FILE - In this March 29, 1989, file photo, Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei laughs while posing for a portrait in front of the Louvre glass pyramid, which he designed, in the museum's Napoleon Courtyard, prior to its inauguration in Paris. Pei, the globe-trotting architect who revived the Louvre museum in Paris with a giant glass pyramid and captured the spirit of rebellion at the multi-shaped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died at age 102, a spokesman confirmed Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Pierre Gleizes, File)
IM Pei in front of his Louvre glass pyramid in Paris in 1989, the year it was completed © AP

When architect IM Pei first proposed to build a glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris, there was outrage: how could this American interloper defile the world’s greatest museum?

But by the time it was completed in 1989 — on the 200th anniversary of the French revolution — it was greeted as a masterpiece. Even now, 30 years later, the pyramid and its triangular fountains are a daring solution to one of the world’s most sensitive sites.

Ieoh Ming Pei, who died on May 15 aged 102, was born in Guangzhou, China, in the year of the Russian revolution to a banker father and a poet and artist mother. Raised in colonial Hong Kong and Shanghai, he moved to the US to study in 1935.

When he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, he was shocked to find that the seemingly super-modern US was stuck in historical mode. The school was in thrall to the Beaux Arts, the stolid 19th-century architecture of civic classicism.

Disillusioned by the idea of drawing column capitals and Roman temple details, Pei transferred to the Harvard Graduate School of Design which, as a hotbed of modernism, was more to his taste. There he was taught by former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius and became close to another teacher, the Hungarian émigré architect Marcel Breuer.

People look at "Xenon for Paris" a work by US conceptual artist Jenny Holzer projected on the Louvre museum's pyramid as well as the Louvres facade on April 9, 2009 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the pyramid, built by I. M. Pei and inaugurated on March 30, 1989. Holzer's work was first created in 2001 for the Festival dAutomne in Paris and subsequently acquired by the French "Fonds national dart contemporain" (FNAC). AFP PHOTO LIONEL BONAVENTURE (Photo credit should read LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)
Building a glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre was a controversial idea but, on completion, it was considered a masterpiece © Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

Influenced and befriended by the first generation of European modernists, Pei became, in effect, the last of the great American modernists.

After graduating, he was picked up by William Zeckendorf, a New York real estate developer who employed the young architect to oversee his commercial buildings. Pei skipped the usual apprenticeship of small domestic projects to dive straight into big-time commercial architecture, office towers and urban plans, including Washington DC’s L’Enfant Plaza, to which at one point he intended to add a glass pyramid.

He set up his own practice in 1955, partnering with Henry Cobb and later being joined by James Ingo Freed.

The commission Pei referred to as his most important came from Jacqueline Kennedy — to build a memorial library for her husband after he was assassinated in 1963. She picked Pei from a list of the biggest names in contemporary architecture, catapulting him into the limelight.

FILE - This Aug. 19, 2009, file photo shows the entrance of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, designed by architect I.M. Pei, in Boston. Pei, the globe-trotting architect who revived the Louvre museum in Paris with a giant glass pyramid and captured the spirit of rebellion at the multi-shaped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died at age 102, a spokesman confirmed Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
The John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy and propelled Pei into the limelight © Steven Senne/AP

She felt an empathy with the architect and his design, a stark, white, elemental structure with a huge glass atrium overlooking Boston. The original plans featured a truncated glass pyramid.

“In the skyline of his city,” said Pei at the time, “in the distant horizons toward which he [JFK] led us, in the canopy of space into which he launched us, visitors may experience revived hope and promise for the future.”

By the time the building was dedicated in 1979, he had also designed the Brutalist concrete Dallas City Hall and the imposing East Building of Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art.

Pei’s first Chinese commission was a hotel in Fragrant Hills, Beijing, which took him back to his homeland for the first time since 1935. His design, completed in 1982, was delicate, almost traditional — an approach which earned him some flak in the US.

Visitors enjoy the scene from a window of the Xiangshan hotel designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei and built in 1982 in Beijing, China on Friday, May 17, 2019. Pei, the globe-trotting architect who revived the Louvre museum in Paris with a giant glass pyramid and captured the spirit of rebellion at the multi-shaped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died at age 102, a spokesman confirmed Thursday. (AP Photos/Ng Han Guan)
Pei’s Xiangshan hotel in Beijing’s Fragrant Hills was built in 1982 © Ng Han Guan/AP

Not everything he touched turned to gold. New York’s Javits Convention Centre was a largely failed attempt to revive Manhattan’s post-industrial West Side and the glass cladding of the John Hancock Tower in Boston was damaged in a storm. It was patched up with plywood, leading to it being jokily referred to as the world’s tallest timber skyscraper.

Pei had better luck with the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, which has an unusual triangular structure that gives it a distinct profile on the city’s skyline. These days it is lit up nightly in an array of LED colours as part of Hong Kong’s evening illumination extravaganza, an addition that did not impress the dapper and elegant Pei.

FILE - In this Friday, May 19, 2006, file photo, pedestrians walk past the Bank of China building in Hong Kong, designed by American architect I.M. Pei. Pei, the globe-trotting architect who revived the Louvre museum in Paris with a giant glass pyramid and captured the spirit of rebellion at the multi-shaped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died at age 102, a spokesman confirmed Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
The Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong has an unusual triangular structure that gives it a distinct profile on the city’s skyline © Kin Cheung/AP

More recently, in an age of celebrity architects with oversized egos and hyperinflated gestural architecture, Pei faded slightly out of fashion. He was still building regularly through the 1990s and 2000s but it took a pair of museums to resurrect his reputation.

The first was the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, opened in 2008 — a stone building which evokes Islamic architecture with its dome, shady arcades and solid, geometric forms. It refuses the language of the spectacular for a more considered, quiet and dignified approach.

The other, his last major design, was the Suzhou Museum, opened in 2006 — a delicate gem integrated into a historic Chinese setting, its pyramidal roofs, grey stone structure and white walls reconciling the new buildings with their neighbouring traditional structures.

In this Jan. 11, 2019, photo, the Suzhou Museum, designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, is seen in Suzhou in eastern China's Jiangsu Province. Pei, the versatile, globe-trotting architect who revived the Louvre with a giant glass pyramid and captured the spirit of rebellion at the multi-shaped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died at age 102, a spokesman confirmed Thursday, May 16, 2019. (Chinatopix via AP)
Suzhou Museum in Jiangsu, China, opened in 2006 and was Pei’s last major design

In 2010, I asked him if he felt like a Chinese architect. “I’ve never left China,” he replied. “My family’s been there for 600 years. But my architecture is not consciously Chinese in any sense. I’m a western architect.”

Always impeccably turned out, Pei projected the image of an architect able to appeal to big business, museum trustees and the public. In fact, he managed to create monumental, elemental and brutally powerful structures in an age of largely anodyne architecture.

His best works moved people. Pei might have looked like the corporate-friendly face of architecture but, with that famous charm, he used big business and friends in high places to leave the world with some awesome buildings.

Edwin Heathcote

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