of different materials. It is a mesmerizing juxtaposition of curves, angles, triangles and squares. It is simple, direct, unabashedly modern, clean, crisp — and still it manages to articulate a very human story.
Taking advantage of the harbor, Pei displayed JFK’s relationship to the water and his love of sailing. He leveraged the position of Columbia Point to view both the Boston waterfront and the sea. Bear in mind that when Pei designed the library the skyline was completely different from today, and Boston’s waterfront was filled with abandoned warehouses and wharves. Pei imagined how Boston would mature architecturally and culturally into the 21st century.
From the moment you enter, a distinct narrative unfolds. You move through an entry area that is relatively low-ceilinged and confined, and then the big space opens up before you. It seems to get even bigger as you enter the atrium and witness the harbor and skyline through the tinted glass wall. Pei used form, geometry, space and placement to tell a story about JFK’s home, his love of symbol and, frankly, the power that he possessed as president. In his manipulation of scale and the sequence by which you encounter the building, Pei lets you in on JFK’s human story and his legacy. The enormous flag hanging in the atrium is part of the architectural plan, and one brilliant touch is that it is virtually invisible from the outside on a bright day, but in very dark weather or at night it appears to float within its glass container.
The atrium serves a public purpose as well: Pei clearly thought of the library as a gathering space for the city in addition to its practical purpose as archive of JFK’s life and work.
I admire the precision and discipline of all Pei’s work. Nothing is wasted, nothing is extraneous, and every detail remains in service to the big idea. The articulated white triangle of the exhibit and archive wing suggests a sail, and the black cube hints at JFK’s somber end. The word “timeless” is overused, but Pei’s design work defies time and is truly enduring.
I.M. Pei was one of the most important architects worldwide, and he designed as many buildings across Boston and Cambridge as anywhere. That accrues to the global cultural importance of both cities — a palette on which Pei did some of his best work.
David P. Manfredi is CEO and founding principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects.