- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

Visitors to the National Gallery of Art’s East Building routinely reach out to touch its sharply sculpted walls, as if to make sure such a visually daring structure really exists.

The pink Tennessee marble may be wearing down from the constant laying on of thousands of hands, but the building itself remains as vital today as it was 25 years ago.

That, apart from its overall design excellence, explains why I.M. Pei & Partners’ creation earned the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) 25 Year Award Wednesday at the American Architectural Foundation’s (AAF) annual dinner.

The Accent on Architecture event, held, most appropriately, at the National Building Museum, drew nearly 1,000 guests who came to honor significant achievements in an often unsung art genre while raising funds for AAF’s education programs.

Even in a structure as impressive as the National Building Museum, the National Gallery’s east wing drew steady praise.

The master of ceremonies, National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel (“All Things Considered”) summed up prevailing opinion when he declared that the structure “was designed to display art, but is in itself a work of art.”

I.M. Pei paid homage to the East Building’s stylistically sympathetic neighbor, the neoclassical, John Russell Pope-designed West Building, before relating to the audience the continuing pleasure he receives from his creation.

“I enjoy visiting to look at the people it attracts,” Mr. Pei said of the disparate group of students, scholars and sightseers who flock to one of the capital’s major tourist magnets.

“Even if you’ve been at [the building] for 25 years, it’s a refreshing experience every day,” said Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, who succeeded the late J. Carter Brown as the gallery’s director in 1992.

Other honors bestowed Wednesday included the Keystone Award to the General Services Administration’s Office of the Public Building Service; the AIA Firm Award to Lake/Flato Architects in San Antonio; and the AIA Gold Medal to the late Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee.

Ronald Bogle, the AAF’s president and chief executive, said Mr. Mockbee “democratized architecture” by promoting dynamic living space for regular folk.

“Sambo created architecture for people you don’t normally think about creating architecture for: the poor, the disenfranchised,” Mr. Bogle said of Mr. Mockbee’s outreach to communities desperately in need of housing.

Norman Koonce, executive vice president and chief executive of the AIA, said at the pre-dinner cocktail reception that Mr. Mockbee once crafted a stunning chapel roof out of old car windshields.

The late architect could fashion exterior walls out of bales of hay and use carpet tile and old tires to make “the most beautifully textured walls you can imagine,” Mr. Koonce noted.

Other VIP guests admiring the National Building Museum’s vast interior and massive marble columns included Eugene C. Hopkins, 2004 president of the American Institute of Architects; Carter Wiseman, author of “The Architecture of I.M. Pei”; and Mr. Mockbee’s widow, Jackie Mockbee#.

The evening also was the occasion for the announcement of Great Schools by Design, an AIA project aimed at revolutionizing the way an estimated 6,000 new schools will be constructed throughout the next decade. The initiative aims to ensure they will be not only dynamic in design, but conducive toward learning as well.

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