I.M. Pei was one of the most influential architects of his generation 09.03.20

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The Louvre Museum. Photo by Pedro Szekely via FlickrThe Louvre Museum. Photo by Pedro Szekely via Flickr 

I.M. Pei was known for his decisive geometrical designs that brought together elegant forms and up-to-date technology

For six decades, the Chinese-American I.M. Pei was one of the most renowned architects in the world, undertaking large-scale public projects such as commercial, cultural and government buildings. 

Pei was born in Suzhou, China in 1917. He moved to America aged 17 to study at University of Pennsylvania, before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in pursuit of a course with a stronger emphasis on structural engineering. He graduated with a bachelor in architecture in 1940 and then went on to study an MA at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. 

While at university, Pei became interested in the work of Le Corbusier and spent much of his free time reading his writings. While at Harvard he was also taught by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, who had fled Germany following the rise of the Nazis.

In 1948 Pei joined the offices of the architectural firm Webb & Knapp Inc as Director of Architecture, before starting his own firm in 1955 – initially called I.M. Pei & Associates, it is now known as Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. 

In over 60 years of working, Pei completed many highly presigious commissions, including the John F. Kennedy Library in Massachusetts, for which he was chosen by the president’s widow Jacqueline Kennedy. Mos famous, however, is the glass pyramid at the Louvre.

Pei’s architecture follows the modernist style, with elements inspired by the Cubist art movement. His projects feature interesting combinations of traditional principles and contemporary geometries, frequently using circles, squares and triangles.

The Louvre expansion was controversial when it was first revealed, with critics quick to point out how out of place an Egyptian symbol of death looked in the centre of Paris. Pei had been commissioned by French presdeitn François Mitterand to come up with a plan to expand the entrance of the museum while respecting its long history.

The glass pyramid he constructed acts as a new entrance, providing access to the galleries in each of the three wings, while also functioning as a skylight for the courtyard and public amenities that sit under it. Though initially met with mixed reviews, the Louvre’s glass pyramid has become a Parisian landmark. 

Other important examples of his work include the Bank of China in Hong Kong, which opened in 1989, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, and the IBM Office Complex in Somers, New York. He has also designed arts facilities and university buildings on the campuses of the MIT, the University of Rochester, Cornell University, Syracuse University, New York University and the University of Hawaii.

In the last two decades of his career, Pei undertook a series of prestigious international museums. These included the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Mudam in Luxembourg City, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the Macao Science Centre.

In 1983 Pei was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and before that in 1979 he was awarded the AIA Gold Medal. He was also honoured with the Praemium Imperiale for Architecture in 1989, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in 2003. Pei died at aged 102 in 2019, leaving behind a vast legacy of work. 

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