When 70-year-old Pei was commissioned to design the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he didn’t know much about the music except that his children had played it too loud. Ahmet Ertegen, head of Atlantic Records, and Jann Wener, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, took Pei on an immersive tour of Rock & Roll’s beginnings, starting in New Orleans, Louisiana, and continuing on to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. Just as Pei had explored China’s cultural roots for Fragrant Hill Hotel, he now sought the essence of Rock & Roll. To him, it was all about movement, rhythm, and explosive energy.
By 1987, Pei knew a lot about museums, but this one was different. He saw the challenge as designing a museum for people who may have never visited one. So, beyond the exhibits, he wanted the building to have its own interest. Movement was always an important aspect of Pei’s approach to design, but here, as never before, the color and activity of people on highly-visible escalators and stairs going from one space to the next, inside and out, became the focus of the design. Also different from most other museums, which are typically limited to daytime activity, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, glows from within (like the Louvre pyramid) to achieve a theatrical nighttime presence.
In plan and elevation, squares, rectangles, triangles, and circles are juxtaposed to combine diverse functions in a unified whole. Like an explosive musical chord, the building’s sculptural components reverberate out from center: a 175-seat auditorium cantilevers 65 feet over Lake Erie, balanced asymmetrically on the other side by a ramped theater-in-the round supported on a single column in the lake. Anchoring the building is a 165-foot-high tower that also rises from the water. It engages a triangular glass “tent” (not a pyramid, but an inclined glass wall) designed to put interior activities on display from the museum’s sprawling outdoor plaza. The plaza is actually the roof of the main exhibition space, which is located underground to take full advantage of the sloped site as it steps down to the water’s edge. Inside, the tent is supported by large tubular bow trusses – very different than the finely detailed connections at the Louvre. Impacted by a very restricted budget, the structural system was scaled for heavier use in industrial reference to Cleveland’s location in the “steel belt” of the United States. From the lower exhibition level, visitors proceed upward to various programmed spaces on floors that become progressively smaller. After climbing a stairway that projects dramatically into the main space, they arrive at the apex Hall of Fame. Far from the spectacle of the jostling crowds below, this space is quiet and reverential in honor of Hall of Fame inductees, whose signatures are laser-etched onto the backlit glass walls of the 30-foot-high black-box room.
Pei designed the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum while involved in Meyerson Symphony Center at the opposite/high end of the music spectrum. For as much as the project might seem an anomaly – not least in commissioning the master architect of high culture for a raw, young, rebellious cause that was by definition anti-establishment – it shares in the legacy of Pei’s full body of work in its pure geometry, dramatic play of lights and shadows, solids and voids, transparency and opacity. Architecture and engineering combine in the clear expression of structure; complex uses were distilled into simplified forms, and historical roots were explored. Like many of Pei’s other high-profile museums, the project maximizes underground space to permit the creation of a sculptural icon on the ground, providing a public landmark and engaging paths of movement. More than any other architect, Pei transformed museum-going from the privileged refuge of art connoisseurs into dynamic and inclusive centers of popular culture. Hardly least, and benefitting from his deep urban planning experience, the museum was an important catalyst in the revitalization of Lake Erie’s North Shore. Making a contribution to Cleveland was significant for Pei as it assuaged, to some degree, the rejection of his urban renewal proposal for the Erieview center-city development some 30 years earlier.
In 1997, the completed Rock & Roll project was honored by an Award for Innovative Design and Excellence in Architecture Using Structural Steel, conferred by the American Institute of Architects/American Institute of Steel Construction, followed in 1998, by an Engineering Excellence Award from the New York Association of Consulting Engineers. It was one of nearly a dozen buildings on which Pei collaborated with structural engineer Leslie Robertson.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; Jennifer Sage, Design Architect
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners