IM Pei, adventurer in geometry and light: a tribute

The death at the age of 102 of IM Pei, designer of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, marks the passing of one of the dominant figures of modern American architecture. Here we trace the formative years his career

The assured lines and technological dexterity of IM Pei’s buildings occupy a unique position right at heart of the architectural debate. Pei was responsible for some of America’s most convincing and articulate examples of modern architecture. His influence extended to Europe and the Far East, where his aesthetic roots can be traced. In this profile, first published in World Architecture magazine in 1991, Stephanie Williams traces the formative years of Pei’s brilliant career:

If you grew up, as I did, on the eastern seaboard of North America during the 1960s and early 1970s there was one architect, above all, who seemed to get all the major commissions. The John F Kennedy Library, the John Hancock Building, the east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC: where there was trouble, where there was brilliance, there was I M Pei.

‘Where there was trouble, where there was brilliance, there was Pei…’

It was through the offices of Pei’s firm that Montreal gained the Place Ville Marie and Kennedy Airport, the National Airlines Terminal. New York, MIT Cornell and Sarasota gained sophisticated university buildings; Syracuse a distinguished museum of art; Dallas, a municipal centre and a wonderful symphony hall; and Paris, one of the most audacious and successful adventures in late Modernism – the glass pyramids at the Louvre.

It is not easy to put a label on I M Pei. Certainly, he is a Modernist. His buildings are famous for relying on the lines of simple, sculptural forms. They are technologically adventurous, aesthetically assured and rigorously purist. He handles space and light with enormous dexterity. He is uncompromising yet charming, tough and enduring. The big question is: does he have integrity?

Sound commercial instincts

Pei’s career has been nothing if not pragmatic. He started practising architecture working for a developer. An accomplished salesman with sound commercial instincts, he has been prepared to venture where most other architects with his talents would fear to tread. Among his buildings are many which have gone straight to the heart of architectural and political controversy. Yet at the core of these furious maelstroms, critics have found a man of elegant charm and quiet dignity.

Pei has spent his life creating some of America’s most articulate and convincing examples of modern architecture. Many are classics. Yet in his later work, especially in the designs for the Fragrant Hill Hotel near Beijing and the Shinji Shumeikai Bell Tower in Shiga, Japan, elements of poetry and movement emerge. The Chinese heritage, so explicitly influencing his late work, has clearly never been forgotten. It is not easy to categorise I M Pei.

Pei was born in 1017 in Guangzhou, Canton, the son of a well-to-do family at a time when the nation, already wracked by fighting between warlords, was beginning to seethe with conflicting philosophies brought from the west and Russia. For more than 600 years Pei’s family had been based in Suzhou, a prosperous and elegant city of canals, quiet charm and idyllic gardens. Of these, one of the two most famous that survives, the Shih Tzu Lin or Stone Lion Grove, belonged to a great uncle of Pei.

Exposed to western ideas

Pei’s father, however, was of a new generation, exposed to and endorsing ideas from the West. Eschewing the arts and scholarship, he went to work for the Bank of China. Pei grew up in Hong Kong and Shanghai, in its heyday as a centre of western trade in China. By then it was seen not merely to be fashionable, but essential, for children of prominent Chinese families to be sent to the west to study, so that they could return with skills to modernise China. Thus in 1935, inspired by the recent construction of a sturdy high-rise hotel in Shanghai, Pei set sail for San Francisco. He then took a train across America to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Pei wanted to go to America rather than the England (his father’s choice) because he sensed its vitality. Enthusiasm, energy, an eye for the coming thing; these are the characteristics which were to shape Pei’s education and his subsequent career. The University of Pennsylvania, however, was a mistake. It was seeped in the Beaux-Arts tradition, teaching drawing from plaster casts.

Pei speedily transferred to MIT to read engineering, then, persuaded by the Dean of the architecture school, changed back to architecture. MIT was equally dominated by the Beaux-Arts, but Pei was technically well schooled. Freedom to experiment with new forms of design came with postgraduate work at Harvard, where Walter Gropius, former head of the Bauhaus, had recently arrived to chair the Graduate School of Design.

These were the heady days of Modernism. Pei became close friends with Marcel Breuer. But his was not a blind conversion to the gospel of ‘form follows function’. His most important post-graduate project was for a Shanghai museum. The problem was to find some means of expressing regional or national character through modern architecture. Pei combined bare Chinese walls with a series of landscaped courtyards, setting up a play between glimpses of trees and objects in the museum. The issue of finding a modern aesthetic with clear Chinese overtones would later dominate his thinking in the design for the Fragrant Hill Hotel near Beijing.

As the second world war came to an end but the struggle between the Nationalists and Communists in China continued, Pei stayed on at Harvard to teach. By now, however, many of his colleagues were starting work on their own account, building small extensions and houses, on their way to setting up practises. In 1948 Pei met William Zeckendorf, the most powerful real estate developer in New York. Zeckendorf thought big: the developments he was interested in involved whole tracts of cities. Paradoxically he was also genuinely and passionately committed to fine buildings. He wanted someone in his office to produce architecture. Pei could not resist the job.

There followed a number of speculative, not very good, one-off buildings. But the scale which Zeckendorf preferred was vast: first, the huge site on the east river in Manhattan that became home to the UN. Then, a major city centre project (offices, shopping centre, hotel, plaza, skating rink, and parking) for Denver.

Attention considerable

By now Pei had recruited a small team of former cohorts from Harvard to join him. The first of the buildings completed in Denver was the Mile High Center. Today it looks like a conventional Modernist product: 20-storeys high, four-square and glassy. But in the mid-50s, it attracted considerable attention.

Next, in 1953: the redevelopment of a 500-hectare tract of rundown property to the south of the elevated tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the centre of Washington. The overwhelming attraction of Pei’s plan, enthusiastically endorsed by the community, was a mall, 100 metres in length, which bridged the railway tracks by means of a broad esplanade. The intention was to link the Smithsonian Institution and the Potomac River, driving the thriving businesses of the city centre before it. Even though the plan was to become compromised by bureaucracy, competition and delay, more than three-quarters of it was eventually built.

Simultaneously. Zeckendorf was operating on seven acres in the heart of Montreal. Pei delegated responsibility for what were to become the twin towers of Place Ville Marie to his former Harvard student, Henry Cobb. Forty-eight stories high, Place Ville Marie not only became the city’s first significant tower, but one of the largest office complexes in the world. It was not the scale of the development. however, which impressed observers at the time. It was its quality, its materials and the dose attention to detail.

Entirely commonsense approach

Above all, there was a novel but entirely commonsense approach to the long and bitter Canadian winter. Beneath the cruciform of the tower was a large underground shopping centre, destined to become the model for many more in Canada to follow.

Pei learned much from Zeckendorf: about business and persuasion. By 1960, however, Zeckendorf was in financial trouble. For Pei, now 43, it was time to go it alone. Retaining a small contingent of architects, Pei went into business as I M Pei & Associates with one job on the drawing board and the Green Earth Sciences Building at MIT nearly complete.

The mature projects which followed later – the Louvre Pyramid, Paris 1983-89; the Fragrant Hill Hotel, Beijing 1979-82; The East Building of the National Gallery, Washington DC 1968-78; the Bank of China, Hong Kong 1982-90; and the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas 1981-89 – have now become part of modern architectural history.

Pei’s starting point has always lain in careful analysis of the site and its context. Mulling over the problem he will look to other sources for inspiration. But his work has no obvious precedents; it is never derivative. Geometry dominates, purity of line is all. His forms are entirely rational, his detailing draws its elegance from understatement. He is a master of great and abstract spaces, a virtuoso with light.

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