After a nine year process and fourteen possible architects the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library was finally finished and dedicated on October 20, 1979. Architect I.M. Pei’s signature geometric shapes of concrete steel and glass created an appropriate stately monumentality. A juxtaposition of spaces and light quality along with a defined and lucid circulation creates a logical story line of its namesake.
In 1963, then President John F. Kennedy viewed possible sites for a presidential library and museum to be built in his name. At the time there were only four other presidential libraries and yet Kennedy sought a stronger and more accessible system. Kennedy’s grand plans included vast archives, educational collaboration (in this case his alma mater Harvard) and an open door policy to his presidency.
A month after the visit President Kennedy was assassinated. Shortly after the event a committee headed by Jacqueline Kennedy began a search for architects. The impressive list included Louis Kahn, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Franco Albini, Llucio Costa, and five other relatively unknown architects from around the world including I.M. Pei. Despite the credentials and name recognition of the other architects Jacqueline Kennedy saw a potential and creativity in the architect she had chosen, I.M. Pei.
The original site that President Kennedy had selected quickly became unrealistic after it had been repeatedly bogged down with processes and delays. A new site was quickly selected at Columbia Point, adjacent to the Harbor Campus of the University of Massachusetts Boston. The dynamic new site boasted 9.5 acres and views of the Boston Harbor and skyline.
The main body of the structure consists of a singular and brilliant triangular tower protruding from an expanding base of geometric forms. A cube of glass and steel rises along with the tower; hollowed and hallowed it represents reflection on void.
A circulatory system leads the viewer through a relatively dense memorial and archive of the life and political career of the late president. This constrained experience is followed by a dark yet still relatively confined space of the theater where the occupant is shown a brief biographical film. From these tight spaces a new form emerges at the end of the defined path. A large, aerated, open cube volume allows for a period of reflectance. The visceral connection with the outside world and the home state which President Kennedy dedicated his political life to is tangible through a simplified glass and steel curtain.
The understated yet omnipresent form of the library’s stately structure at the end of the peninsula rises above the water with a distinguished manner. The JFK Presidential Library exemplifies architectural presence representing both memorial and monument.
Architect: I.M. Pei
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Project Year: 1979
References: JFK Presidential Library
Photographs: Daniel Cooper, Erinc Salor, Shanon Mollerus, Leon Pun, Albert Choi, Lorianne DiSabato, Flickr user: wildvanilla, Flickr user: straightedge