I.M. Pei, 1917-2019

John Hill
17. May 2019
I.M. Pei at the opening of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, June 1, 1978. (Photo © Dennis Brack/Black Star. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gallery Archives. Image via nga.gov)

I.M. Pei, best known for the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in DC and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, died early Thursday at his home in Manhattan a few weeks after his 102nd birthday.

Recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983, Pei was one of the most celebrated architects of the last half of the twentieth century, also being given the the AIA Gold Medal (1979), the Praemium Imperiale (1989), the RIBA Royal Gold Medal (2010), and the UIA Gold Medal (2014). Outside of these prestigious architectural awards, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 by the elder George Bush.

Ieoh Ming Pei was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1917 and moved to the United States in 1935, where he received a Bachelor of Architecture from MIT and a Master of Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design. In 1948, after teaching at the GSD for a couple years, he moved to New York and became director of architecture at Webb & Knapp, a real estate development company headed by William Zeckendorf. 

Under Zeckendorf, Pei was able to work on numerous large-scale projects, both architectural and planning, across the United States, but ultimately it was the cultural projects realized under his own name that he would became famous for. He opened his eponymous office in 1955, with Henry Cobb and Eason Leonard, and formally separated from Webb & Knapp in 1960. In 1989, the firm became Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, a name it retains to this day, even though Pei retired in 1990.

The year 1989 is also when his most famous project, the Louvre Pyramid, opened to the public. Controversial at the time, the glass structure became a beloved part of the city and endeared Pei to Parisians. The Grand Louvre, as its officially known, was given AIA's Twenty-five Year Award in 2017 (the same year Pei turned 100), when it was called "an unexpected treasure that [Parisians] and visitors from around the globe value as much as the priceless works of art" inside the museum.

Other celebrated works, such as the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (1978) in DC and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (1979) in Boston, were located mainly in the United States. But in the 1980s he "returned" to the land of his childhood with the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing and the more famous Bank of China completed in 1990 in Hong Kong. Pei's stark modern geometries prompted a French critic to tell him around this time, "You're American so you don't respect tradition." To which he replied, "But I'm also Chinese and we respect tradition." This respect may have been difficult to grasp with the Bank of China tower (he revised the design of the exterior in deference to criticism over bad feng shui), but the later Suzhou Museum (2006), designed in collaboration with Pei Partnership, the practice of his sons Li Chung Pei and Chien Chung Pei, is a more overt blend of the modern and traditional.

Other post-retirement projects include the Miho Museum in Shiga, Japan (1997), an extension to the Deutsches Historisches Museum (2003) in Berlin, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (2008)

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, 1979 (Photo: Fcb981/Wikimedia Commons)
Grand Louvre, Paris, 1989 (Photo: Benh Leiu Song/Wikimedia Commons)
Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong, 1990 (Photo: WiNG/Wikimedia Commons
Miho Museum, Japan, 1997 (Photo: John Weiss/Flickr)
Extension to the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, 2003 (Photo: Ansgar Koreng/Wikimedia Commons)
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar, 2008 (Photo: Shahin Olakara/Wikimedia Commons)

Related articles

Featured Project

Atelier Deshaus

Taizhou Contemporary Art Museum

Other articles in this category