I.M. Pei: The Thread Between Cleveland and Paris

3 / 1 / 2022

Life is architecture and architecture is the mirror of life." - I. M. PEI

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Rock Hall), located on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio, often seems familiar to tourists. It's not just the sense of nostalgia regularly brought to visitors while walking through one of the largest physical archives of music memorabilia in the world; it’s the exterior architectural appearance of the dual-triangular-shaped glass “tent" seen at the entrance of the museum. And it’s because you’ve seen it before. In Paris, France at arguably the most iconic museum in the world: The Louvre Museum.

The common thread? The world-renowned architect, I.M. Pei.

In Paris, France.

In 1984, Pei was commissioned by French President François Mitterrand to perform one of the most ambitious projects in modern architectural history: a master renovation of the Louvre. After initial speculation, Pei finally claimed the new construction project was not only possible, but necessary for the future of the museum. In 1989, the “Grand Louvre” was opened to the public and Pei’s glass pyramid entrance quickly solidified itself as the new architectural standard for museums. Pei, the first foreign architect to work on the Louvre, intended the glass pyramid to serve as not only an entrance, but an anteroom skylight which was designed in homage to the geometry of the French landscape architect, André Le Nôtre.

In Cleveland, Ohio.

Simultaneously to the work being done in Paris, Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Record, established the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation with his sights set on creating a museum dedicated to the history of rock music and the artists, producers, engineers and other notable figures who have impacted the genre. After an extensive search process to find the most equipped city, Cleveland, Ohio was chosen in 1986.

After the international ovation Pei received for the Grand Louvre renovation, the architect was chosen to lead the ground-up development of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on the coast of Lake Erie.

For those who weren’t familiar with how deeply rooted rock and roll music was with the city of Cleveland, the decision may have come as a surprise. The term “rock and roll” was coined by Cleveland DJ, Alan Freed. Local Cleveland radio station WMMS was voted the country’s best radio station for nearly a decade in the 70s and 80s, and propelled little-known musicians - at the time - like David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen into international rock stars. The World Series of Rock, hosted at Cleveland Stadium annually from 1974 to 1980, attracted as many as 88,000 fans and headliners like The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and many more. Cleveland and rock and roll were synonymous. And there was no better city to represent the iconic genre of music.

In 1995, the museum was officially dedicated and opened to the public and Pei’s genius was proven yet again. The museum, consisting of over 55,000 square feet of exhibition space, is introduced by its dual-triangular-shaped glass “tent" - showing signs of similarities to that of the Grand Louvre entrance. The pyramid is said to resemble a guitar neck rising upward, and Pei described the building as “open — like the music.”

“In designing this building," Pei said, “it was my intention to echo the energy of rock and roll. I have consciously used an architectural vocabulary that is bold and new, and I hope the building will become a dramatic landmark for the city of Cleveland and for fans of rock and roll around the world."

In 2019 I. M. Pei passed away at the age of 102. Pei’s legacy lives on through his architectural projects that objectively set a new standard for pushing the boundaries of what is constructively possible.

In 2020, the Rock Hall announced a $100 million renovation and expansion plan. One of the top architectural firms in the world, PAU, will lead the project headlined by the addition of a 50,000 square foot programming space. “We wanted to host exhibitions like the Brooklyn Museum’s David Bowie show, but we just didn’t have the space,” Rock Hall CEO Greg Harris said. “We want to give our audiences the giant wow moment that you would expect from a place of our magnitude.” Despite the additions, which will unquestionably increase the already-estimated $200 million annual economic impact to the city of Cleveland, the architectural integrity of Pei’s original structural design will remain.

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