Something You Can Actually Touch at the National Gallery

A touching tribute to a famous architect at the National Gallery.
Photograph by  Matthew Worden
Photograph by Matthew Worden

While critics have hailed the East Building of the National Gallery of Art as “one of the great architectural draws of its time” and “an enormously successful place for seeing art,” not once have the accolades been followed with “and it begs to be touched.” Yet near the Fourth Street entrance, an engraving done for the building’s dedication has been rubbed repeatedly to the point that a dark haze has accumulated over the name of the building’s architect, I.M. Pei.

Museum staff and scholars like to interpret Pei’s smudged name as a positive response to the building. “This is a touching tribute to Pei’s work,” says Carter Wiseman, architecture lecturer at Yale University and a Pei biographer. Pun intended?

Wiseman knows of no other building that has received such attention; neither does Janet Adams Strong, an architectural historian who worked in Pei’s office for 18 years and now consults for the architect. Strong called the accumulated rubbings “a special phenomenon.”

On a recent Saturday, I saw at least 15 people set their hands on his name.

The National Gallery welcomes the discoloration. “Obviously, people are responding to Mr. Pei’s building,” says Jim Grupe, senior architect at the museum. “There are so many things here that you can’t touch; it’s probably a relief for visitors to have something they can touch.”

As Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator of the National Building Museum, explains, “I think all architects do [touch the wall]. We hope that by touching his name some of his magic will transfer to us.”

Other motivations for the touching range from admiration of the building to pride in shared Chinese heritage to confusion.

“Every time I come in here I touch the name,” says Kellie Golsby, a lawyer from Austin, Texas. “His work is incredible, and this museum is just beautiful.”

For the Zhang/Jin family visiting from Irvine, California, patting Pei’s name was a way to connect to their heritage. “We’re all very proud to be here,” said Michael Zhang. “Touching the wall is almost like shaking I.M. Pei’s hand.”

This article can be found in the January 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.

More from News