The National Museum of Art posed an unusual design challenge: to create an iconic image for a museum in which only the entrance lobby was permitted to be built above ground. Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects responded to this requirement by creating an entrance that is an enormous stainless steel and glass sculpture. This web of intertwining stainless steel tubes stands against the sky with greater impact than its size would seem to allow.
The entrance structure is designed to resemble reeds along a riverbank or arching stalks of a bamboo grove, a counterpoint to the massive form of the neighboring science museum. The titanium-coated stainless-steel tubes rise to two peaks, 52 and 34 meters (170 and 112 feet) above grade. For the steel tubes that penetrate the skylight glass, there is a watertight seal in the form of a plate with a bellows. The bellows allows the steel tubes to move 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) in any direction, whimsically animating the plaza.
The museum is distributed on three levels. The first level is a public gathering space, followed by two levels of galleries for temporary and permanent exhibits. The three floors are spacious and receive natural light. Visitors soon forget that they are underground and become absorbed viewing the exhibitions.