Modernist architect I.M. Pei, the man behind the iconic Louvre Museum extension made infamous for his gravity-defying designs, has passed away at the age of 102. HEKKTA looks back on the life and works of the Pritzker Prize-winning architect.
Pei started life in Guangzhou, China, but moved to the US to study architecture, attending an impressive trio of the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Harvard to hone his craft and set the foundations for his trailblazing career.
Often criticised for being too adventurous, his angular designs were not to everyone’s liking when he begun. He was a modernist in every sense, designing for a world that was a couple decades behind his ideas.
After leaving Harvard, he worked as a research scientist for the US government during World War Two, before founding his own architecture firm, I.M. Pei & Associates.
“I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art. To become art it must be built on a foundation of necessity,”
Right from the get go, he challenged people’s imaginations, designing the Dallas Civic Centre, which was a huge inverted wedge of a building, with an overhang that made the-then Mayor so uncomfortable, he was forced to add three huge slabs of concrete to give the impression they were holding up the seven-storey overhang, when in fact they served no structural purpose.
The building was so futuristic, it was used as a filming location in RoboCop!
His work on the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum was a redemptive moment in Pei’s career, noting he believes it was the most important commission he has completed.
Selected as the designer in 1964, Pei spent years on the project, which was finally completed in 1979.
After it’s completion, Jacqueline Kennedy spoke of Pei’s search for beauty in what he did,
“He didn’t seem to have just one way to solve a problem. He seemed to approach each commission thinking only of it and then develop a way to make something beautiful.”
There is no doubt that Pei was utterly fascinated by modernism, and wanted to explore it absolutely.
He pushed things forward, but never strayed from the fundamentals of the craft, created by founding architects such as Le Corbusier and Bauhaus stalwarts Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, all of whom he met.
“He carried their torch, abiding by their principles and adding flourishes of his own – usually too many for the general public. To those modernist foundations of proportion, simplicity, geometry, Pei added audacious angles and structural daring.”Steve Rose, The Guardian
An architectural giant, that made one of archicture’s giants.
The modernist masterpiece, the Bank of China HQ, is one of Pei’s most famous creations, and is a perfect example of how Pei was able to interpret a space and a place, to create the perfect addition to the ever rising skyline of Hong Kong.
Representing China’s growing economic stature at the time, the futuristic skyscraper has become an icon of the city, and at 72 storeys, it was the tallest building outside the US when it opened in 1990.
It dwarfed it’s surroundings and upstaged it’s neighbour by some way, much to the disgruntlement of Norman Foster. Pei’s diagonal beacon made the-once contemporary skyscraper sat next to it look almost prehistoric.
Other notable projects by Pei include the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, which opened in 1995. He was never one to stick to a script, and never classed himself as above certain projects either.
When scrolling through his firms achievements over the 70 years it’s been operating, the sheer volume and variety of his works is truly staggering.
His addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington with the East Building was achieved by building an underground passageway to combine intimate gallery spaces with a soaring central atrium that’s home to a giant Alexander Calder sculpture.
“As a young man, of course I had been looking for something new, even revolutionary. I knew what Le Corbusier was doing. I wanted to go his way. But, after some years, I began to think differently. I became interested in a modern architecture that made connections to place, history and nature.”I.M. Pei
In 1990s, Pei traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to design what would become his favourite project, the Miho Museum.
“Modern architecture needed to be part of an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, process.”
It was, however, his work on the Louvre Museum which put him up there with some of the greatest architects to have sculpted our world today.
Characteristic of Pei’s work, it was intially met with a lot of resistance by the French, upset that he was messing with their heritage. Denounced during it’s construction, and long after it was opened, it was deemed sacrilege on the 17th-century palace it lay before.
But as with most of Pei’s projects, as times moved on and attitudes changed, the Pyramid became a symbol of the city.
If you thought that old age was going to slow him down, you’d be sadly mistaken. Pei was very interested in Islamic architecture, and the sharp angles which characterised the buildings, an ethos in line with his own.
So in 2008, he completed the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, which would be his last major project.
Pei has been celebrated around the globe throughout his career, winning a pretty hefty cabinet of awards.
A long career which included more than 70 further major commissions around the world, he won the coveted Pritzker Prize in 1983, praised for giving, “this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms”.
He used his $100,000 prize money to start a scholarship fund for Chinese students to study architecture in America.
He also won the AIA Gold Medal (1979), the first Praemium Imperiale for architecture from the Japan Art Association (1989), the Royal Gold Medal from RIBA (2010), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1993), and the Cooper Hewitt Design Award for Lifetime Achievement (2003).
I.M. Pei’s ideas ushered in the era of architecture that surrounds us every day.