I.M. Pei, 1917–2019
The architect who designed modernist icons
I.M. Pei used simple shapes to create some of the most monumental structures of the past century. The Chinese-American architect believed that modernist buildings could be bold and artistic but also practical and welcoming, and he demonstrated his vision most famously with the 70-foot-high glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre in Paris and the trapezoidal, marble-clad East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Highly prolific, Pei balanced lucrative commercial projects such as the triangulated Bank of China skyscraper in Hong Kong with smaller works like the intricate Miho Museum in the hills outside Kyoto, Japan. But all of his creations, he explained while accepting the Pritzker Prize in 1983, were intended to exist in harmony with their surroundings. “By design,” he said, architects “search for that special quality that is the spirit of the place, as no building exists alone.”
Ieoh Ming Pei was born in Canton, China, to a banker father and a flautist mother who died when he was 13, said The New York Times. Pei spent much of his childhood in Shanghai, where he became fascinated with the construction of a 25-story hotel. “That’s when I knew I wanted to build,” he said. At age 17, he headed to the U.S. to study architecture and enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Though he intended to go back to China,” said TheGuardian.com, Pei was “stranded in the U.S. by World War II.” He volunteered for the war effort and was tasked with creating fuses for bombs. “They figured if you knew how to build buildings,” he said, “you knew how to destroy them.” After the war, Pei designed low-income housing projects across the U.S. for a New York developer, and in 1960 he opened his own practice.
“His big break was in 1964,” said the Associated Press, when Pei was chosen to design the John F. Kennedy library in Boston. It took years to complete but led to one prestige project after another, including the Dallas City Hall (1972) and the National Gallery addition (1978). That job inspired French President François Mitterrand to select Pei for the Louvre renovation in 1983. Pei’s pyramids were initially despised, with local critics likening them to “an annex to Disneyland.” Today, the glass structures are beloved emblems of the City of Light. “Architecture has to endure,” said Pei. “Even 25 years is not enough to make a judgment.” ■