CLEVELAND -- Asking architect I.M. Pei to design the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum here is a little bit like getting, oh, say, Alistair Cooke to take over as hockey coach at a reform school.
Long hair and ripped jeans aren't Pei's style. He's now 78, wears elegant custom suits and dwells in a townhouse on upper-crust Sutton Place in New York. Throughout his career he's been typecast as official Architect to the Establishment. In many ways he is the Establishment: Back before the communist takeover, Pei's father was governor of the Bank of China.
So why Pei? The answer's obvious. Pei's the guy you hire when you're ready to build yourself a monument. A new Louvre in Paris, with its landmark glass pyramid. A Kennedy Library in Boston, shrine to a national hero.
One thing's for sure. This is going to be the most-hyped piece of architecture of the 1990s.
The sponsors got the knock-'em-dead building they wanted. The museum looks like a frozen explosion. Solid cubes, saucers and wedges seem to blast outward from a central glass pyramid like a fleet of spaceships. Pei calls the pyramid a tent. "Rock 'n' roll has tremendous energy," he says. "There is an explosive force inside the tent."
The tent is the part of the building you see first, and it's the place where you enter. Inside, it's a tall, bright atrium. The things that look like flying spacecraft turn out to be windowless exhibition rooms. Your experience of the building is this: You rise through the atrium on escalators, and you stop off at seven different levels to visit the exhibits.
Most of the building is a rock museum. It isn't until you get to the very top that you arrive at the actual Hall of Fame. This can be described only as a religious space. The saints are the rock immortals. It's a secular chapel. You reach it by climbing a dark circular stair, like the winding stair in a cathedral tower. You come to a hushed cube of space in which all the walls are black glass. Illuminating this room, like constellations in the night sky, are the signatures of the stars, carved into the glass walls. Next to each signature is the modern equivalent of stained glass: a silent video image of the star in performance.
The site is just as dramatic as the building. The museum stands with one foot at the edge of downtown Cleveland and the other in the water of Lake Erie. Why Cleveland, one may ask? Not Memphis, Detroit, Liverpool? The standard answer is that the legendary disc jockey Allan Freed, who's credited with coining the term "rock 'n' roll," broadcast out of a Cleveland radio station in the early '50s. But it's also a fact that Cleveland's business and political leadership organized well and lobbied hard.
I.M. Pei is easy to talk to, and I try some of the obvious questions on him. What does he know, for instance, about rock 'n' roll? He grins. "I haven't really gone beyond Bruce Springsteen," he says, trying hard to look guilty. "I can't get any farther than that." It's not so much that Pei's a square as that he's a cat of a different era. He loved big-band swing as a kid growing up in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1930s. He decided to finish his education in the United States partly because of a Bing Crosby film called ''Campus Humor," which made American college life look pretty good.
Pei claims he had to be talked into the job. The sponsors -- including Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records -- told him: "We can tell you all you need to know." They gave him a guided tour, of Memphis and Graceland, of New Orleans and Preservation Hall. "We were together day and night for a week," says Pei. "I learned that rock has roots. And I decided if it has roots, it will survive. So I took the job."
I try another question. Does the museum mean that rock is now dead? Has Pei erected its tombstone? He grins again. "I do think rock 'n' roll deserves to be taken a little more seriously," he says evasively. "A tombstone? Time will tell."
The museum cost $46 million to build, and the exhibits inside are almost as expensive. They're being designed by the Burdick Group, a San Francisco team. To amateur eyes, they seem wonderful and appropriately crazy. There's a wax museum of the stars in the form of spooky mannequins that stand stiffly, with their arms at their sides, like Egyptian funerary statues. There's a grandma's attic of artifacts -- nearly all donated, not purchased -- that contains not just the guitars and album covers you expect but oddball items such as the tap shoes worn by the Everly Brothers as children, Janis Joplin's hand-painted Porsche and two letters from Charles Manson to Rolling Stone magazine. There's a serious attempt, too, to show the history of rock and its roots in blues and jazz and folk, and to trace its later evolution from radio to TV to video. Five hundred key songs can be instantly accessed -- like almost everything here -- by pushing a button. There are funny displays such as "One Hit Wonders," which presents all the songs that ever made the Top 20 by performers who were destined never to score again. We all remember "Little Star" by the Elegants, right? And there's much more -- theaters and films, a DJ booth and a dance floor.
The Burdick Group has done something you'd think was almost impossible. The group has taken an art form -- music -- that exists primarily in time, and has found ways to represent it in a medium -- a museum -- that exists in space. Not only that, the group had to create the only museum in the world in which the visitors already own the collection, so to speak, yet the museum is still fresh and interesting.
The architecture is another matter. It doesn't have much to do with either the site or the contents. It's as if Pei had originally designed the building as, say, a shoe emporium for a site on Mars, then moved it to Cleveland and called it a rock museum.
It turns out that that's about what happened. Pei was hired before there was a curator or even a collection. Normally an architect designs a building to house a given set of purposes and contents, but in this case those were lacking. So Pei simply created an anthology of familiar I. M. Pei motifs. He left it to the later curators to figure out how to shoehorn the museum into the forms he had arbitrarily chosen.
Not only that, but Pei designed the building for an entirely different site. It was supposed to stand against a high bluff in another part of Cleveland. There, it would have fitted brilliantly. The glass tent would have jutted dramatically from the bluff. The elevator tower -- which now drops incomprehensibly into the water of Lake Erie -- would have brought the public from a shopping galleria at the top of the bluff to a park at the bottom. The site was changed but the building wasn't. In many ways, it's a misfit.
Some things do work well. At night as you approach it, the museum is utterly beautiful. Inside the glass mountain of the atrium colored lights play across white balconies and across the four actual automobiles -- from a U2 tour -- that hang in the space like lamps. One can imagine that future visitors -- many of them, one assumes, in lively attire -- will animate the atrium further as they flow up and down the long escalators.
What also works is the concept of the museum as a kind of procession. You're always emerging into the atrium like a bear coming into the sunlight from the cave of some exhibit. You re-orient yourself, then move on to the next exhibit. It's like a pilgrimage, with shrines along the way, and the Hall of Fame at the end.
Less successful, perhaps, is the crowd control. The one place everyone is going to want to see is the Hall of Fame, and it's intimate, to put it kindly. Endless queues seem almost inevitable.
Also weak is the whole relationship to the city. The museum has nothing to say about Cleveland. The Cleveland "flats" -- a low industrial area spanned by some of the nation's most spectacular bridges -- is the powerful architectural image you're sure to take away from this town. The Indians' new Gateway ballpark respects that gritty character with its vivid steel construction. But this museum could be anywhere. Its true site is in the oeuvre of I. M. Pei.
Pei comes close to admitting that. "For me, there has to be geometry," he says. "What are buildings but cubes, spheres, tetrahedrons? There are endless possibilities in the way you arrange these basic shapes. That is what interests me." He pauses, then adds an odd confession. "I like buildings I can't do. The Baroque, all those free curves in plaster, the one period where geometric discipline was dissolved."
He probably should have stretched for more of that freedom here. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a bag of old architectural tricks. It's a recycled Louvre or Kennedy Library or National Gallery. It will look fresh to many visitors, and it often works well. You hope for more than that. Too much of it is shallow, showoff architecture, the kind you see at a world's fair or a theme park. No real risks have been taken. And that feels wrong for rock.