CLEVELAND, Ohio — Expanding a building as iconic as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could be a risky proposition.

Should the Rock Hall show tenderness and awe for the original designer of its lakefront building, the late, great I.M. Pei? Or should it crank up the volume and strive for something bigger and louder?

Nope, neither. The 25-year-old Rock Hall has chosen an architecture firm that will design its upcoming $50 million expansion with a mix of reverence and irreverence that suits a raucous art form while paying tribute to Pei, who died last year at age 102.

The Rock Hall announced Thursday that it picked the five-year-old, New York-based architecture firm of PAU, led by Vishaan Chakrabarti, dean of the University of California Berkeley College of Environmental Design, as the project’s lead designer.

An early iteration of PAU’s proposal calls for a low-rise, two-level, 50,000-square-foot addition shaped like a giant triangular wedge of galvanized steel rising out of the ground between the Rock Hall and the adjacent Great Lakes Science Center at North Coast Harbor.

Chakrabarti and Greg Harris, the Rock Hall’s president and CEO since 2013, said in interviews Wednesday and Thursday with and The Plain Dealer that the design will evolve as the museum gathers input from supporters and the public.

“We will come out of this with a bold design,’’ Harris said, stressing that PAU’s architects are being “respectful to Pei, but not subservient.’’

Big moment

The Rock Hall’s announcement comes at a significant moment for Cleveland’s cultural sector, which has many institutions struggling with pandemic-related closures and financial shortfalls that necessitated layoffs and furloughs.

Despite such hardships at the Rock Hall, which closed for a second time in November in response to the pandemic, Harris said the institution plans to begin construction in 2022 and complete the expansion in late 2023 or early 2024.

The project will follow recent renovations, collectively dubbed “Rock Hall 2.0,’’ that were designed to address shortcomings in Pei’s original design, including a corkscrew interior that can feel difficult to navigate.

The museum enlivened its windswept front plaza with live concerts in the summer, moved its café to a prime location in its lobby, revamped its retail shop, and reorganized its Hall of Fame exhibit as a luminous Valhalla on the museum’s second level.

The Rock Hall also steered from Pei’s crisp, white interior to a palette of red and black, evoking the backstage feel of a rock concert.

Those early projects, in addition to the expansion, will ultimately cost $100 million, Harris said. The museum has raised $73 million toward that goal, and he said he’s optimistic about raising the rest.


The triangular shape of PAU’s design grew from a desire to mediate between Pei’s pyramid, the Lake Erie waterfront, and Cleveland’s downtown, set upon a flat bluff overlooking the Rock Hall, Chakrabarti said.

In a nod to a famous Blondie hit from 1978, he said the design treats the Rock Hall’s pyramidal lobby as the museum’s “heart of glass.’’

And he used the words “reverence and irreverence’’ to describe his firm’s approach.

“We didn’t want to get into a mano-a-mano with Pei,’’ he said. “We didn’t feel it was respectful. It was really about integrating the two [the expansion and the original building] creating a dynamic, and creating some friction between the two.”

The expansion will likely include a new lobby and ticketing area accessible from a new driveway with a drop-off close to Erieside Avenue, providing an alternative to a long windy walk across the front plaza to Pei’s glass lobby.

Other elements will include classrooms, administrative offices, and a large multi-purpose space for events, located along a lakefront promenade overlooking the water’s edge at North Coast Harbor.

A permanent outdoor stage would frame the east side of the Rock Hall’s main plaza. Along the East Ninth Street side of its building the museum may install retail storefronts to enliven a dull stretch of sidewalk.

The Rock Hall will continue to investigate how its building can be connected to the adjacent Great Lakes Science Center — and the center’s parking garage — with an all-weather link.

Chakrabarti said he doesn’t want to preclude options for a potential pedestrian bridge or a wider “land bridge’’ that the City of Cleveland may build in the future to better connect the Rock Hall to the downtown malls.

The competition

PAU, an acronym that stands for Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, prevailed over two-dozen firms in a year-long selection process. The Rock Hall invited four finalists to submit competing design concepts after winnowing the field.

The finalists, in addition to PAU, were BIG — the Bjarke Ingels Group — of Copenhagen; Steven Holl Architects; and SHoP Architects, co-designer of the recent expansion of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, both from New York.

Some firms seeking the job wanted to add a visually domineering structure between the Rock Hall and the Great Lakes Science Center.

The Viennese architecture firm of Coop Himmelb(l)au, which designed the 2007 expansion of the Akron Art Museum, and which didn’t make the final cut on the Rock Hall, nevertheless posted a design on its website with a shimmying metal tower between the Rock Hall and the science center.

Along with PAU, the design team for the project will include Robert P. Madison International of Cleveland and DLR Group | Cleveland, as architects of record.

Founded in 1954 by Robert P. Madison, Ohio’s first registered Black architect, the eponymous firm collaborated with Pei on the Rock Hall’s original design. DLR Group worked on the recent “Rock Hall 2.0” projects.

James Corner Field Operations, which designed the recent renovation of Public Square, will design landscaping for the expansion, and Cooper Robertson, a planning firm that has previously advised the Cleveland Museum of Art, will assist by assessing the Rock Hall’s spatial needs.

Designer, writer, teacher, planner

In addition to teaching at Columbia University and Berkeley, Chakrabarti, 55, has worked as an urban planner in New York.

He is the author of “A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America,’’ published in 2013, a book that argues against public policies that damage cities and subsidize sprawl and suburban development.

Born in Calcutta, Chakrabarti immigrated from India to Los Angeles in 1968 with his family as a child. He said the Rock Hall has special meaning for him, following in Pei’s footsteps as an architect of color in a profession long dominated by whites.

He said sees the Rock Hall project as one of a series of mid-continent projects including assignments in Detroit and Indianapolis, that he hopes will bolster the industrial Midwest.

And he sees the Rock Hall as an institution serving an art form that unites America during a time of severe social and political division.

“There are so few things that bond Americans together at this point, and rock and roll is one of them,” he said.