I.M. Pei

Simply a profoundly complete architect who defies categorisation

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Ieoh Ming Pei (always known as I. M.) is a Chinese American architect whose career has been an extraordinary gift to architecture. He travelled to the United States in 1935 to study architecture, and never returned to live in his home country.

Born: 1917 
Nationality: Chinese

Pei received a Masters degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied under Gropius and Breuer and alongside Philip Johnson, a mature student. Here he came under the influence of the International Style which was to inspire his work for the next 70 years. One of his projects at Harvard was for a new museum in Shanghai in which he tested the boundaries of modernism and which was much praised by Gropius.

To be a good architect, there is something about pushing the limit...I would like to think I push myself to the limit

I. M. Pei began his architectural practice in the early 1950s and has produced challenging and thoughtful architecture in every decade, which has come to be a part of the definition of its time. His first commissions were for the noted planner-developer William Zeckendorf.

2010 ROYAL GOLD MEDALLIST

Interview and examples of his work over five decades

The 2010 Royal Gold Medallist, Chinese American I. M. Pei was 92 and preferred to be interviewed instead of giving the customary lecture. So architect David Adjaye, who nominated him, and the RIBA’s Head of Awards, Tony Chapman, a former BBC TV producer, went to New York to make a film with him. 

The Miesian Mile High Center in Denver (1952-56), a 22 storey tower, was way ahead of its time and demonstrated Pei’s mature belief that you don’t need a lot of money to do good architecture, just a lot of thought. But the developer was not merely interested in commercial architecture.With Pei as his architect he would fly from city to city persuading mayors to apply for federal funding for slum clearance and urban renewal – ‘healing the wounds of the city’ in Pei’s telling phrase.

The low budgets for early radical housing and urbanism projects such as Kips Bay in New York City forced him to experiment with materials. This was architecture of the minimum. Brick was too expensive, so Pei argued for in-situ concrete – the façade was the structure. Kips Bay also gave him his first experience of masterplanning, a subject still dear to his heart.

Kip’s Bay still stands today with Pei’s name on a plaque. It is a fine early achievement, a social project that has paid its way in the commercial world and one he is still immensely proud of.I. M. Pei’s architecture has always asked searching questions and provided invaluable answers as to how contemporary architecture can engage the complex issues of our times.

HYPERBOLOID

As early as 1954 Pei was proposing the Hyperboloid,
a 1,500 foot, 108 storey crown of thorns skyscraper,
it tapered towards two thirds height, so that every floor plate
was different, before flourishing out to its crown.

The aerodynamic shape made it more resistant to nuclear blast. Underneath was a transport interchange the likes of which has never been achieved in the US. And though 70% bigger than the Empire State, it would have used the same amount of steel. This was green thinking before its time.

His first major built project in his own name was the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado (1961-67), won in competition against his hero Alvar Aalto. Built in the foothills of the Rockies, it was influenced by a visit Pei made to the four storey buildings at Mesa Verde, built by indigenous Americans in the 13th century, which merge into their environment with their use of local material.

There followed his first museum, the Everson, in Syracuse, New York (1961-68) which is as sculptural as the pieces it contains. Here Pei was able to play with form, and the space created by form, for the first time. Everson’s success gave him the credibility to undertake what many still consider his masterpiece: the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC (1968-78). At last there would be no compromises on site, budget or time. The benefactor Paul Mellon considered it the only great work of art he ever commissioned. ‘The choice of I. M. Pei as architect was ultimately mine,‘he said, ‘and I shall always be proud that I made that choice.’

Despite the grandeur of its setting on the Mall the East Building has an intimacy to it. This is in part because of the response to the triangular site and the differing height restrictions and results in the three house museums, the atrium garden and the constantly shifting perspectives. But it is the introduction of daylight – the massive skylight was an overnight inspiration - which makes the building so memorable, and it was this, together with the triangular form, that he took much further with his commission for the Grand Louvre in Paris (1983-93).

Grand Louvre, Paris

This was his most difficult job ever, given the cultural sensitivity of the French. Here he was toying with one of France’s greatest icons, but instead of treading carefully, he waded in. He was also up against the public’s inability to understand a building until it is complete and they can inhabit it.

Yet another issue was that the Louvre lacked the infrastructure a modern museum must have. So he proposed to excavate the two courtyards to provide this accommodation. When he asked President Mitterrand for permission, his response was immediate: ‘Très bien.’ That solved the technical problem but the public still needed to be enticed in.

The glass pyramid was the solution. The Commission Superieure des Monuments Historiques, to whom he had to present, called it ‘a fake diamond and very cheap.’ Fortunately Pei’s French was not good enough for him to understand and he persevered and with the support of Mitterrand and the then Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac, he won over the nation and the world.In between came the fulfilment of the personal commission from Jackie Kennedy for her husband’s Memorial Library near Boston (1965-79).

Their relationship sustained the project through its 14 year delays, the inroads of inflation and the numerous site changes. The landfill site in Dorchester was scarcely auspicious, but the building does suitably memorialise a President who is forever young.

Pei has since worked increasingly on an international stage: particularly and at last in his homeland of China, with the Bank of China in Hong Kong (1982-89), the Bank of China Head Office in Beijing (1994-2001), and the Suzhou Museum (2000-06); each grafts new technologies on to the roots of indigenous building techniques, to create a new, distinctly modern form of Chinese architecture. There have been other important European commissions too: the Deutsches Historisches Museuem Zeughaus in Berlin (1996-2003) and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Luxembourg (1995-2006), both of which brought local cultural challenges. Finally, elsewhere in Asia, there have been the Miho Museum in Shiga, Japan (1991-97) and, most recently, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar (2000-08).

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