CLEVELAND, Ohio – To all the architectural purists out there who might be quietly freaking out over the rebranding of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a more colorful and visually vibrant place, I say: Peace.
I.M. Pei’s iconic lakefront building, with its pyramidal glass lobby and squarish white tower rising out of North Coast Harbor, can handle what Rock Hall President and CEO Greg Harris and his staff are throwing at it.
By covering some of the pristine gridded white walls of Pei’s interior with bold black and red graphics and big stenciled numbers indicating floor levels, and by installing the big red “Long Live Rock” letters on its formerly vapid plaza, the Rock Hall is channeling more completely the raucous music the building is supposed to celebrate.
The new colors and graphics, part of a makeover the museum calls “Museum 2.0,” and designed by BRC Imagination Arts of Burbank, California, have the effect of somewhat dematerializing the powerful geometries of the building’s thrusting balconies, walkway bridges, stairwells and zigzag escalators.
But saying that Pei’s design can’t stand up to the recent changes would be a way of saying his architecture is too delicate and prissy to withstand reinterpretation.
That’s not the case for this piece of work by the Chinese-born American architect, who turned 100 in April. The building has a greater sense of spectacle and vitality in its hot, sexy new drag.
As Harris puts it, “We feel comfortable being less precious with the building and making sure it’s a representation of the power and the energy and the grit of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Or, to put it another way, the Rock Hall is finally learning how to live in the house that Pei built, 22 years after the museum opened.
Other changes include moving the museum’s cafe and seating to its ground level in order to dedicate its entire third level to exhibits celebrating Hall of Fame inductees.
To make that move possible, the Rock Hall transferred its ticketing operation to the lower-level lobby outside its main exhibit area, a move that enables visitors to spend money in the cafe and museum shop without paying admission.
More changes are on the way, including an as-yet unscheduled revamp of the Rock Hall’s main exhibit, which now feels dated.
More immediately, on Saturday, July 1, the museum will cap the latest phase of its $23 million in renovations with its new “Power of Rock Experience,” a 12-minute multimedia display that replaces the old Hall of Fame introductory film, inside the drum-shaped theater on the museum’s third floor.
The Rock Hall announced in February that it had renamed the theater in honor of a $9 million gift from Christopher Connor, chairman of the museum’s board and immediate past executive chairman of the Sherwin-Williams Co., and his wife, Sara H. Connor. It’s the largest individual donation in the Rock Hall’s history.
A press preview of the new “Experience” is scheduled for Thursday.
A new Hall of Fame immersion
Harris, the museum’s chief since 2013, who succeeded Terry Stewart, said that visitors would typically see the “Power of Rock Experience” after viewing the below-grade main exhibit area installed under the Rock Hall’s plaza.
After ascending to the museum’s third level, visitors would queue on the wide bridge leading to the theater, an area that used to be filled with cafe tables and chairs, and which had felt drab and underused.
Visitors would then be pulsed into the theater 130 at a time for a show directed by the late filmmaker Jonathan Demme that will celebrate Rock Hall inductions and inductees.
Images will be projected inside on movable screens flanked by pulsing lights and visually dramatic towers of loudspeakers resembling those of a concert stage.
Sharing rock memories
Visitors would then exit through the enclosed uphill ramp that leads to the museum’s fourth level, where they could share personal memories of rock music experiences in a collection of recording booths modeled after those created by the nonprofit StoryCorps.
The project is part of Harris’ overall effort to activate every square inch of the building, a complicated structure that shoehorns exhibit areas, escalators, stairs, elevators and public spaces into the dramatic architectural forms that were Pei’s primary concern.
The Rock Hall is still certainly an exciting piece of architecture, and it would be a mistake to let familiarity breed inattention to its sculptural power.
Still seriously good architecture
The building isn’t quite on a par with Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but it is a seriously good piece of architecture.
With its evocation of an Egyptian pyramid, and the cylindrical theater that resembles a giant snare drum, Pei’s design may sound overly representational, if not actually trite. But experienced in full sun with raking light along the water, the building is thrilling.
Functionally, though, it forced the museum to put its main exhibit in the basement, where one loses orientation and a sense of connection to the outside world, much less from one exhibit area to another.
And, given its pyramidal shape, the museum’s floors shrink as they go higher, creating an ever-intensifying sense of compression, if not claustrophobia.
If anything, the effect of the renovations so far under Harris has been to crank it up on those feelings.
cranking it up
“This building really works well when the music is up loud and when the place is packed and people are moving everywhere,” he said. “There is an excitement, there’s an energy in the air.”
To be sure, there’s a limit to how far the branding should go. It would be a big mistake to blacken the interior white steel trusses that support the glass lobby.
Leaving the trusses white while darkening the blocky, structurally independent forms inside would emphasize the difference between the shell and the interior. That’s not something the Rock Hall should blur.
For all the changes inside, the Rock Hall remains an isolated, though captivating, form on the waterfront. It stands along a crumbling stretch of Erieside Avenue near the far less architecturally distinguished Great Lakes Science Center and FirstEnergy Stadium.
Still not integrated with city
For now, the Rock Hall generates a steady stream of pedestrians who approach via the dreary quarter-mile of sidewalks, intersections and highway ramps on East Ninth Street that separate downtown proper from the lakefront.
Adding to the sense of environmental insult is the poorly drained patch of Erieside at the corner of East Ninth where a big slushy puddle forms every winter. Yuck.
In an attempt to reach out to the city around it, the Rock Hall installed its outstanding Rock Box public art loudspeakers up and down East Ninth Street.
A global crossroads
Its revitalized plaza, programmed frequently with live music in the summer, conveys a sense that something fun could happen at any moment, even if that just means watching kids climb on the big red Long Live Rock letters or watching visitors snap photos.
When I visited on Tuesday, the high school band from Glenwood City, Wisconsin, played on the plaza’s west side.
As they performed, I ran into tourist Li Ji of Beijing, who was visiting with 3-year-old son Ding Ding and her mother, Liu Ying, plus friends Sun Yi Wen and Mao Rong from Shanghai.
“I didn’t know this was here,” Li Ji said after I offered to take a group picture of her entourage. “I think it’s great. It’s perfect. America is great!”
How refreshing to hear such words at a time when China and the United States are coping with North Korean nuclear aggression, and in which Americans appear to be divided bitterly into warring political camps.
By expanding its energy outside, the Rock Hall has turned its plaza into a public space where a random encounter can make you feel good about the world.
Harris and his team are on to something. I for one am eager to see where they head next.