Pei describes the early days of work on the Mesa Laboratory commission in almost spiritual terms. He spent a great deal of time on the mesa with Walt Roberts, NCAR's founding director. He hiked it at all times of the day. He picnicked there. In the end, Pei saw that his challenge was to create a man-made structure that could live up to the immensity of the setting and be compatible enough to not compete with it.
Pei loved the Inca site of Ollantaytambo and the monolithic stone remains of Stonehenge. Their combination of natural and man-made beauty lead Pei to attempt a comparable achievement in the vocabulary of modern architecture. A trip to Mesa Verde in Colorado inspired Pei and convinced him to use indigenous building materials to reflect the natural setting. Stone quarried in nearby Lyons, Colorado was used exclusively in the building of the Mesa Laboratory. The center’s kiva staircases, elemental forms, and unique window designs — irregularly placed and shaped keyholes — all owe their origins to Mesa Verde.