I.M. Pei, FAIA, who died today at 102, did more than any architect of his generation to popularize Modernism for showcase corporate offices and leading cultural institutions.
Few critics would consider Pei the most original designer of his time—that distinction would likely go to Louis Kahn. Pei was, however, the most skilled at refining the spare geometry of Modernism and selling it to powerful clients and a skeptical public. He was adept enough at the drafting board, but his real power lay in his charm. “He’s like the greatest maître d’ at the greatest restaurant in the world,” New York architect Arthur Rosenblatt said.
Pei was, for a time, the most famous architect in the world, thanks to such projects as the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and a controversial renovation of the Louvre Museum in Paris. In awarding him the Pritzker Prize in 1983—one of many accolades Pei received, including the AIA Gold Medal (1979), the Praemium Imperiale (1989), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1992), and RIBA's Royal Gold Medal (2010)—the jury said that he had “given this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms.”
Ieoh Ming Pei was born in 1917 in Guangzhou, China, into a powerful Chinese banking family. He grew up in two worlds—cosmopolitan prewar Shanghai, where his father helped lead the Bank of China, and the ancient family garden in the outlying town of Suzhou. In 1935, he traveled to Cambridge, Mass., to study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When the Chinese revolution prevented his return home, he enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Design to study under Bauhaus designers Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who had recently fled Germany.
After graduating in 1948, he worked for New York real estate magnate William Zeckendorf. While his former classmates pursued small projects, Pei redeveloped swaths of Denver, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. He left to start his own firm, I.M. Pei & Associates in 1955 (later I.M. Pei & Partners, and, since 1989, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners), and landed the country’s most coveted commission when Jacqueline Kennedy chose him to design her husband’s library in 1964. The project suffered setbacks, including a change of site, and was completed in 1979, but the commission gave him the stature to win a series of high-profile commissions. One of those projects, the 60-story John Hancock Tower in Boston, which was designed by partner Henry Cobb and completed in 1976, threatened his career when the reflective windows crashed to the sidewalk hundreds of feet below. The defect was eventually fixed, but the damage to Pei’s reputation was done.
Pei’s career might have languished had Paul Mellon not hired him to design an extension to the National Gallery of Art on an awkward trapezoidal plot on the north side of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Pei’s solution for the East Wing—completed in 1978—a pair of fused marble triangles, became one of the capital’s most popular destinations and elevated him to international prominence.
Three years later, French president François Mitterrand hired Pei to renovate the Louvre Museum. His design, opened in 1989, features a new entrance centered on a 70-foot-tall glass pyramid surrounded by a trio of baby pyramids and triangular reflecting pools. The French public initially pilloried the plan as a desecration of sacred cultural grounds, but, in time, the country came to celebrate it as reinvigorating addition. After a preview visit before it’s official opening, critic John Russell wrote in The New York Times in 1988 that he could “say without equivocation that as a structure the pyramid is anything but an eyesore. Traditionally, a pyramid presses down upon the earth with an air of fatality and finality. This one has, by contrast, an aerial delicacy. The glass is thin, the struts and supports look like the ankles of a gazelle, and the action of the light on and through the slanting panes of clear glass is never the same for two seconds together.” The American Institute of Architects honored it with the Twenty-Five Year Award in 2017.