In May 2019 at the age of 102, Ieoh Ming Pei, Chinese-born American architect, ranked among the greatest modernist generation of architects passed away. Born in 1917, I M Pei moved to the US to study architecture and in due course was awarded the Nobel-equivalent prize in architecture, viz the Pritzker Prize in 1983—and the jury citation stated that ‘he has given this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms’.
Pei is well-known for his forms fashioned on simple geometric shapes such as triangles, circles and squares. Instead of advocating the ‘international style’, he preferred contextual development and variation in style. So despite being a modernist, he said that ‘the important distinction is between a stylistic approach to the design; and an analytical approach giving the process of due consideration to time, place, and purpose’.
Having graduated in Architecture from MIT and March from Harvard, Pei spent time researching on the works of Le Corbusier, and became friends of the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Later he set up his independent practice, I M Pei & Partners which subsequently evolved into Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. At 73 he retired and continued as an architectural consultant for his sons’ architectural firm.
Pei married elegance with technology and is remembered for his novel geometric designs creating signature projects such as the glass-and-steel-pyramid at the Musee du Louvre in Paris, Kennedy Library in Boston, Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Hong Kong's Bank of China Tower, China's Suzhou Museum, Japan's Miho Museum and America's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Among his celebrated work is the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, considered one of his masterpieces of geometric precision, famous for its razor-sharp edge.
Besides designing public buildings, Pei was active in urban planning designing the New York City Convention Center, Singapore’s Gateway office and the Dallas Symphony Hall. Not a person used to resting on his laurels, his output was prolific including the John Hancock Tower in Boston, Indiana University Museum, Nestlé Corporate Headquarters, El Paso Tower, the Beijing Fragrant Hill Hotel…
Literally Pei's name, Ieoh Ming, stands for ‘to inscribe brightly’. In a way, the type of research which he conducted for his designs were out-of-the-box so to say. For example, when Pei was commissioned to expand the famous art museum Louvre, which he called "the greatest challenge and the greatest accomplishment of my career,” he conducted four months of discreet research.
States Encyclopedia.com …’ He visited the Louvre several times to evaluate what needed to be done to better accommodate the millions of people who toured the museum each year. He wanted to preserve and respect the classic, seventeenth-century design, but also take advantage of advances in modern architecture. Pei's solution was both classical and modern—a large pyramid made of glass. Visitors pass through the pyramid and descend to an underground entrance lobby. They can then enter each wing of the museum through a series of corridors. The visual beauty of the original building was not only preserved, but the visitors were now also able to view it through the glass of the pyramid—as a work of art might be seen in a museum. A main pyramid was constructed with 698 panes of glass, and three satellite pyramids stand nearby’.
When Pei was bestowed with the hugely prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize for his immense contributions, he invested his prize money to create a scholarship for Chinese students to study architecture in the United States.
During his early years in Boston, he met Eileen Loo, a Chinese American architecture student whom he married in 1942 –they had four children. His sons run the firm Pei Partnership Architects.
When he died at 102, writer, author and critic, Paul Goldberg tweeted, ’The end of an architectural era…a sad moment, but a career–and a life - worthy of celebration’
Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect with experience in practicing & teaching architecture, and co-founder of SIDART Photography.