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I.M. Pei, 1917 - 2019

Pei was as urbane as his best buildings.

By Fred A. Bernstein
May 21, 2019

I.M. Pei, who for much of the late 20th century was the architect of choice for institutions like the Louvre Museum and the National Gallery of Art, which used his buildings to convey sophistication, power, and refinement, died May 16 at 102.


Pei, a Chinese-born American, designed scores of widely admired – and a few not-so-widely admired – buildings during his 70-year career, drawing on the modernist lessons of the Bauhaus masters with whom he studied in the 1950s. But Pei adopted their minimalism to the needs of his prestigious clients. Unlike his teachers, who often built in humble stucco, Pei preferred concrete or, when budgets permitted, lush surfaces of polished stone and glossy metal.


His addition to the National Gallery in Washington, DC, known as the East Building, is made of massive blocks of Tennessee marble arranged around a triangular courtyard. Completed in 1978, it was a rare example of a modernist structure that appeared so permanent and well-crafted that even lovers of traditional architecture were smitten.


That project helped him win the commission to renovate the Louvre in Paris. When he was hired, the museum was spread out in a series of ancient buildings that were difficult to navigate and lacked modern amenities. Pei proposed placing support services below ground. As a point of entry, he designed a 70-foot-high glass pyramid – it was as if an alien craft had landed in the courtyard of the French Renaissance palace. Preservationists were appalled. But Pei won over one of his chief critics, Jacques Chirac (then the mayor of Paris), by erecting a full-size mock-up of the pyramid. The public eventually warmed to his scheme.


Pei said the Louvre was the most important project of his career, adding, “If there’s one thing I know I didn’t do wrong, it’s the Louvre.” Other projects he is known for include the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong, a skillful assemblage of prisms reaching to the sky; the pyramidal Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; and the glass-walled John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.


I.M. Pei was as urbane as his best buildings. He was far from the obvious choice to design the Kennedy library and museum at a time when his work consisted mainly of large-scale office and apartment buildings. But when Jacqueline Kennedy visited Pei in his office at 385 Madison Avenue, in 1964, she was so impressed by his erudition and elegant manners that she chose him on the spot.


The resulting building was less successful than the friendship between the architect and the former first lady. Years of community opposition to locating the library in Cambridge delayed construction; the building wasn’t completed until 1979, 16 years after President Kennedy’s death. By that time, the president’s widow had married Aristotle Onassis and shifted her focus away from the project. “I lost a client,” Pei said, explaining why, in his opinion, the library was “not my most inspired work.” But it raised his profile, he said, putting him in line to design other important civic buildings.


Trials and tribulations


It was during the same period that Pei endured another crisis, also in Boston. The John Hancock Tower, which rises 700 feet above the city, was nearing completion in 1973 when sheets of glass began popping out of its façade. Eventually, one-third of the building’s windows were replaced with protective plywood, creating a high-rise embarrassment visible from much of Boston. Some called it “the world’s tallest wooden building.”


Though the Hancock tower was known to be the work of Pei’s partner, Henry Cobb, its problems threatened the firm’s very existence. “I almost had to close the office,” said Pei, explaining that he not only lost commissions, but had to devote large sums of money to hiring experts to extricate his firm from ruinous litigation. “The glass company had a lot of money, and Hancock had a lot of money, but we didn’t have a lot of money,” he recalled. Eventually, experts determined that the problem could be solved by installing a different type of glass. With the replacement windows in place, the building opened in 1976, and Pei was able to rebuild the firm he had founded in 1955.


Passing the baton


Over the years, Pei began encouraging his partners, including Cobb and James Ingo Freed (who died in 1995), to take more credit for their work. Freed, whose family fled Germany in 1939, became known as the designer of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, completed in 1993. The firm, once known as I.M. Pei & Associates, then I.M. Pei & Partners, became Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in 1990, when Pei retired. The purpose of his retirement, he said, was to allow Freed and Cobb, who were younger, to take their rightful places. “It was a passing of the baton,” Pei said. “It had to be done sooner or later.”


But the firm continued to execute his work until the mid 1990s, and for many years Pei maintained an office at Pei Cobb Freed in part, he said, to be close to his archives.


In 1992, Pei began working with his sons Chien Chung "Didi" Pei and Li Chung "Sandi" Pei at Pei Partnership Architects. Among their most visible projects was the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. When it opened in 2008, Nicolai Ouroussoff, writing for the New York Times, described it as a structure of “imposing simplicity” that recalls a time when “the rift between modernity and tradition had yet to reach full pitch.”


Pei had said he had no use for architectural theory and, except for a brief stint in the 1940s, he never taught architecture. He said he avoided architectural fads like deconstructivism and post-modernism, some of which were spearheaded by his one-time Harvard classmate Philip Johnson. His failure to jump on architectural bandwagons, Pei said, caused the two men, who had been friends early in their careers, to grow apart.


“Those were heady days”


Ieoh Ming Pei was born in 1917 in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, the second of five children. His father, Tsuyee Pei, a banker, moved the family to Hong Kong when Ieoh Ming was an infant. The elder Pei became the chief of the Hong Kong branch of the Bank of China. Nine years later, the senior Pei was elevated to head of the bank’s large Shanghai branch. In Shanghai, Ieoh Ming was fascinated by the construction of a 25-story hotel. “I couldn’t resist looking into the hole,” Pei recalled. “That’s when I decided I wanted to build.” He spent his summers in Suzhou, where his father’s family had lived for more than 500 years, learning the rites of ancestor worship. Yet he loved watching American movies, particularly the films of Bing Crosby and Betty Grable.          


In 1935, Pei left China for the U.S., a decision, he said, that was influenced by films that depicted life on campus as idyllic. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania but – unsure of his ability to learn the classical drawing techniques then taught there -- quickly transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received a bachelor of architecture degree in 1940.


He intended to return to China. But, during the years of World War II and Mao’s revolution, his father repeatedly advised him to remain in the United States. “It was the best advice he ever gave me,” said Pei, who eventually became a U.S. citizen. In 1942, he enrolled at Harvard to study with Walter Gropius, the German-born Bauhaus master. Soon he discovered that most of the men on campus had gone off to war. “It was me – a Chinese national – and the ladies,” Pei said. “I thought I should make some contribution.” So he interrupted his studies to volunteer for the National Defense Research Committee in Princeton, where he became a fusing expert. “They figured if you knew how to build buildings, you knew how to destroy them. I’d get photos from Germany, and they’d say, ‘This is what your recommendations accomplished,’” Pei recalled. “It was a sad time.” In 1945, he returned to Harvard, where Gropius named him an assistant professor while he was still a student.


In 1948, Pei was hired as the director of architecture for Webb & Knapp, a real estate empire ruled by William Zeckendorf. “Those were heady days,” Pei said.  Unlike other young architects, who consider themselves lucky to receive small residential commissions, Pei was designing such large, publicly subsidized projects as Manhattan’s Kips Bay Towers (1963). Their gridded, poured-in-place concrete façades proved, he said, that concrete was an acceptable material for large-scale urban housing. What Pei called his “concrete series” continued with the Society Hill Towers (1964) in Philadelphia, a particularly successful example of urban renewal, and the Silver Towers (1967) in Greenwich Village for New York University.


In 1955, Pei founded I.M. Pei & Associates. But his office was next door to Zeckendorf’s, and he continued to work on Webb & Knapp projects. He commuted from a lavish apartment on Sutton Place and a weekend home in Katonah, New York, which he designed. He shared both with his wife, the former Eileen Loo, who had left China in 1938 to study at Wellesley College. The couple married in 1942 and had four children. The oldest son, T’ing Chung, died in 2003. Mrs. Pei died in 2014. Pei is survived by their sons Chien Chung "Didi" Pei and Li Chung “Sandi” Pei and their daughter, Liane Kracklauer, all of New York City; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


Pei as activist and mentor


Pei made his first trip back to China 1974, “after Nixon opened things up,” he said. In the 1980s, he designed the Fragrant Hill Hotel outside Beijing.  (He has said it was not one of his most successful buildings.)


Also in the 1980s, he was asked to design the Hong Kong headquarters of the Bank of China, the same branch his father had managed more than half a century before. Bank executives, in a display of old-fashioned etiquette, asked the senior Pei, then living in the United States, for permission to hire his son.


In recent, years, Pei became active in building Chinese-American relations, a cause that grew out of the 1989 clash between students and the military in Tiananmen Square. As a prominent Chinese-American, Pei said, he received more than 300 requests for interviews about the crisis. Uncomfortable speaking for all Chinese-Americans, he gathered a few others to discuss the issue at his office. The result was the Committee of 100, an organization that offers opinions on issues of concern to Chinese-Americans; its members have included the playwright David Henry Hwang, Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, and AIDS researcher David Ho.      


In 1983, he won the Pritzker Prize, considered architecture’s highest honor. Pei used the $100,000 award to establish a scholarship fund that would help Chinese students attend architecture school in the United States. But he stipulated that the beneficiaries had to return to China to work. Pei said that the proviso was meant to prevent a “brain drain” in China. “It was well-intentioned,” he said, “but it proved impractical. Once they have a chance to come to America,” he said of China’s budding architects, “they want to stay.”


[Curbed: Mapping I.M. Pei’s major works]



Fred A. Bernstein studied architecture (at Princeton) and law (at NYU), and writes about both subjects. He has contributed more than 400 articles, most of them on architecture and design, to the New York Times, and hundreds more to other publications. In 2008 he won the Oculus Award, bestowed annually by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for excellence in architectural journalism.


Also by Bernstein:


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Second Look: Tracey Towers by Paul Rudolph, 1972

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Op-Ed: The 2012 New York Olympics is lost. Long live the 2014 New York World's Fair.


Second Look: New York Hall of Science by Wallace K. Harrison/Harrison and Abramovitz, 1964; Polshek Partnership Architects, 2004

Queens, NY: Its power undiminished after 40 years, a 20th century cathedral to science is about to be rediscovered as a luminous addition debuts this week.


Beauty in Garbage: Naka Incineration Plant by Yoshio Taniguchi

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Second Look: George Washington Bridge Bus Station / Pier Luigi Nervi, 1963

One of Nervi's few completed projects outside Italy is superb example of the poetry he wrought from ferro-concrete.


INSIGHT: The Might-Have-Been Memorial



(click on pictures to enlarge)

Fred A. Bernstein, circa 1989

“If there’s one thing I know I didn’t do wrong, it’s the Louvre.” - I.M. Pei