In 1993, shipping magnate Basil Goulandris and his wife Elise asked I.M. Pei, a friend of nearly 30 years, to design a museum for their world-class collection of Impressionist and early 20th-century art. It was the kind of project Pei relished after retiring from his firm in 1990, happy for the opportunity to be personally involved in the design of a small building, after decades of running a large architectural office.
The 200,000-square-foot museum (2 stories above ground, 2 below) was to be located in the center of Athens on land donated by the government. Pei drew inspiration primarily from Greek orthodox churches. He was interested in their interior geometric progression from square to circle on pendentives, transitioning upward on the exterior from one cubic form to the next in a play of light and shadow. (A decade later, Pei would explore similar massing for the Museum of Islamic Art.) Equally engaging were local methods of filtering day-long, sometimes harsh Mediterranean sunlight. Pei’s interpretation involved a unique skylight system in which an interior grid of thinly cut alabaster, protected by an exterior glass skin, would bathe the museum’s 80-foot-high central reception hall in dramatic angled planes of glowing light. Impressionist paintings on the second floor would benefit from natural light, bounced into the galleries by a sophisticated skylight system, informed by Pei’s recent solutions at the Louvre.
With a nod at the entrance to archaic Mycenean architecture (post and lintel construction with a weight-relieving triangular arch above), Pei was strongly influenced by the ancient architecture that was Athens’ glory – but not in literal terms. Instead, he was impressed by the simplicity of classical temples and agoras, and especially by their role in daily life. He envisioned the small, specialized museum as more than just a place to exhibit art, but as an active community center serving the larger public. He therefore equipped it and the adjacent 4-story building with a 360-seat auditorium, restaurant, children’s exploration center, winter garden, library, conservation center, and administrative offices. The glazed back of the museum opens onto a fountain garden planted with fruit trees and an allée of cypress trees.
The project was not completed due to political, bureaucratic, and archaeological problems that dragged on for years. It was abandoned in 1997, after excavations on the site unearthed the ruins of the Lyceum, where Aristotle had taught his students.
Team: I.M. Pei, Design Principal; Peter Aaron, Project Architect
I.M. Pei, Architect