I.M. Pei's First 100 Years
How the celebrated architect helped shape the 20th century.
For architects, longevity is a very valuable career asset. It takes a sinfully long time to build any one building, so the longer you stick around, the better your chances of leaving a large body of work behind you. Frank Lloyd Wright made it to 91; Philip Johnson died at 98; and now comes I. M. Pei, beating the best of them at a solid 100.
Raised in and around Shanghai, Pei began his architectural education early—the city’s Bund district boasting an extraordinary collection of colonial-era Beaux Arts structures. His family also had roots in the nearby city of Suzhou: A sort of Chinese Venice, the town features some of the oldest and most beautiful gardens in the world, and Pei made them his childhood playground. The exposure to both Western and Eastern influences was to prove decisive in his thinking. “I have never forgotten those gardens,” Pei said in later years, describing them as “wonderful marriages of man-made and natural design.”
An adventure seeker by nature, Pei made the unusual decision to come to the United States to study architecture, enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania before transferring to MIT. Architecture culture in America in the 1930s was racing to catch up to Europe, and Pei had to discover for himself the revolutionary ideas of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and the other pioneering modernists then making waves abroad. Eventually Pei found himself in Gropius’s orbit when the Bauhaus founder became a teacher at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where Pei was a student. His commitment to modernism has (almost) never wavered in the decades since.
It was Pei’s good fortune to be quasi-adopted in the late ’40s by swashbuckling New York developer William Zeckendorf Sr., who was on a nationwide building spree. Under the aegis of Zeckendorf ’s company, Webb & Knapp, Pei completed a suite of residential and commercial projects that established him as a practitioner of a singularly elegant brand of the International Style. From his Atlanta headquarters for Gulf Oil in 1949 to his L’Enfant Plaza complex in Washington, D.C., in 1968, the architect—now with his own firm, I. M. Pei & Associates—developed a reduced vocabulary of blocky, concrete forms arranged in artful compositions with a robustly civic character.
The same spirit is in evidence in the trio of projects for which Pei is most renowned today: the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (1978), with concrete so richly textured it begs to be touched; the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston (1979); and the Grand Louvre plan in Paris, the glass pyramid completed amid much controversy in 1989 and today a beloved symbol of the world’s most famous museum. Pei’s catalog continued to grow and evolve in the years that followed—he is now in retirement in New York City—and he would even depart slightly from the modernist formula with Manhattan’s Four Seasons hotel in 1993, a nod to the Art Deco skyscrapers of old. Pei’s record is incredible: 60-plus projects in no fewer than 12 countries.
As much as his buildings, Pei himself is an institution. His reputation stands entirely on the strength of his work, and for that reason it will long outlive him—unless, of course, he just keeps on going. Here’s hoping.
Below, Pei’s leading collaborators, colleagues, and protégés pay tribute to his mastery
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