‘I. M. Pei: Life Is Architecture’ at M+

Life of Pei

John Hill
25. June 2024
I. M. Pei outside John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1979. (Photo © Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Best known for the modernization of the Grand Louvre in Paris — aka the Louvre Pyramid — I. M. Pei's architecture blended tradition and modernity, historical forms and contemporary materials, east and west, and other seemingly irreconcilable opposites. Born in Guangzhou, China, in 1917, Pei moved the United States in the 1930s for architecture school, later working in New York City and eventually establishing his own eponymous practice there, the city he called home until his death in 2019 at the age of 102

As can be seen from the images that follow, Pei's commissions spanned the globe, from the East Coast and other parts of the United States to China, the Middle East, and Europe. Rather than presenting his life's work in geographical or strictly chronological terms, the curators of I. M. Pei: Life Is Architecture (Shirley Surya from M+ and Aric Chen from the Niewe Institute) opted for a thematic presentation, using six areas of focus that define his singular body of work. This visual tour is structured accordingly.

Section 1 – Pei’s Cross-Cultural Foundations

This section shows how Pei’s upbringing in China and architectural education at MIT and Harvard University “formed the foundation of his ability to reconcile multiple sources of influence across cultures and between tradition and modernity,” per a statement from M+. Furthermore, “Pei adopted a transcultural approach that integrated the histories and conditions of a place with contemporary ideas and practices in architecture and society.”

Pei family portrait in the garden of Tsuyee Pei’s house, which belonged to Bank of China, on Route Ferguson (now Wukang Road) in Shanghai’s French Concession. Back row: I. M. Pei (third from left), Tsuyee Pei (sixth from left). Seated: I. M. Pei’s grandfather Bei Li-tai (fifth from left), 1935. (Photo © All rights reserved. Courtesy of Patricia Pei)
I. M. Pei: A Bankers’ Club in Hong Kong, fourth-year student project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1938–1939. (Image © MIT Museum. Courtesy MIT Museum)
I. M. Pei: Standardized Propaganda Units for War Time and Peace Time China: No. 3 Elevations, 1940. Ink on paper. (Image © MIT Museum. Courtesy MIT Museum)

Section 2 – Real Estate and Urban Redevelopment

After graduating from Harvard Graduate School of Design but before establishing his own practice in 1955, Pei worked for New York City real estate developer Webb & Knapp, eventually becoming director. This section focuses on Pei's work at Webb & Knapp as well as his contributions to mixed-use planning, housing, and urban revitalization projects in the United States in his own practice in the 1960s.

Robert Schwartz (illustrator), Webb & Knapp (developer): Rendering of early scheme, Southwest
Washington Urban Redevelopment (1953–1959), Washington, D.C., ca.1957. (Image © Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)
Naho Kubota: Interior view of living room of an apartment unit, Kips Bay Plaza (1957–1962), New York, 2021. (Photo © Naho Kubota. Commissioned by M+, 2021)
I. M. Pei explaining his proposal for Oklahoma City’s new downtown to a city official with a presentation model, ca. 1964. (Photo © The Oklahoman – USA TODAY NETWORK)

Section 3 – Art and Civic Form

Behind the Louvre Pyramid, Pei's most famous project is the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. These and other cultural projects are indicative of “his belief in museums as civic spaces, the importance of dialogue between art and architecture, and his deep affinity with the contemporary art of his time,” as explored in this section of the M+ exhibition.

I. M. Pei: Section drawing of the Museum of Chinese Art for Shanghai, master’s in architecture thesis at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 1946. (Image courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Design)
Helmut Jacoby (illustrator), I. M. Pei & Associates: Rendering of museum and public plaza, Everson
Museum of Art (1961–1968), Syracuse, New York, ca.1961. Ink on paper. (Photo: M+, Hong Kong, photographed with permission © Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)
Giovanna Silva: Interior view of Cour Puget of the Richelieu wing, Grand Louvre (1983–1993), Paris, 2021 (Photo © Giovanna Silva. Commissioned by M+, 2021)

Section 4 – Power, Politics, and Patronage

The alliterative triumvirate of this section explores how Pei was able to engage with powerful clients, navigate the politics of major projects, and often convince his clients to pursue something more ambitious than what they had in mind. With his wide smile and impeccable manners, Pei managed to become a trusted collaborator in high-profile commissions that drew both immense support and public controversy.

Naho Kubota: View of NCAR on the mesa, National Center for Atmospheric Research (1961–1967), Boulder, Colorado, 2021. (Photo © Naho Kubota. Commissioned by M+, 2021)
Calvin Tsao: Officials viewing a model of Fragrant Hill Hotel (1979–1982), Beijing, 1979. (Photo © Calvin Tsao)
Mohamed Somji: View of museum from the public promenade, Museum of Islamic Art (2000–2008), Doha, 2021. (Photo © Mohamed Somji. Commissioned by M+, 2021)

Section 5 – Material and Structural Innovation

From Webb & Knapp and his own practice, and even to the projects he completed after retiring in 1990, Pei strove for inventiveness in materials and construction methods, particularly with concrete, stone, glass, and steel. The projects in this section “reveal Pei’s sensitivity toward building materials and their ability to animate the spaces we inhabit, as well as the great lengths Pei was willing to go to realize these solutions.”

Webb & Knapp: Elevation of entrance and lower floors, Helix (1948–1949; unbuilt), New York, ca.1948. Watercolor on paper. (Photo: M+, Hong Kong, digitized with permission © Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)
Marc Riboud: I. M. Pei and French president François Mitterrand inspecting a glass sample for the
Louvre pyramid, 1987. (Photo © Marc Riboud/Fonds Marc Riboud au MNAAG/Magnum Photos)
Construction view of Miho Institute of Aesthetics Chapel (2008–2012), Shigaraki, Shiga, ca. 2011. (Photo © Higashide Photo Studio)

Section 6 – Reinterpreting History through Design

While Pei's projects this century, such as the Suzhou Museum in China and Miho Museum in Japan, seemed to signal a shift toward traditional forms, particularly from Asian architecture, he had long created buildings that tapped into the essence of cultural and historical archetypes. This section looks at how Pei “sought ways to make modern architecture’s technological advances and social ambitions engage with the diverse cultures and histories that informed his projects,” often at the risk of being denounced by critics and other architects.

Chen Chi-kwan (illustrator), I. M. Pei Architect: Perspective inside courtyard of Women’s Dormitory,
Tunghai University (1954–1963), Taichung, ca.1955. Reprographic print. (Photo: M+, Hong Kong, digitized with permission © Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)
I. M. Pei & Partners: Model of Fragrant Hill Hotel (1979–1982), Beijing, ca.1979. Paper and acrylic. (Gift of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Acquisition in progress. Photo: M+, Hong Kong, photographed with permission © Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)
Tian Fangfang: The Central Hall’s framed views of the garden’s key features including the stone
landscape, Suzhou Museum (2000–2006), Suzhou, 2021. (Photo © Tian Fangfang. Commissioned by M+, 2021)

I. M. Pei: Life Is Architecture is on display at M+, West Kowloon Cultural District from June 29, 2024 to January 5, 2025. To coincide with the exhibition, a 400-page monograph, also titled I. M. Pei: Life Is Architecture, is being published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with M+.

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