I.M. Pei designed a new headquarters for Asia House at a prime location in midtown Manhattan, on the corner of Park Avenue and East 64th Street. The new building was to replace the Central Presbyterian Church, whose dwindling congregation wanted to relocate and use proceeds from the sale to further its ministry. Pei’s building would stand adjacent to Asia Society’s existing headquarters on East 64th Street, a 7-story dark glass and steel International Style townhouse designed by Philip Johnson in 1959. The two buildings together would have made for an instructive study of modern architecture, indeed by two prominent practitioners who spent decades sparring in nip and tuck competition.
At ground level, Pei’s building reinforces Park Avenue’s strong urban corridor with a walled outdoor garden. Beyond is a great glass pavilion that opens the building to a raised multi-level atrium carved from its core. Daring at the time, the idea of a glass box would be realized several years later for the Kennedy Library, although here it is envisioned in especially minimalistic terms. Inside is classic Pei in the play of indoors and out, sculptural solids and voids, built form and nature in harmonious balance, and an experiential procession that beckons one deeper into a space that is not immediately revealed as a whole. (Pei would explore radial geometries more fully at Meyerson Symphony Center and Creative Artists Agency.) The atrium is both a monumental reception hall and exhibition space for the $10 million collection of Asian art that John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society’s founder, donated in early 1974 together with funds for a new building to house it. The 120,000-square-foot headquarters provided a range of permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, offices, a library, research spaces, and meeting rooms.
The New York Times reported Pei’s commission to design Asia House on January 8, 1975, but he subsequently lost the job. Pei wasn’t sure why, allowing only that he might have been thought too expensive. (That does seem to have been the case as Rockefeller objected to the main hall as too grand for a non-profit organization; notwithstanding multiple revisions, Pei failed to win his approval.) The blow was especially painful as Pei had suffered a similar experience several years earlier when he had, but then didn’t have, the commission to design IBM’s landmark tower on East 57th Street. “The loss of those two projects was a great disappointment. I had hoped to do more in New York,” he admitted.
The sale and demolition of the Central Presbyterian Church was blocked by court order in early 1976. Thereafter, Asia House secured a new site six blocks north, at Park Avenue and 70th Street, and commissioned a new building by Edward Larrabee Barnes (ironically, the same architect who succeeded Pei on the IBM tower).
Despite the temporary setback, Pei’s achievements grew ever greater, beginning with the opening of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in 1978, followed in 1979 by receipt of the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, and local balm: the commission to design the Javits Convention Center, New York City’s largest and most sought-after public project in decades. He went on to other high-profile projects, the Louvre chief among them, and nearly a dozen major projects in the Far East. In 2016, Asia Society conferred on Pei, 99, its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; Pershing Wong, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners