Monday 19 August 2019

Obituary: IM Pei

Chinese-American architect noted for striking designs such as the Louvre Pyramid

Controversial: IM Pei at his glass Louvre Pyramid. Photo: AP
Controversial: IM Pei at his glass Louvre Pyramid. Photo: AP

I M Pei, who has died aged 102, was one of the most prolific architects of the 20th Century; his boldly modelled buildings, characterised by powerful geometries, represented an important strand in the style of monumental architecture that emerged in America under the influence of the Bauhaus emigres who had arrived from Germany before and during World War II.

Yet Pei, a serene Chinese-American, was always a pragmatist, drawing influences not only from the greats of modernism, but from nature, and the gardens and pagodas of his native China. He won just about every major architectural award going including, in 2010, the Royal Gold Medal for architecture, a gift of the Queen, presented by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

This was despite the fact that the only British building he ever designed was a garden pavilion in the whimsical tradition of country house follies, commissioned by Mr and Mrs Henry Keswick for their home in Wiltshire, which won the 2005 Georgian Group Award for a new building in a Georgian context.

Pei had his critics. In Architecture of the Absurd: How 'Genius' Disfigured a Practical Art (2007), John Silber singled out his firm's mid-1970s John Hancock Tower in Boston as an example of a striking-looking building which failed to fulfil its functional purpose.

The tower, Silber claimed, had become a "stunningly beautiful and efficient building" only because the Hancock Company had spent millions re-engineering it.

The Louvre Pyramid, too, stirred huge controversy, though for aesthetic more than practical reasons.

It was commissioned as one of President Francois Mitterrand's "grands projets" and opened in 1989, but critics dismissed the new hi-tech entrance as "un grand eyesore" and the socialist president as a would-be Pharaoh "wanting to breathe the scent of immortality".

An unrepentant Mitterrand called it one of the proudest achievements of his time in office, and indeed over the years the crystalline structure, a clever marriage of modern and ancient, won over most of its detractors, filling the Pei-designed underground concourse with light.

Ieoh Ming Pei, always known as "IM", was born in Canton (now Guangzhou), then part of imperial China, on April 26, 1917, the eldest son of a prominent banker at the Bank of China.

His mother died when he was 13, but he retained fond memories of visits with her to ornamental Chinese gardens and mountainside shrines, marriages of man-made and natural design which he claimed had influenced him as much as the work of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

After a childhood spent partly in Hong Kong, Pei moved with his family to Shanghai, where he was educated by US Episcopalian missionaries at St John's Middle School, and where the building boom of the 1930s inspired him with an interest in architecture.

Despite being offered a place at Oxford, the lure of America proved too strong, and in 1935 he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and graduating in Architecture in 1940.

From 1945 to 1948 he was an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, where he took a master's degree in 1946.

He became a US citizen in 1954.

In 1948 Pei joined the New York real estate firm Webb & Knapp and in 1955 he established his own firm, I M Pei & Associates (soon renamed I M Pei & Partners).

In 1964 Pei was selected by Jacqueline Kennedy to design the new John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Delays in construction meant that the building was not completed until 1979. In the meantime Pei had made his reputation with the opening in 1967 of his laboratories for the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

Pei's later commissions in the US included the powerful geometric east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and, more surprisingly and less successfully, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio in 1989.

In 1990 he unveiled the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, which, with its zigzag steel frame, is widely regarded as one of the world's most exciting and elegant skyscrapers.

Pei retired in 1990, though he continued to work as a consultant to Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, as his firm was renamed, and to Pei Partnership Architects, established by two of his sons in 1992.

This work included the stunning Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, a ziggurat set on an artificial island 60m off the waterfront of Doha, which opened in 2008.

Equally impressive, albeit on a smaller scale, was his Miho Museum, opened in 1997 in the Shiga prefecture of Japan.

Pei, who died on May 16, married Eileen Loo in 1942. She died in 2014 and he is survived by two sons and a daughter. Another son predeceased him.

Sunday Independent

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