I. M. Pei
The Mastermind of Modernist Design
Ieoh Ming Pei, also known as I. M. Pei, was a renowned Chinese-American architect who left a lasting mark on the world of architecture with his modernist designs. Known for intimate and extended consideration of the time, purpose, and place of each of his creations, I. M. Pei helped revolutionize the concept of buildings as art in the 20th century. You have probably seen one of his buildings without even knowing it!
Ieoh Ming Pei, 1982
Pei was born in China in 1917 and moved to the United States at 18 to study architecture. Shortly after receiving his graduate degree in architecture from Harvard, I. M. Pei was recruited by William Zeckendorf to oversee the design of buildings for Webb & Knapp. Unlike his peers who were designing smaller projects, Pei found himself immediately involved in designing high-rise buildings, providing him with the experience to establish his own firm in 1955.
National Center for Atmospheric Research. Boulder, Colorado, United States.
The East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC, United States.
East Building atrium
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Boston, Massachusetts, United States. CC JFK Library.
I. M. Pei’s architectural style flourished with his creation of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado (1961-67). This project garnered him some national recognition, and he further solidified his reputation with two highly-acclaimed institutional projects: the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington (1968-78) and the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston (1965-79).
Bank of China Tower. Hong Kong, China.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1974 Pei returned to China for the first time to design a hotel at Fragrant Hills, and fifteen years later, he designed a skyscraper in Hong Kong for the Bank of China.
One of I. M. Pei’s later projects was the design of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, located in Cleveland, Ohio, commonly called the Rock Hall. In creating the building, Pei aimed to capture the essence of the music by utilizing “a bold and fresh architectural vocabulary.” This museum serves as a prime example of Pei’s architectural style, featuring dynamic angular shapes that evoke the energetic spirit of rock music.
Pyramid of the Grand Louvre. Paris, France.
In Europe, I. M. Pei is most recognized for creating the Pyramid of the Grand Louvre in Paris. During its design, the Louvre Pyramid was met with intense controversy. Some critics argued that the modernist structure was too jarring when juxtaposed with the classic French Renaissance architecture of the original museum. Others believed the pyramid’s symbolism was out of place since it was reminiscent of ancient Egypt. Despite these criticisms and the accompanying racist media campaign, Pei said that the design did not necessarily need to be a pyramid but rather a simple, large geometric structure that would bring in light and air while serving as a grand entrance. He believed that the pyramid fulfilled this purpose perfectly. Most visitors today would agree that it’s a stunning structure that complements, rather than competes with, the surrounding French Renaissance architecture.
Museum of Islamic Art. Doha, Qatar.
I. M. Pei’s last grand work was the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, which showcases a remarkable fusion of the intricacy of ancient Islamic architecture and the precision of modernist design. Despite being 91 years old, Pei accepted the project and emerged from retirement to complete the museum. During the design process, Pei extensively studied Muslim history and design. The museum features a prominent central tower crowned by a main dome, its exterior adorned with pristine limestone.
His long and illustrious career spanned more than six decades and was marked by numerous accolades and awards, including the Pritzker Prize, which is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture.
Throughout his career, I. M. Pei encountered various challenges, including racism due to his Chinese background and criticism of his innovative designs, which eventually led to admiration for his modernist masterpieces. He completed approximately thirty institutional projects, along with designing churches, hospitals, municipal buildings, schools, libraries, and over a dozen museums. Although Pei’s work is highly Cubist, each design incorporates unique elements, making him difficult to classify under a typical “Pei School.” He is known for harmoniously blending classical and modern elements to complement the existing character of the surrounding urban landscape. I. M. Pei passed away in May 2019 at the age of 102, concluding a remarkable career in architecture.
“Success is a collection of problems solved.” —I. M. Pei
“I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art. To become art it must be built on a foundation of necessity.” —I. M. Pei
“Architecture is the very mirror of life. You only have to cast your eyes on buildings to feel the presence of the past, the spirit of a place; they are the reflection of society.” —I. M. Pei
“It is not an individual act, architecture. You have to consider your client. Only out of that can you produce great architecture. You cannot work in the abstract.” —I. M. Pei
“Stop worrying about missed opportunities and start looking for new ones.” —I. M. Pei
“Be the best, not necessarily the original.” —I. M. Pei
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