The Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, known as MUDAM, was the longest project of Pei’s career, stretched out over 17 years due to a rash of problems, mostly political, but including location, building size, budget, access, materials, and sensitive environmental issues related to being in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Progress occurred in spurts, starting and stopping – sometimes for years. The project was also confounded by its timing, as Pei accepted the commission in 1989, a year before he retired from his firm to concentrate on small buildings of personal interest; for various reasons, Pei did not take the job with him, but continued to work on it as a Pei Cobb Freed & Partners project, while engaged in his new independently designed buildings.
MUDAM stands on a prominent parkland site above Luxembourg, at the southwest edge of the Kirchberg plateau; it is located near other European Union institutions, Luxembourg being one of four official capitals of the EU. The museum is built on the ramparts of 18th-century Fort Thüngen, once part of a massive defensive system that made Luxembourg famous as the most fortified city in Europe. The V-shaped museum follows the fort’s arrow-like plan and, indeed, Pei had originally intended the museum to be entered directly from the fort in a fluid passage through history. The idea was accepted but then rejected, causing the entry process to be reversed, with Pei reimagining the back of the museum as the primary approach. Continuity between old and new was achieved visually with large amounts of glass. Because the old foundations were in poor condition, yet needed to be preserved, new foundations were built inside the historic walls. The asymmetrical solution, based on a pure 45-degree geometry, cantilevers part of the museum over the ruins.
As in Everson Museum three decades earlier, MUDAM had no collection to design for, so the program was quite open. Pei anticipated unknown future needs with big high-ceiling galleries for large modern works and more intimate spaces for smaller objects and drawings. The design was approved, then refuted. More straightforward, but no less difficult, was the requirement for a ceremonial space large enough to seat 500 dinner guests and to host official functions in a perfectly controlled climate throughout the year, with no need for coats or even a scarf in the thick of winter. The result is the 141-foot-high column-free Grand Hall. As at the Louvre, this main public space is enclosed with a great glass roof supported by an intricate stainless-steel tension system, precisely engineered like the workings of a watch, with cables spanning nearly 100 feet. Unlike the Louvre, much of the faceted hood is reflective insulated glass for thermal reasons and equipped with tubular metal sunscreens (which also help for acoustical control). Exterior walls and all interior public spaces are clad with honey-colored Magny Doré, the same limestone used at the Louvre. Architectural concrete feature elements are closely matched in color to reinforce the sense of the monumental whole. The interior is animated by changing patterns of light and shadow and different perspectives on grand and spiral stairs into and through the varied spaces. Movement through the museum follows a rich experiential path.
The museum has 30,000+ square feet of exhibition space on three levels. Other major components include a winter garden/cafe, sculpture gallery, auditorium, lounge, administrative offices, conservation and support spaces, and a glass entry bridge that spans over the rampart walls. Pei designed a quasi-independent skylit pavilion, also linked by a glass bridge, as an exhibition venue for the art collection of the Grand Duchess, which, it was hoped, she would bequeath to the new museum. She did not.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Principal; Hitoshi Maehara, Design/Project Architect
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners