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Pei explains architecture of Weisner Building

"It is the smallest, but most challenging and most interesting building I worked on at MIT": with those words, the architect I. M. Pei '40 began his brief speech on the architecture of the new Wiesner Building last Wednesday. Yet, he said of the experience, "I wouldn't want to repeat it too many times."

Pei obviously spoke with authority, for his building record at MIT is unrivalled among living architects. With the Landau Chemical Engineering Building, the Dreyfus Chemistry Building and the Green Center for the Earth Sciences to his credit, he has now created a fourth major contribution to the MIT Campus.

This last work differs markedly from the others, though, as anyone who has even glimpsed at it can attest. Pei explained this as follows: Whereas there was a clear architectural tradition to follow in the development of the McDermott Court area (where the Green Building now stands), such guidance was lacking in the present case. The pre-existing structures nearby were widely different among each other. Instead of searching for an ephemeral common thread, he chose the more radical solution of adding something entirely new -- his hope being that "by being different, maybe this building might pull the other ones together."

The Wiesner Building is also unique in the process of its making: it is a collaborative effort of an architect and three artists. Kenneth Noland made the panels and colored bars on the outside and in the atrium, Scott Burton designed the public seating, the stairwell and the balustrades, and Richard Fleischner did the place between the building and its neighbors.

Pei described the constraints of this approach: An architect is accustomed to collaborating with contractors, builders and government officials, but not to changing his plans in the middle of the building process; an artist, on the other hand, is used to keeping his work open to change to the last minute, but not to having to collaborate with others.

In summary, Pei told that he did not consider the Wiesner Building a major architectural statement. Rather, he said, "it is a space-making object": it creates spaces in which exciting activities can take place. He said that making bold statements is not always appropriate; referring to the make-up of Paris, he argued that extraordinary architecture should be saved for truly special occasions. "There is a (specific) time and place for creating exciting buildings; but there is always a time and place for creating civilized spaces to improve the quality of life."

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