Chinese-American architect, I. M. Pei (born 1917), directed for nearly 40 years one of the most successful architectural practices in the United States. Known for his dramatic use of concrete and glass, Pei counted among his most famous buildings the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. the John Hancock Tower in Boston, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.
Ieoh Ming Pei was born in Canton, China, on April 26, 1917. His early childhood was spent in Canton and Hong Kong, where his father worked as director of the Bank of China. In the late 1920s the Pei family moved to Shanghai, where I. M. attended St. Johns Middle School. His father, who had many British banking connections, encouraged his son to attend college in England, but I. M. decided to emigrate to the United States in order to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon his arrival in 1935, however, he found that the University of Pennsylvania's curriculum, with its heavy emphasis on fine draftsmanship, was not well suited to his interest in structural engineering. He enrolled instead in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While at M.I.T. Pei considered pursuing a degree in engineering, but was convinced by Dean William Emerson to stick with architecture. Pei graduated with a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1940, winning the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal and the Alpha Rho Chi (the fraternity of architects). He was immediately offered the prestigious Perkins Traveling Fellowship. Pei considered going to Europe or returning to China, but with both regions engulfed in war, he decided to remain in Boston and work as a research assistant at the Bemis Foundation (1940-1941).
From Professor to Architect
With America's entry into World War II, Pei obtained a position at the Boston engineering firm of Stone and Webster, where he designed structures for national defense projects (1941-1942). In this capacity he had the opportunity to work extensively with concrete, a material that he was later to use successfully in his own work.
In 1942 Pei married Eileen Loo, a Chinese student recently graduated from Wellesley College. After the wedding Pei left his job at Stone and Webster and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Eileen enrolled in Harvard's Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. Through her, Pei was introduced to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which had recently come under the direction of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Excited by the chance to work with these two leading exponents of the modern International Style, Pei enrolled in the summer of 1942. Here, in the company of such figures as Philip Johnson, Pei was introduced to the work of Europe's most progressive architects. He absorbed their ideas about designing unornamented buildings in abstract shapes—buildings that frankly exposed their systems of support and materials of construction.
Pei's work at Harvard was interrupted in early 1943 when he was called to serve on the National Defense Research Committee in Princeton, New Jersey. He maintained his contacts in Cambridge, however, and between 1943 and 1945 formed informal partnerships with two other students of Gropius, E. H. Duhart and Frederick Roth. With these men, Pei designed several low-cost modernistic houses that were intended to be built of prefabricated plywood panels and "plug-in" room modules. Several of these designs were awarded recognition in Arts and Architecture magazine and thus served to give Pei his first national exposure.
Although he continued to work for the National Defense Research Committee until 1945, Pei returned to Harvard in 1944. The following year he obtained a lectureship on the faculty of the Graduate School of Design. In 1946, having obtained his master's degree in architecture, Pei was appointed assistant professor. While teaching, he worked in the Boston office of architect, Hugh Stubbins (1946-1948).
Pei's career as a Harvard professor ended in 1948 when, at the age of 31, he was hired to direct the architectural division of Webb and Knapp, a huge New York contracting firm owned by the real estate tycoon William Zeckendorf. A bold developer with tremendous capital, Zeckendorf specialized in buying run-down urban lots and building modern high rise apartments and offices. As architect of Webb and Knapp, Pei oversaw the design of some of the most extensive urban development schemes of the post-war era, including the Mile High Center in Denver and Hyde Park Redevelopment in Chicago (both 1954-1959). These projects gave Pei the opportunity to work on a large scale and with big budgets. Moreover, he learned how to negotiate compromises with community, business, and government agencies. In his words, he learned to consider "the big picture."
His Own Architectural Firm
By mutual agreement, Pei and his staff of some 70 designers split from Webb and Knapp in 1955 to become I. M. Pei & Associates, an independent firm, but one which still initially relied on Zeckendorf as its chief client. It was for Zeckendorf, in fact, that Pei and his partners designed some of their most ambitious works—Place Ville Marie, the commercial center of Montreal (1956-1965); Kips Bay Plaza, the Manhattan apartment complex (1959-1963); and Society Hill, a large housing development in Philadelphia (1964).
In terms of style, Pei's work at this time was strongly influenced by Mies van der Rohe. Certainly the apartment towers at Kips Bay and Society Hill owe much to Mies' earlier slab-like skyscrapers sheathed in glass grids. But unlike Mies, who supported his towers with frames of steel, Pei experimented with towers of pre-cast concrete window frames laid on one another like blocks. This system proved to be quick to construct and required no added fireproof lining or exterior sheathing, making it relatively inexpensive. The concrete frames also had the aesthetic advantage of looking "muscular" and permanent. Soon Pei acquired a reputation as a pragmatic, cost-conscious architect who understood the needs of developers and had the ability to produce solid-looking no-nonsense buildings.
During the 1960s Pei continued to build Miesian "skinand-bones" office and apartment towers (the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto and 88 Pine Street in New York, were both completed in 1972), but he also began to get commissions for other types of buildings that allowed him more artistic expression. Among the first of these was the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado (1961-1967). For this project Pei borrowed ideas from the work of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn to create a monumental structure of exposed concrete. Distinguished by a series of unusual hooded towers, and photogenically situated against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, the NCAR complex helped to establish Pei as a designer of serious artistic intent. Film enthusiasts remember this building as the setting for the Woody Allen film, Sleeper. In 1964 his stature increased when he was chosen to design the John F. Kennedy Library, although the building's dedication would be 15 years later, due to rigorous work and study.
Pei's reputation as artist-architect was further enhanced with his design for the Everson Museum of Art at Syracuse University in New York (1962-1968). Again Pei turned to reinforced concrete, this time molded into four monolithic gallery blocks, boldly cantilevered and arranged in a pinwheel manner around a large interior court. The design met with considerable acclaim, and Pei was soon asked to design one art museum after another: the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa (1968); the Mellon Art Center in Wallingford, Connecticut (1972); the University of Indiana Art Museum in Bloomington (1980); the west wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1981); and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine (1983).
Triangles and Curtains of Glass
Of his many museums, Pei became best known for the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1968-1978). Located on a prominent but oddly shaped site, Pei cleverly divided the plan into two triangular sections—one containing a series of intimate gallery spaces and the other housing administrative and research areas. He connected these sections with a dramatic sky-lit central court, bridged at various levels by free-floating passageways. Technological innovation is evident on the exterior, where space-age neoprene gaskets have been inserted between the blocks of marble to prevent cracks from developing in the walls. The overall design so impressed noted critic Ada Louise Huxtable that she declared in 1974, "I. M. Pei … may very likely be America's best architect."
Unlike so many other students of Gropius and the International Style, Pei showed concern that his buildings were "contextual, " that they fit into their pre-existing architectural environments. The East Wing, for instance, was carefully related in height to the older main block of the National Gallery, and it was sheathed in similarly colored marble. For the apartments he built in Philadelphia during the 1950s Pei used brick, the city's traditional building material. And for his projects in China, such as the Luce Chapel at Taunghai University in Taiwan (1964) and the Fragrant Hill Hotel near Beijing (1983), he incorporated architectural forms and details indigenous to the Orient.
Although his reputation was slightly tarnished in the mid-1970s when plates of glass mysteriously fell out of his John Hancock Tower in Boston (1973), Pei was still considered a master of curtain glass construction in the 1980s. He demonstrated this again in the glass-sheathed Allied Bank Tower in Dallas (1985) and later worked on a well-publicized glass pyramid built in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum in Paris (1987). But his magnificent work in glass would not stop there. In September of 1995, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum was dedicated in Cleveland, Ohio. In an interview with Technology Review, Pei explained the concept. "These are the things I tried to imbue in the building's design—a sense of tremendous youthful energy, rebellion, flailing about. Part of the museum is a glass tent leaning on a column in the back. All the other forms—wings—burst out of the tent. Their thrusting out has to do with the rebellion. This, for me, is an expression of the musical form of rock and roll."
A man of gracious character and tact, Pei managed to preserve lasting associations with the other members of his firm, thereby fostering one of the most stable, quality-conscious practices in the country. Moreover, he maintained the trust and patronage of countless corporations, real estate developers, and art museums. Among his numerous awards he placed personal significance on receiving the Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan at the Statue of Liberty. To him, it was a symbol of acceptance and respect from the American people.
When not designing buildings, Pei enjoyed gardening around his home in Katonah, New York. He had four children, two of whom worked as architects in his busy office on Madison Avenue.
Further Reading on I. M. Pei
There is still no monograph on Pei. The best single presentation of his work remains Peter Blake and others, "I. M. Pei and Partners, " Architecture Plus 1 (February and March 1973). For biographical information and a fine appraisal of his buildings see Paul Goldberger, "The Winning Ways of I. M. Pei, " New York Times Magazine (May 20, 1979). Also helpful are a number of recorded interviews; the two best are Andrea O. Dean, "Conversations: I. M. Pei, " Journal of the American Institute of Architects (June 1979) and Barbaralee Diamonstein, monstein, "I. M. Pei: 'The Modern Movement Is Now Wide Open', " Art News 77 (Summer 1978). See also Paul Heyer, Architects on Architecture (1966).
A chronological list of Pei's major works appears in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects (1983). Articles on individual buildings can be found in either the Art Index or the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals. Ada Louise Huxtable offers a critic's view of some of Pei's buildings in her book Kicked a Building Lately? (1976). Pei himself wrote very little, but see two articles by him: "Standardized Propaganda Units for the Chinese Government, " Task 1 (1942), and "The Sowing and Reaping of Shape, " Christian Science Monitor (March 16, 1978).