The building

The Fortress Metaphor

Ieoh Ming Pei visualised a museum that stands on the very rampart wall that surrounded the arrow shaped inner fortress.

The asymetrical V shape of the building, with 45 degree angles, rises over the ruins. Tucked into its fortified walls, the introverted shape of the fortress is still discernible in Pei’s new building. The geometry of the museum is, so to speak, an extension of the fortress. The contrast with the fortress is all the more interesting because Pei’s building has very geometrical volumes, and he opted for shapes that are both modern and classical. His architecture is formalist, while remaining sober and monumental.

On its south-western front the building of the Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean looks onto down town – the Grund, Clausen and the Pfaffenthal – while on its north side is the “Place de l’Europe” where the main entrance is situated. Access to the museum will be via two bridges that cross the dry moat and converge leading to the arrowhead that reflects the shape of the museum.

After the main reception area the visitor enters a space of light. As he moves forward he comes face to face with the Grand Hall, a glass structure 33 m high, made of a metallic frame surmounted by a bell-turret with a square top: this is the heart of the museum from which one can access its other spaces. A second glass structure on the right is as impressive: in response to the contour of the hall which stems from the original layout of the ancient foundations, I. M. Pei has designed a rounded and curved glass-structure. On the left, another glass structure, symmetrical to the one to the right but flattened, highlights the design of the different elements that make up the metallic structure.

The building also offers a subtle outlook on the neighbouring landscapes by providing an unexpected view of the forest and its surroundings. Uniquely, a balcony that overhangs the Grand Hall offers a view of the historical city centre, punctuated in the foreground by the “Dräi Eechelen” (Three Acorns).

Set back from the building is a small octagonal construction – the Henry J. and Erna D. Leir Pavilion – linked by a transparent footbridge. This pavilion is surmounted by a glass-structure with a bell-turret and gives another view over the “Park Dräi Eechelen”.

On the first floor, two large exhibition spaces can be accessed by the large staircase which starts in the Grand Hall, or by lateral staircases that are in themselves great architectonic feats. The sheds that we find in the first floor exhibition spaces allow natural and widespread lighting without shades or reflections. These sheds are made of architectonic concrete beams, with a maximum span of 29 m. The light is spread in the rooms through plate glass windows. The sheds remain invisible from the outside, below the level of the walls.

Level -1 introduces the visitor into a more intimate space where the overhead light gives way to a twilight appropriate to exhibit luminous works. The auditorium with 120 seats is also housed here, as well as the museum offices. The basement (level -2) houses the technical rooms and includes a room which can be used for art works and installations of exceptional dimensions. The gallery floors are in natural oak wood, the walls are out of plaster. The building is covered outside, as in the circulation points (entrance, Grand Hall, boutique...) with limestone, the “Magny doré”.

There are ceilings made from architectonic concrete, and through the frames one can see the grain of the softwood, Oregon pine, that was used to cast them. Graceful staircases, moulded out of architectural concrete, link one level to another.

The museum presents international exhibitions and projects from all areas of contemporary art. At the time when Pei was commissioned to design the museum, the collection of art works was only just beginning. This meant that the architect was unable to create tailormade rooms for specific works of art. Even though Pei’s design was not geared to specific works, it is nevertheless not neutral: just as the form of the building resulted from the situation in the location, the positioning of some of the works of art will result from the situation in the building. Art and architecture are automatically linked closely with each other. The architecture does not try to dominate art, it simply wants to provide it with a framework.

Architect I. M. Pei

© Dessin : J. C. Massinon, Mudam Luxembourg, 2006

Ieoh Ming Pei envisioned a new type of museum: a popular museum that allows the public to circulate freely while enjoying a pleasant visit.

Ieoh Ming Pei was born in Canton, China, in 1917. He moved to the United States in 1935 and studied at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, then earned a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Boston, in 1940. He then followed the teachings of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (master in 1942 and doctorate in 1946). In 1955 he became an American citizen and joined with Eason Leonard and Henry Cobb to form his own firm which was to become Pei, Cobb & Partners.

Pei worked on urban planning and innovative real estate projects right from the start of his career, but his international recognition mostly stemmed from the construction of buildings such as the J.F. Kennedy Library in Boston, the Dallas City Hall, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, the Gateway Towers in Singapour and the Bank of China in Hong Kong. Today, his projects are numbered in the hundreds throughout the world. Over the entire span of his career, Pei has designed first class museums such as the Des Moines Center in Iowa, the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, the West Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the reorganisation of the Louvre in Paris and the extension of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Pei has been honoured with a multitude of distinctions and prizes such as the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1983. The jury’s reasons for granting Pei the Prize are as follows: “Ieoh Ming Pei’s work ranks amongst the most beautiful and important projects of this century. The import of his work stretches far beyond any purely formal considerations because he has always shown an interest in the fabric and context in which he works, and has refused to limit his work to solely architectural problems. The high degree of finish and the quality of his chosen materials bring his work close to poetry”. In 2006, Ieoh Ming Pei is opening three new museums: the Musée d‘Art Moderne Grand Duc Jean in Luxembourg, the Suzhou Museum in China, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.