Design of the Mesa Laboratory

Pei described the early days of work on the NCAR commission in almost religious terms. The site, to him, suggested a spiritual dimension that stretched and challenged all of the preconceptions he had developed in his career to that time. Pei spent a tremendous amount of time on the mesa. He hiked it at all hours of the day and evening, watching the sun hit its stony crags, sitting among the grazing deer. He picnicked there and even camped overnight.   

The core of the challenge was to create a man-made structure bold enough not live up to the immensity of the setting and yet compatible enough not to try to compete with it, a competition any building was bound to lose. 

Early conceptual design of the Mesa Laboratory, circa 1962-1965

One image at the back of the architect's mind gave him the courage to pursue his creative vision. The year before, in 1960, he had visited an archaeological site in Peru: Ollantaytambo, an Incan settlement perched on the steep slopes of the upper Andes. Among the terraces and rubble walls of Ollantaytambo stand six gigantic stone slabs. The monoliths, only a few yards wide, tower over the rest of the ruins. As with Stonehenge, another of Pei's favorite sites, the function of the monoliths and the manner in which they were brought to their remote location are unknown. While they look nothing like the pink NCAR towers, their imposing presence, combining natural and man made beauty, gave Pei the conviction to search for a comparable achievement in the vocabulary of modern architecture.

With Ollantaytambo in mind, Pei decided to explore the indigenous architecture of the American Southwest. He and his wife rented a car and set out on a journey that was to take them from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Boulder, stopping at numerous Native American settlements, ancient and modern, on the way. When Pei reached Mesa Verde, he knew he found what he was looking for.

In the crude and impressive structures of Mesa Verde, Pei saw solutions to design problems that had haunted him. By using indigenous building materials, or at least materials that reflected the natural setting, he could achieve a structure that would blend with its surroundings. The stone and mud of Mesa Verde were obviously not economical or practical for a contemporary structure, so Pei's modernistic solution was to use reinforced concrete composted of aggregate drawn from a nearby quarry. To color the cement, Pei hit on the innovative technique of using sand ground from the same stone, rather than commercial pigments.

Early conceptual design of the Mesa Laboratory, circa 1962-1965

In his early attempts to visualize a structure on top of the NCAR mesa, Pei quickly realized that a succession of easily identified stories gave a human scale to his building, a scale that was inappropriate to and dwarfed by the gigantic dimensions of the peaks and sky behind it. In Mesa Verde's irregularly placed and shaped windows, Pei saw the answer to this problem. His design for the Mesa Laboratory borrows some of the Mesa Verde window designs—keyholes, slits—but more importantly it profits from their absence of conventional articulation. Seen from a distance, the NCAR building's long narrow shafts of glass and other unconventional windows do not speak of stories; the height of the building is impossible to guess at as that of the Flatirons behind.  

Listen to Walter Orr Roberts talk about design features of the Mesa Lab.


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Ed Wolff summarizes his visit with I.M. Pei and staff (Cobb, Weinstein and Mixon) at the NYC office. Topics covered include plans for the upcoming visit and initial presentation by Pei in December 1961, potential cost concerns and space allocation issues with respect to philosophical and functional work concerns. Memo: Edwin Wolff to UCAR Planning Committee detailing the status of architectural and landscaping plans and strategies for bidding out work for the Mesa Lab. Plans for a Conference Center are also discussed. NCAR Planning Committee updates the UCAR Board of Trustees on the progress of plans for the Lab on Table Mountain after meeting with I.M. Pei & Associates on July 13, 1962. Strategies for preserving the mesa's natural beauty, the cost of air-conditioning and potential materials for building are discussed. The Planning Committee suggests the updated plan be sent to the UCAR Architectural Dean's Advisory Board for approval. Daniel Rex summarizes an extensive re-evaluation of NCAR's building needs and concerns about and kudos for Pei's design proposals. The memo also details potential funding issues because of a desire to build in one stage rather than two, as well as a section on goals for an upcoming meeting with Pei.