How IM Pei Became One Of The World's Greatest Architects And His Most Iconic Works
When the Chinese-American icon died on 16 May 2019 at the extraordinary age of 102, he left behind one of the world’s most important and impressive collections of buildings. His career spanned the better part of a century, riding the wave of Modernism without plunging into the depths of iconoclasm or egotism, absorbing influences as disparate as Chinese gardens, Anasazi cliff dwellings, and Middle Eastern mosques to create structures that are as understated as they are impactful. “The best of his creations look at once audacious and inevitable,” wrote architecture critic Justin Davidson.
Whether they are found in Paris, Doha or Singapore, Pei’s buildings are always remarkable, but never alien. The same could be said for the man himself. “You think of architects who seem to lead with their ego, and he was never like that,” recalled architect David Childs after Pei’s death. “He was gentle in demeanour but forceful his convictions.”
FROM CHINA TO AMERICA
Born in Guangzhou in 1917, Pei Ieoh-ming grew up in a prosperous family that shifted between Shanghai and Hong Kong. They were members of China’s scholar gentry class—wealthy, well-educated and civic-minded. Pei often spent time with his mother in the Chinese gardens of Suzhou, his family’s ancestral home and a historic bastion of China’s intellectual elite. The experience of those spaces left a deep enough impression on Pei that when he went for university, he opted to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
What he found there was an architectural profession still obsessed with the curlicues and frills of the Beaux-Arts era, which reminded Pei of the heavy colonial influences on The Bund in Shanghai. He was far more interested in the basic geometric principles of architecture, so he switched his major to engineering and transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he became fascinated by the work of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of the new International Style that called for simple, straightforward forms made of glass and steel.
MODERN BUT ROOTED
Pei managed to absorb Le Corbusier’s ethos without any of the dogmatism that led the Swiss architect to propose demolishing Paris in favour of a new city of highways and high-rises. While Le Corbusier was devoted to a kind of universality—buildings that looked the same whether they were in India or France—Pei always understood the importance of place. After joining the Harvard Graduate School of Design (thanks to his wife, a landscape architecture student named Eileen Loo), his master’s thesis called for the creation of an art museum in Shanghai that felt authentically Chinese without using any traditional materials.
Pei had always planned to return to China, but his family warned him to stay away after the Communist victory of 1949. He ended up moving to New York, where he landed a job with charismatic property magnate William Zeckendorf. That gave Pei the opportunity to work on a wide range of commercial projects, including apartment blocks such as the Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia and office towers like Place Ville Marie in Montreal, Canada—projects that have become beloved landmarks in their respective cities.
By the early 1960s, Pei had worked on many successful commercial ventures, but he felt he was losing touch with the creative side of architecture. He jumped at the chance to design the Luce Memorial Chapel on the campus of Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan, producing an elegant sweep of curved concrete that stood in sharp contrast to the strict geometric grids that defined his earlier work.
That marked a turning point in Pei’s career as he embraced more ambitious projects for institutional clients. The Mesa Laboratory, designed in 1961 for a research centre in the foothills of Colorado, USA, channelled the spirit of indigenous cliff homes into a village-like cluster of Cubist concrete towers; they were textured with bush hammers that helped them blend into the surrounding red-rock landscape. Pei spent many hours alone in the nearby wilderness, an experience that recalled the time he spent in Chinese gardens. “I tried to listen to the silence again, just as my mother had taught me,” he later said. “The investigation of the place became a kind of religious experience for me.”
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Pei finally returned home in 1974, two years after frozen relations between the US and China had thawed. That led him to work on a hotel in Fragrant Hills, an old imperial garden, in Beijing, China. Pei’s design departed from his trademark Cubism and embraced traditional Chinese elements, which proved controversial—some critics labelled him as “reactionary”—and the project was hampered by political and technical challenges. The Fragrant Hill Hotel fell into disrepair almost immediately after it opened in 1982.
Pei was disappointed but undaunted. “He surely had a fervour for contributing to China and the search for a new architectural language for a new China,” says Shirley Surya, architecture and design curator at the M+ museum of visual culture in Hong Kong. In 1989, Pei began work on a new headquarters for Bank of China (BOC) in Hong Kong; his father had spent his career as an executive at the bank, adding extra significance. What he produced is often compared to a bamboo shoot, with an escalating series of triangular forms that served as a punctuation mark for Hong Kong’s skyline.
The BOC Tower is still as fresh and captivating today as it was when it first opened. Although it is often praised for its dynamic form and the way its glass curtain walls reflect their surroundings, Surya says it’s also an emblem of Pei’s architectural ingenuity. The triangular sections created a cross-braced structure that required relatively little steel (and therefore relatively little money) to achieve its great height. “The building’s strength as an enduring urban symbol—as well as that of China’s rise to power—achieved via an economy of means, and brilliant integration of architectural design and engineering truly set it apart from Pei’s other highrise projects,” she says.
Pei continued working well into his 90s, and some of his last projects were among his strongest—museums in Luxembourg, Suzhou and Doha, each attuned to their surroundings while bearing the imprint of a master.
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ICONIC LANDMARK PROJECTS BY IM PEI
OCBC CENTRE, SINGAPORE (1976)
Built at the cost of US$74 million, this landmark skyscraper was once Singapore’s tallest building. Pei created a magnet for the city’s burgeoning financial district, with a rare plaza marked by public art. The twin-core structure was innovative, too, allowing for an unobstructed banking hall and a flexible office space.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, EAST BUILDING, WASHINGTON DC, USA (1978)
Faced with a trapezoidal site and the need to harmonise with the museum’s neoclassical main wing, Pei channelled the odd shape into a building that is at once monumental and intimate, with pyramid-shaped skylights that infuse the interior with natural light
LOUVRE PYRAMID, PARIS, FRANCE (1989)
Drawing from the lessons of the East Building, this pyramid was designed to bring light into the Louvre’s new underground expansion. Its clean geometry was particularly controversial when it was first unveiled, but it has since become as much a symbol of Paris as the Eiffel Tower.
SUZHOU MUSEUM, SUZHOU, CHINA (2006)
Pei paid homage to the gardens that had so inspired him as a child with this serene complex that presents a modern interpretation of classical Chinese gardens. The building reflects Pei’s interest in clean, geometric shapes, channelling them into traditional plaster walls, tile roofs and courtyards.
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