Born on April 26th, 1917 in Guangzhou, China Ieoh Ming Pei, better known as I.M. Pei, celebrated his hundred birthday in 2017, is this year’s 102nd. In the US, where he moved to study architecture the age of seventeen he holds studies of Universities among the most prestigious ever since: He received his bachelor from the MIT and his master’s from Harvard School of Design between 1940 and 1946, holding later on “honorary doctorates from Harvard, Columbia and Brown” as the company’s page reads. However, his works do not remain within this country barrier.
I.M. Pei is to our days considered among the most important representatives of the modernist generation of architects, although he once doubted if Architecture was his thing after having enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT, showing a strong interest in structural engineering. However, the first dean of the MIT, William Emerson, who also was one of his professors, was successful in convincing him not to change his career path. Nobody could have already at that time guessed that his practice would later on become one of the most successful architectural practices in the US, with buildings worldwide, known for their particular use of Glass and concrete, also characteristic of I. M. Pei’s personal style.
Before founding his own practice he actually started working for one of the most prestigious contracting firms in the US, Web, and Knapp, owned by William Zeckendorf. I.M. Pei worked for him in the architectural division of the firm, before making the decision to start
a business of his own. Not only did he leave the company, but also his whole staff of around 70 people joined him in the creation of his new practice, leaving their previous company by mutual agreement, while William Zeckendorf remained his biggest clients during I. M. Pei’s
first years leading an independent practice.
Although having intended to return to his home country before obtaining his master’s the second Sino-Japanese War forced a change in his plans, which however gave him the opportunity to work with very renowned architects, such as Walter Gropius or Marcel Breuer. Twelve years after having become an assistant professor at Harvard, he founded his architecture firm, which he was a leading role for during thirty-five years, together with Henry N. Cobb and Eason H. Leonard in 1955, after having obtained American citizenship in 1954. In 1967, the design, which is probably, considered a project having an impact and the same time providing a showcase for his architectural personal style: the National Centre of Atmospheric Research in Colorado.
Exterior view of the Building with landscaping. Photo by Dan Kiley on Wikimedia Commons.
While I.M. Pei’s influence taken from architects such as Mies van der Rohe is more noticeable in the use of glass in his architecture, he developed a more personal style in the use of concrete, and the possibilities are given to shape this material, as this building brings to show. This project is still nowadays considered one of his masterpieces.
However, the triangular shapes of the East Building designed as an extension to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. also make this building particularly representative of I, M. Pei’s works, together with the use of the material chosen for this extension, given the particularity that the same marble used in the pre-existing building and the exterior of the extension was mixed, turned into dust with concrete for the construction of the inner walls.
Eleven years after the competition of the gallery, in 1983, he was awarded the Pritzker price, with the jury citation stating that he “has given this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms”. This Award is probably considered the most similar to the Nobel Prize in architecture, for those who might not have heard about this recognition.
Chinese born, and somehow American bred; I.M. Pei was also very beloved in France, where he was awarded the Grande Médaille d’Or of the Académie d’Architecture de France. While architecture or arts enthusiastic might save a whole day in Paris for the Musee du Louvre, almost every tourist at least visits the Museum’s main courtyard and takes a picture with the emblematic Louvre Glass Pyramid, unaware of the name behind this structure, which is among I.M. Pei’s most recognized works. Although this work was controversial in the early 1980s, as could be expected, it is nowadays an emblematic part of the museum’s outside appearance.
Although he actually did not return to his home country until later years, his works, of course, reached his country. The glass extension of the Musee du Louvre is however very different however in Scale and typology from the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, also designed by I.M. Pei and partners, which was the first supertall skyscraper to be erected outside the US, and the tallest building in Asia for three years from its construction year, 1989. The building counts 72 storeys overlooking the city of Hong Kong. The structure supporting the building visible from afar: the four steel columns in the edges of the building support the weight, which is transferred to these through the triangular metallic framework, eye-catching on the façade, otherwise only covered by curtain wall elements.
After having designed more than a dozen of Museums worldwide and countless buildings in other numerous different typologies I.M. Pei retired in 1990 but continued collaborating in a few of the firm’s projects, still taking some architectural consultancy works for his sons’ firm Pei Partnership Architects more than fifteen years after his retirement. Among some of the works including his touch after retirement from the partnership, the Museé d’Art Moderne in Luxembourg (2006) or the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin (2003) are perhaps the most noticeable.