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


September 04, 1995|By Edward Gunts

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."

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