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IM Pei: a life in architecture

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IM Pei’s combination of geometric modernism and contextual sensitivity has won him respect – and commissions – all over the world. A week before he receives the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, long-time follower Paula Deitz surveys his career

In 1848, when Queen Victoria inaugurated the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal to recognise lifetime achievement in the field, architecture was well contained within national borders.

Leap forward 162 years, and the international style that spread a homogeneous modernism from country to country in the 20th century has evolved into a global industry. Architects of all nationalities are challenged to build anywhere in the world.

No architect has done this as well or for as long as Ieoh Ming Pei, this year’s recipient of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. He has worked in dozens of countries, creating more than 70 structures, including museums, corporate towers, hotels and libraries.

Architecture, he believes, has everything to do with place, both physically and historically, and the pace he maintains to study regional architecture and traditions before embarking on a project has kept him energetically engaged at age 92. Without catering to contextual motifs, Pei’s genius consists of maintaining the sleekness of his abstract geometric angularity, as in the Bank of China tower (1989) in Hong Kong, while incorporating a connection to the local landscape through massing and materials.

Pei’s genius consists of maintaining the sleekness of his abstract geometric angularity while incorporating a conection to local landscapes

Born in Guangzhou in 1917, IM Pei left China aged 17 to study architecture in the United States and received his degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduating in 1942, and a stint on the engineering side of architectural design for firms in Boston, he followed his wife Eileen Loo into Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

These were the heyday years of the Bauhaus diaspora at Harvard, with Walter Gropius at the helm and Marcel Breuer exerting his influence. Pei stayed on to teach after completing his degree in 1946.

In 1948, New York developer William Zeckendorf invited Pei to be the first director of architecture in his New York real estate development firm Webb & Knapp. Pei worked here on major projects nationally until he began his own partnership in 1955.

During these early years, having absorbed the lessons of Le Corbusier, Pei pioneered apartment towers constructed of reinforced concrete: a future, as he saw it, of beautiful forms with the simple addition of glass. These New York towers with concrete-grid facades – Kips Bay Plaza (1961), and a pin-wheel cluster of three on Bleecker Street (1966) and LaGuardia Place (1966) in Greenwich Village – quickly became fashionable addresses.

Following Pei’s first return to China in 1974, he gave what I recall as an exhilarating slideshow lecture in New York, in which he demonstrated a fresh perspective of the ceremonial progression across vast spaces leading to the Forbidden City in Beijing and connecting the outer to the inner courtyards. At the opening of his East Building of the National Gallery of Art in 1978 (the subject of my first written architecture commission), I observed – also as I travelled to see other of his museums, the latest being the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar (2008) – that the processional space to the entrance was integral to the total experience of the architecture. Above all, Pei is a master planner.

Believing that paintings and sculptures bring life into a building, Pei became an important patron of artists such as Henry Moore and Jean Dubuffet, from whom he commissioned site-specific works for outdoor plazas or interior lobbies of his gleaming office towers from Singapore to New York’s Park Avenue. But the museums he designed, each one a receptacle of the civilisation and culture unique to its location, gave him the welcome opportunity to study history.

For the National Gallery of Art, East Building (1978), he was assigned a trapezoidal site across from the National Gallery at the end of the Washington Mall, a space indicated on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original 1791 plan. With a design based on a series of interlocking isosceles and right-angled triangles, the marble structure with razor-sharp angles opens to a soaring atrium crisscrossed by a Piranesi network of bridges with, overhead, a gigantic mobile by Alexander Calder rotating at its peak. At the inaugural ceremony, President Jimmy Carter called the design ‘dignified and daring’.

But the true daring came five years later when Pei began planning for the renovation of the Grand Louvre at the behest of French President Francois Mitterrand. In order to develop the central courtyard underground, and thus create a crossroads for the surrounding U-shaped complex, Pei required a strong source of overhead light, hence the pyramid. This immense, luminous glass structure became the new symbolic gateway to Paris’ beloved triumphal route on axis with the Arc de Triomphe and the Grande Arche de la Defense. But its bold form attracted controversy, before being seen as emblematic of Egypt’s place within French culture through the Napoleonic campaigns.

While Pei was designing the Suzhou Museum in China, English landowners Henry and Tessa Keswick contacted him to commission an airy garden pavilion for family activities and guests, as a focal point in the rural landscape surrounding their Georgian house in Wiltshire. Earlier generations of the Keswick family knew Pei’s banker father well through their trading interests in China. In lieu of an 18th-century folly, the Oare Pavilion is updated 21st-century chinoiserie, a raised octagonal glass structure with a two-tiered, pagoda-style roof on a white concrete foundation, sister to the performance pavilion in the lotus pond at the Suzhou Museum. And, like the museum, light filters through thin wooden slats on the interior of the slanted glass walls. What Pei calls ‘a tea pavilion’ may be his only building in England, but it is one of his best – a fulfilment of a lifetime aesthetic.

Pei believes he entered architecture when the entire profession was at the beginning of a new era and, as a nonagenarian, he has retained that fresh outlook, fuelled by an innate curiosity about the rest of the world. In drawing on this knowledge, he continues to create a future in architecture out of the past.


IM Pei’s ‘Museum Trilogy’

Pei speaks warmly of what he regards as a trilogy of small-scale museums, completed between 1996 and 2008. Each is a micro-cosm of cultural context in a different part of the world.

Miho Museum, Shigaraki, Japan, 1996
Configured like a hilltop village nestled into the mountainous landscape, with peaked farmhouse-style roofs of glass. Its dramatic entrance takes one through a mountain tunnel and over a suspension bridge above a valley.

Suzhou Museum, China, 2006
In his ancestral city of Suzhou, China, where he spent boyhood summers with his grandfather, Pei designed the Suzhou Museum in the urban vernacular of white-washed outer and inner walls with gray granite roof tiles and interior courtyard gardens.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar, 2008
Pei found inspiration for his Museum of Islamic Art in the blocky form of a 13th-century domed ablution fountain in Cairo. Not to be crowded by the country’s rapid development, he designed the monumental museum complex on an artificial island connected to the mainland by three bridges.

Paula Deitz is editor of the Hudson Review, a magazine of literature and the arts published in New York.

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