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‘The form simply came naturally’: I M Pei interview

RIBA Royal Gold Medallist IM Pei discusses concrete, Parisian controversy, architectural influences, Chinese tradition and what winning the award means to him. Interview by Paula Deitz

Next week, IM Pei accepts his RIBA Gold Medal in recognition of his lifetime’s work, which includes more than 170 projects and 50 masterplans. Hudson Review editor Paula Deitz caught up with the 92-year-old Chinese-American architect in his town-house on Manhattan’s East Side.

Paula Deitz Did your Harvard Graduate School of Design days make an indelible mark on your future work?             

IM Pei My undergraduate training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) leaned toward the Beaux Arts, so I appreciated the life Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer brought to the Harvard milieu from the Bauhaus. While we became good friends, I was not actually a follower. I was never attached to any one architect.
I read Le Corbusier’s works but only got to know him long afterwards in Paris. I will never forget his modular-cube office, nor his glasses with their quarter-inch-thick lenses.
I could say that Mies van der Rohe, whom I also met, was my inspiration, rather than Gropius, because I was especially attracted to his architecture of the 1950s and ’60s. I went to see his buildings in Europe and Chicago, so in a sense, he was my ideal. In the end, although the influences are there, I found my own way.

PD As an innovator of concrete construction, did you face any resistance?

IMP People said that you cannot build with exposed concrete, but I thought it was the only way to construct an honest building at low cost, and that way you would see the structure itself. For the final calculation, the lowest cost we could figure was $10.15 per square foot, while another developer, covering concrete of a lesser quality with brick, was coming in at $9.50 per square foot. We went ahead anyway at 10 per cent more.

‘Mies van der Rohe was my inspiration because I was attracted to his work of the 1950s and’ 60s’

PD What was your reaction to the Parisian controversy over your glass pyramid scheme at the Louvre?

IMP As I was seeking light and a symbol, everything seemed to point to the right choice, especially with the Place des Pyramides only a few streets away. I was not creating an historic symbol; the form simply came naturally. But the French are well informed about history, and somehow the space was sacred going back to the Revolution, and two writers made it a cause célèbre. Also, they felt that a foreign architect would not understand.
Finally, President Mitterand appointed some people who helped overcome the objections. Afterwards I learned that in the early 17th century there had been fireworks in the shape of a pyramid in the courtyard, witnessed by Louis XIII.

PD Now that you have worked in both your native China and Japan, how do you view these two cultures today?

IMP Originally in China, a poet scholar would go to the mountains to seek a single important rock as the centerpiece of his garden – the original pure form of the Song dynasty. But then the wealthy merchants came in and corrupted the style with grotesque, convoluted rockeries. Those in my family’s Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou always looked strange to me. It was a baroque time in China, with the damage done by the later Qing dynasty.
The art and gardens of Japan relate more to the China of the earlier period in its pure state.

PD What are you currently working on? 

IMP I am designing a small chapel for a boarding school devoted to the arts on a mountaintop near the Miho Museum in Japan. Like the Miho, we will tunnel through another mountain and construct a suspension bridge as the arrival route.

PD Did you find the design of the Oare Pavilion [Pei’s only permanent UK scheme] in an English landscape challenging?

IMP Because the site is open to a 360° view of distant landscape, I elevated the octagonal glass structure so that not even an entrance would block the view from any direction. The entrance is through a pedestal foundation below, with an interior stairway to the upper level. Also, since public footpaths cross the surrounding countryside, I wanted to give the owners a measure of privacy above walkers passing through. I designed it in the Chinese style to remind the clients of the country they love.

PD Are you looking forward to receiving the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal?

IMP To receive such an honour from Great Britain for the first time is a special pleasure.

IM Pei: significant dates

1917 Born in China, the son of a prominent banker

1934 Travels to the United States to study architecture

1940 Receives a Bachelor of Architecture degree from MIT; wins the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Medal

1942 Studies under Walter Gropius at the Harvard Graduate School of Design

1948 Invited by William Zeckendorf to become director of architecture at real estate firm Webb & Knapp

1954 Becomes a US citizen

1955 Forms IM Pei & Associates

1979 Wins the AIA Gold Medal

1980 Appointed to the National Council on the Arts by US President Jimmy Carter

1982 Receives the Grande Médaille d’Or from the Académie d’Architecture de France.

1983 Wins the Pritzker Prize

1989 Awarded the Praemium Imperiale by the Japan Art Association; Louvre pyramid completes (pictured above)

2008 Museum of Islamic Arts, Doha opens

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