IM Pei: ‘I’m a western architect’

Awarded Britain’s highest architectural honour at 92, the modernist seamlessly blends the corporate and the cultural

At 92, IM Pei is revered as one of the last surviving modernists. As the recipient of Britain’s most prestigious architectural honour, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal, awarded earlier this month, Pei was an uncontroversial and popular choice. The geometry and spatial quality of his recent work seem to satisfy even the most cynical of critics, including those who only recently suspected him of gross commercialism. But if Pei’s life now seems a long, effortless succession of acclaimed international masterpieces, it didn’t always look that way.

The building of the John F Kennedy Library & Museum in Boston (dedicated in 1979) turned into a bitter tangle of local opposition and cost-cutting. The John Hancock Tower (1976), in the same city, stood for a period as a troubled mosaic of chipboard and glass as window panes were boarded up to stop them falling on passers-by. Most famously, the Louvre pyramids (1988) drew a cry of anguish from a conservative Paris as an American tampered with the city’s sacred landmark.

All that is forgotten now. The Louvre pyramid has become a symbol of contemporary Paris, just as the Pompidou Centre has. Pei’s recent buildings have seen his reputation revived and enhanced, most notably last year with the serene Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and a much admired melding of eastern and western forms at the museum in Suzhou, in Pei’s native China. It can be a little hard to determine whether Pei is very adept at changing to suit the times or whether fashion changes to catch up with him.

Certainly, the charming, diminutively dapper figure who sits across from me drinking tea (English-style, with milk) is eager to please and far from the image of the arrogant “starchitect”. It is curiously appropriate that we should meet in London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel with its blend of high imperial classicism and luxury eastern inflections. Pei is clad in a finely tailored grey suit, from the sleeves of which poke crisp French cuffs; his face, hardly lined but spotted by age, is made owlish by a pair of his characteristic round-framed glasses – a fashion tic borrowed from Le Corbusier.

Taught at Harvard by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school and perhaps the most influential teacher of the 20th century, Pei was also close friends with Gropius’s one-time partner, the Hungarian Marcel Breuer, architect of the Whitney Museum and the UN Building in New York. What did Pei learn from these now almost mythical figures?

“A great deal,” he replies. “Gropius was a very strict disciplinarian but a wonderful teacher, while Breuer and I became very close friends. We visited Europe together several times, and we sailed together – sailing’s a wonderful way to get to know each other,” Pei says, almost misty-eyed.

When I ask him about arriving in America, he returns to boats. “I arrived in the USA in 1935, to San Francisco. I got the boat from China and I didn’t even speak English. I could read a little, perhaps write a little but that was all. It was a 17-day journey and I learnt to speak English from the stewards.”

After three-quarters of a century, Pei’s English is still haunted by an accent and the occasional grammatical slip, but his speech and his manner are as urbane as his suit. In fact, for most of his career, the architect who declined to teach or theorise was out of fashion. His apparently seamless blend of the commercial and the cultural made other architects suspicious. How did he manage so successfully to combine the business and the art of architecture? “I think the artistic side of architecture was natural to me,” he says, displaying not a trace of false modesty. “My mother was an artist and a poet. The commercial side came afterwards [his father was a banker]. After school I worked for a real estate developer and I learnt the commercial business of architecture there. Today I can be comfortable in either kind of work.”

From 1948 to 1955, Pei worked for the flamboyant, cigar-chewing New York developer William Zeckendorf, for whom he produced a number of memorable designs. Pei has said “great artists need great clients”. Later in his career he virtually defined downtown Dallas with such buildings as the massive City Hall (1978). When I mentioned that I had visited it recently, he asked me: “Are the Henry Moores still there? I helped get that commission you know – I went to Much Hadham [the Hertfordshire village where Moore lived, now home to the Henry Moore Foundation].”

A clutch of huge towers and the weirdly Baroque Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center (1989) are among the structures designed by Pei that caused Rem Koolhaas to refer to Dallas as the “epicentre of the generic”. Pei’s defence is typically cool: “In Dallas I was designing for the people, not the place. Many of them had come from New York. It’s not like Houston, an oil city, it’s more like the East Coast. Dallas is really no different from New York.”

Pei looks troubled only twice during the interview. The first time when I ask him about his war service, which he spent in the National Defence Research Committee (“learning to bomb and destroy rather than build,” he says); the second when I lure him back to the Kennedy Library saga. “The library was very difficult,” he says. “We were approached by Jackie and Bobby Kennedy [a year after JFK’s assassination in 1963] and he was a hero.” Jackie Kennedy was reported as saying that choosing Pei had been “really an emotional decision. He [Pei] was so full of promise, like Jack; they were born in the same year. I decided it would be fun to take a great leap with him.” But rather than a great leap the project limped along, mired in local politics and incessant changes in the brief. But even that was nothing compared to the politics surrounding the Louvre.

The original plans for Boston’s Kennedy Library had featured a glass pyramid; to what extent, I wondered, was the Louvre pyramid a transplanting of that idea?

“We had a lot of difficulty in getting the French to accept the pyramid. They thought we were trying to import a piece of Egypt, until I pointed out that their obelisk was also from Egypt and the Place des Pyramides is around the corner. Then they accepted it. The pyramid at the Louvre, though, is just the tip. You can’t build anything above ground because it is such a historic site but it was a huge building, lots of galleries, there was no alternative to building underground. But then, if you do so much underground there has to be something there to see. The pyramid and the fountains say, ‘Come, we’ve got a lot to show you.’”

Emile Biasini, the official in charge of the French “Grands Travaux”, felt Pei was perfect for the job because as a Chinese “he had an understanding of ancient civilisation” and as an American “he had a taste for the modern”. I ask Pei about this: does he still, after 75 years in America, feel at all Chinese? “I’ve never left China,” he comes back, in a flash. “My family’s been there for 600 years. But my architecture is not consciously Chinese in any sense. I’m a western architect.”

For a self-styled “western architect”, and one closely associated with the corporate end, Pei’s most elegant buildings have arguably been his two post-retirement, non-western projects. The museum at Suzhou evokes the timber framing and calm serenity of Buddhist temples while the dense stone mass of Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art sits somewhere between Ancient Egypt, Byzantium and modernist Baghdad. Is the latter an attempt to address a non-western culture, to forge a new language? “I suppose you could call [Doha] something in the middle, a ‘middle-Eastern’ building,” Pei laughs – a boyish giggle that makes him appear oddly ageless.

Pei’s best buildings, characterised by an obsession with geometry, are among the most striking of the contemporary era. And he is still working: new projects include a school and shrine in Miho, Japan. But at their worst his structures embody all the faults of modernism’s megalomania. From the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, his work of the 1970s and 1980s straddles the globe; these two decades were modernism’s lowest ebb.

Pei is a survivor from a generation once discredited for despoiling the world’s cities, yet he is now lauded for a new wave of work that suddenly seems fashionable once more. Extraordinarily for an architect born before the Russian revolution, his buildings really do seem to be getting better.

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