Wednesday, July 6, 2022 Jul 6, 2022
102° F Dallas, TX


A marriage of design and acoustics.
By George Rodrigue |

I.M. PEI speaks in a very soft voice, particularly when talking about himself. But every member of the Dallas concert hall committee could hear him when he told them why he wanted to design the city’s new symphony hall. “I have never designed a concert hall,” he told them, “but before I die, I want to build a great one.”

Stanley Marcus, who had convinced Pei to make a pitch for the job, was especially pleased by Pei’s pledge to design and oversee the project himself. “Some of the big-name architects will do the concept work on a project and then you won’t see them again until ribbon-cutting day,” Marcus says. “Pei impressed the committee that he really wanted the job and would devote his own time to the job.”

There were other reasons to favor Pei over the eight other serious contenders. He knew Dallas, having only recently finished the city hall. He had astonished the arts world with his daring design for the East Wing of Washington’s National Gallery of Art. That talent for capturing the public’s imagination would be essential, since local voters would be asked to approve $28.6 million in public bonds for the project.

And Pei exuded the diplomacy and geniality necessary for an endeavor involving so much collaboration. The project ar-chitect would work cheek-by-jowl with the sound expert that the committee chose to design a hall with world-class acoustics. “Historically, the relationship between architects and acousticians has been a bloody one, and we were very concerned that we would not be the battlefield on which that fight would be fought,” Marcus recalls.

Plus, Pei was a devotee of classical music. (“Mozart, Beethoven and Bach are my favorites. I am very old-fashioned. Not at all imaginative.”) He had visited many of the world’s great concert halls and had studied the site of Dallas’ proposed hall at Flora and Crockett streets just inside Woodall Rodgers Freeway. He echoed the symphony committee’s own thoughts: Many concert halls are unspeakably boring, and the Dallas site should be more than a box where a few people hear old music. It should capture and spread the spirit of cultural life in Dallas.

It was around New Year’s Day 1981 when Symphony Executive Director Leonard Stone called to tell Pei he had the job. “Oh my,” said Pei, “what a perfect way to begin the new year.”

But the slightly built 64-year-old architect had a few projects to polish off before he could throw himself into the concert hall design. There was a 300-room hotel in Peking, the capital of his native China. There was the huge new $375 million convention center in his adopted home, New York City. And there were the plane trips to and from his projects throughout the world. “I.M. has become very good at working on airplane trips,” says Charles Young, one of his associates. But Pei began ruminating concert hall possibilities as soon as he got the job offer from Dallas.

From visiting the site in the city’s emerging Arts District, he knew that he had a few problems. The new Museum of Fine Arts was being built at the west end of the district, facing east. His concert hall would be in the center of the district, a full two blocks from the museum. It should have some sort of architectural dialogue with the museum. It also should take note of the fact that it was merely five blocks from the RepublicBank tower and Pei’s One Dallas Centre and the rest of downtown. But because its site was so small-a mere acre or so-the hall could barely be squeezed onto the property. Worse, it would have to face south, toward downtown, instead of west, toward the mu-seum. He would need almost twice as much land as the symphony owned if he were to do the job right. (The Borden Company, at Mayor Jack Evans’ request, donated the extra land.)

Pei thought of the function of the building and noted a few other problems. (“Form follows function,” Walter Gropius had taught him at Harvard’s graduate architecture school. Pei never totally agreed, but he never rejected the credo, either.) The purpose of the hall, stated simply, was to enhance the sound of the orchestra and to bar the noise of traffic, jackhammers and Love Field jets. The form best suited to that purpose was a huge shoe box. Cold. Boring. Intimidating. Ugh.

The Beaux Arts architects, those elegant classicists with their love of ornamentation, would, most likely, have turned that box into a Greek temple-put columns around it, plus pediments on top. Gropius, Mies van der Rohe or a modern day die-hard adherent to the most Calvinistic glass-and-steel modernist beliefs might well have built a giant, unadorned shoe box. Pei, a second-generation modernist, could do neither. (“I don’t want to wrap a blank box around a blank box. That doesn’t make sense, does it?”)

To Pei, the concert hall was more than a music box.

Great architecture had to serve a building’s function and express its spirit. Anything less is mere craftsmanship or “space-planning.” Europe’s great cathedrals are among Pei’s most-beloved buildings because “they were an embodiment of the times,” an architectural effort “that would get its very strength from that [fervent religious] faith, and result in a building like the Chartres Cathedral… that would be impossible for us to reproduce today.”

The concert hall would have to capture the proper spirit: a public spirit that would be open, inviting and thrilling. “I want to convince non-music lovers to love music, and the first step has got to be getting them intrigued about coming in [to the symphony hall],” he says.

He spent, on and off, a year or so examining other halls, discussing technicalities and philosophizing with his associates. “When I had enough raw data in hand, then I began to dream. At that point in time, it was a fairly lonely affair. I can’t work with other people on this one.” When he is working on concepts, Pei tries to carve out a week or two of time that he can devote to nothing but the project at hand. “If you are not completely occupied [with the subject], you should not be working on it,” he says.

But Pei is a very busy man, with projects all over the world. During the weeks this article was researched, he had roughly three hours of spare time-on an airplane flying from Dallas to New York. After that, he was off to Rome and London. Even in his midtown Manhattan office, which is decorated in austere architectural white (the names of the “executives” are printed in raised white letters on a white background), it is hard for Pei to win the privacy necessary for intense concentration. “l.M. is far too popular to get away with shutting himself up in his office for two weeks,” says Charles Young, who is part of Pei’s design team for the concert hall.

So, to the undoubted dismay of Eileen, his wife of 40 years, Pei decided to dream up the Dallas design while on a winter vacation in the Caribbean. His tools were portable: pencils, scratch paper and the mental capacity to envision an entire building in three dimensions and to move its parts around until everything fit. “An architect deals with form and space on such a huge scale that there is no way to do it drawing; you have to conceptualize it,” he says.

The concept that Pei brought back from his vacation has become, with minor refinements, the final appearance of the Dallas Symphony Hall’s exterior. (Details of the interior have not been settled, depending as they do on the complex interaction of acoustics, finances and design.)

And, while the building resembles nothing else among his 50-odd major projects, it is, in a sense, vintage I.M. Pei.

Consider Ieoh Ming Pei himself. He is a lean, quiet, orderly man who chooses his words carefully. His dark, tailored suits carry only the subtlest patterns in their fabric. He is cordial, but reserved. He looks much like a banker, save for his round-rimmed glasses, obligatory among distinguished architects and a trademark of one of his early idols, Le Corbusier.

Now consider his buildings.

The Dallas City Hall, for instance, he designed to project the feelings of Dallas-ites toward city government. Pei gave it a strong, solid presence, with sharp angles and massive pillars. It has a distinct face (“All buildings have faces, like a man”), thanks to its sharply angled facade, which faces the downtown skyscrapers but stretches horizontally, while the business district rises vertically. “There is a dialogue between government and business, and that is what Dallas is all about, eh? There we are facing each other, hopefully in a very friendly relationship, but different.” Form and space convey the message. Says Pei: “1 don’t believe in elaborating an idea. If I can speak an idea in a short sentence, I don’t want to use several paragraphs.”

The East Wing of Washington’s National Gallery of Art is, in a sense, the precursor to the concert hall. Pei was faced with tight site restrictions in Washington that precluded a rectangular building, and he wanted to convey a spirit of ceremony and excitement. So he designed a triangular floor plan that fit the site and enlivened the building’s interior. The gallery was an instant hit; about four feet above ground level at the corner nearest the main entrance, its gray marble exterior bears a broad, shallow indentation from the touch of hundreds of thousands of curious hands.

Not all of Pei’s creations have been sensationally successful. His 60-story John Hancock Tower in Boston made national headlines in the late Sixties, but only because its double-paned windows mysteriously popped out of their frames, forcing surrounding sidewalks to be closed or covered as defense against the shrapnel (a switch to single-pane glass solved the problem). In the mid-Fifties he designed a tower for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that, although striking, included a design error that turned its ground floor into a wind tunnel.

On the whole, however, he has created happy fusions of great architecture and good business. Corporate clients, with whom he is a favorite, know that his buildings will be interesting, but not outrageous. While some of his contemporaries may be turning toward a more whimsical, tongue-in-cheek form of architecture – Philip Johnson’s Chippendale AT&T building in New York is an obvious example-Pei still believes that “architecture is serious business.” A bad building, unlike a sculpture or painting, cannot be thrown in a closet and forgotten. “Sooner or later, we have to be able to take liberties with discipline, but I would never lose discipline,” Pei says. “Many post-modernists want to break away from the tradition [of discipline] and say ’let’s have fun.’ And [their buildings].. .become stage sets.”

Pei himself cannot credit any particular aspect of his background for his sense of order and discipline. Part of it – he would say a small part-may be his Chinese heritage.

He was born in Canton, China, in 1917. He decided to become an architect at the age of 16; as a boy he spent his spare time watching the construction of the 26-story Park Hotel in Shanghai. His father, a distinguished banker with many British friends, wanted I.M. to attend college in England. Pei chose the United States instead, arriving in 1935 to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. But he was intimidated by the heavily Beaux Arts emphasis at Penn-“my background was very technical. Science, mathematics… I was told that if you wanted to be an architect you had to be something of an artist”-and chose instead to study architectural engineering at MIT. He might have become an engineer had the architecture school dean not told him, “Look here, you were born in China, brought up in China, I don’t care [about your training], you are an artist.” Pei laughs at the recollection -“It was his New England prejudice showing”-but the advice steered him into architecture.

Though Pei notes that his architectural training is Western, he adds that the Chinese tradition stresses “relationships between people, not only within the family but within society.” That background may have given him a conceptual advantage, he thinks. “Nowadays, the important thing about buildings is how they relate to the people using them.”

After his graduation in 1940, Pei entered the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. In 1942, he married Eileen Loo, a Chinese student freshly graduated from Wellesley College. World War II interrupted his studies and, rejected by the armed forces because of his citizenship and poor eyesight, he went to work for the National Defense Research Committee. The intelligence service thought that anyone who designed buildings should be an expert on blowing them up. Pei’s job was to advise the Army Air Force on whether its bombs would be most effective if exploded at roof, floor or basement level. “I became quite a fusing expert,” he says. “I hated the work, but I am glad that I did it because I felt that it was something that I had to do.”

After the war, Pei returned to teach at Harvard, where he received his master’s degree in 1946. His work there, with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, set his basic design themes. “At MIT, the school was just trying to break away from Beaux Arts to something else, but they were not sure what that something else was,” Pei says. “When I went to Harvard, Gropius [a refugee from Germany’s Bauhaus school] knew exactly what that alternative was. At the time, I didn’t agree with him on everything, but I needed a very strong point of view about an alternative, and that’s what Gropius gave me.”

In 1948 the legendary developer William Zeckendorf hired Pei to create and direct a staff of architects for his firm, Webb & Knapp. It was a unique opportunity, and it allowed him to cultivate the ability to create first-class buildings within the budget of a speculative real estate development, a talent much prized among potential clients. Pei stayed with Zeckendorf until 1960, when he took many of his most talented associates with him and set up his own firm. “From Zeckendorf I learned a lot about the relationships between building and site, site and city,” Pei says. “An architect looks at a site’s measurements-is it flat or sloping? Does it have trees or not? A real estate man doesn’t look at it that way at all. What part of town is it in? Where is the subway station? Who are my neighbors? If I drive a car, how do I get there? When I look at a piece of land, I remember Zeckendorf.”

Many who joined Pei after he left Zeckendorf have stayed with him since-which makes Pei’s firm one of the most stable in the annals of architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, littered his career with castoff partners and associates. Pei’s colleagues, numbering 250 nowadays, joke among themselves that there is nowhere to go but down. They also say that while Pei helps conceive virtually all the firm’s buildings, he is willing to give his colleagues ample responsibility. And they say he is easy to work for. “Our only problem is we need more people around here like him,” says Young.

As Pei’s practice matured, he devoted more time to what he calls “the world of ideas” than to the comparatively mundane work of throwing together office buildings. He decided to spend more time on public buildings. In New York, he is at work on his first convention center and his first hospital. “I got that job for the same reason they gave me the assignment in Dallas,” he says. “Because I was determined [to do a hospital]. Why? Because it affects the human condition. I am not happy going to the hospital. I dread going to one. And why should a hospital be so forbidding?”

But Pei says the Dallas concert hall is the building he most wants to see completed, because it is “technically a step beyond the National Gallery.”

If the voters approve construction funds, the concert hall’s rectangular shoe box will be surrounded on three sides by a curtain of glass. Atop each of those 35-foot high curtains will be a skylight. The “public face” of the building will be wide open to any pedestrians or motorists in the Arts District. And that face will smile on both the art museum (which will be visible from a glass-walled restaurant inside the lobby of the hall, overlooking a plaza) and the Crockett Street connection to Ross Avenue, at which the hall’s ceremonial entrance will be located. The glass walls create an arresting contrast to the blank concrete mass of the hall itself, but they do more than that. In Pei’s words, “they make the public aspect of the building… explode.”

“I want that place to be full of life,” Pei says. “Animated with movement of people. When you see people, you are attracted.” In the daytime, the glass will bring light into the hall; at night, people “feeling the glow from the hall” should say: ” ’Gee, I want to go there. That looks exciting.’ “

Once people get into the concert hall, Pei will give them something worthwhile to do, even between performances. “I have argued to put a restaurant in there for the public to go to,” he says. “We still don’t have the money for it, but we will have a restaurant. I argue for a music store and for a music gallery, so that children can learn about music.”

But the most exciting aspect of the building, to Pei, is the technical step of making the walls and skylights, together, seem like a spherical enclosure. Most buildings, he says, are constructed on grids with two parallel sets of lines. “They, therefore, have only two vanishing points. A triangle [such as the National Gallery] has three. The more vanishing points you have, the more lively the space is…especially as you get out and move around in it.” A sphere would have an infinite number of vanishing points. “When you have that three-dimensional curvature, theoretically-I have not been able to prove it yet-the internal space is going to be very exciting, even if you don’t use a lot of color or those other things you normally use to decorate.”

Stanley Marcus, who also is eager to see the building constructed, thinks the effect will be apparent to the hall’s visitors. “I think,” he says, “that this will be one of the most photographed buildings in America.”