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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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