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I.M. Pei rubbed out

I.M. Pei National Gallery

In the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art the names of those responsible for its construction are etched in stone. Enter now, however, and you’ll see that architect I.M. Pei’s name has been, quite intentionally, rubbed out. The psychics of rubbing down stone aside, could it, perhaps, have something to do with the (estimated) $85-million renovation of the building’s “systemic structural failure?” The National Gallery, which was completed in 1978, has a facade composed of 16,200 panels of pink Tennessee marble, and all of these panels are currently being removed and remounted.

This is the same type of marble used in the West Building, designed by John Russell Pope in 1941. But unlike the West Building, which is constructed from blocks of marble nearly a foot thick, the stone used for the National Gallery is only three inches thick and runs as long as 180 feet to accommodate the buildings angular shape. To handle the stone’s inevitable expansion and contraction, Pei had the veneers mounted with steel clips so they could operate autonomously of the building’s frame. This system, however, didn’t quite work and ever since 2005 the panels have been tilting because the concrete frame to which they are attached has, itself, contracted.

In the short term a fence has been built around the exterior to protect visitors from falling marble, and as we can see from the instant patina on the stone slab in the entrance (this kind of patina takes years to naturally accumulate), one visitor in particular is taking Pei’s failures worse, perhaps, than Pei himself.

(Photo courtesy of The Architect’s Newspaper)