IM Pei obituary
Source:The Guardian Author:Andrew Saint Date: 2019-05-19 Size:
Ieoh Ming Pei, known always as IM Pei, who has died aged 102, lived and worked long……

The East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, regarded as IM Pei’s greatest achievement. Photograph: Dennis Brack/Black Star/National Gallery of Art

Ieoh Ming Pei, known always as IM Pei, who has died aged 102, lived and worked long enough to become the doyen of American architects and perhaps the most renowned of all Chinese-born Americans. His resolute intervention in the form of a glass pyramid at the Louvre in the 1980s marked the high point of his fame. A series of cultural monuments followed all over the world, culminating in the Museum of Islamic Art at Doha, jutting out like a fortress on a manmade island from the coast of Qatar.

But Pei’s greatest and subtlest achievement, as well as the turning point in his career, was the East Building that he added to Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art (1968-78). Its geometrical and sculptural virtuosity gave fresh hope to those who feared at the time that modern architecture was losing its way. It perfectly embodies the blend of boldness and suavity that lay at the heart of Pei’s architectural personality, and is arguably the noblest art gallery of the last half-century.

In the person of Paul Mellon, Pei found his big benefactor. Mellon’s father had donated the original National Gallery of Art in the 1930s, and the son now agreed to pay for the extension. Though he cared little for the modern art that it was to contain, he sat through all the meetings without inhibiting Pei or the gallery’s director, John Carter Brown. The constraints of the site, an awkward wedge on the National Mall, brought the architecture alive. By submitting the plan to the discipline of the triangle, scooping out an intricate, light-dappled atrium and relegating the galleries into “house-museums” in corner towers, Pei combined the public atrium that directors were starting to demand with intimate spaces for art lovers.

Outside, the East Building’s monumentalism harks back to the heroics of Corbusian concrete. But with Mellon’s money Pei could refine his angular facades and bind them to their neighbour by clothing them in the same exquisite Tennessee marble used for the old gallery. A comparison between the masonry detailing on the two masterpieces, one the swansong of American classicism, the other the cheerleader for a modernism renewed by alertness to context, is rewarding.

IM Pei in 1979 outside the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, which he designed. Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty

The reconstruction of the Louvre (1983–89) again saw Pei carry off the most glittering of prizes without a competition. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Pompidou Centre had broken French architecture open to outsiders. But there lingered the ancient memory of Bernini, who had come to Paris in pomp in the 17th century to extend the Louvre, only to be frozen out by the locals. Just after François Mitterrand became president, his culture minister, Jack Lang, persuaded him that the finance ministry should be ejected from the Louvre and the whole palace turned over to culture. In the ensuing scrutiny of galleries and architects, the East Building and Pei came top. Approached, Pei played it cool, making three private visits before he took the job.

The Louvre task was largely about diplomacy and experience. Spaces in the rambling interiors had to be knitted together, and banal shopping and circulation space tucked underground. The glamour and the opposition both focused on the tip of the iceberg, the great glass pyramid at the centre of the court and its three smaller sisters. Casting them as part of a landscape, Pei was careful to refer to the 17th-century landscape architect André le Nôtre when presenting the idea to French critics.

In the 1980s Pei at last had the gratification of working in China. Keen to recognise the most famous architect among its native sons, the regime asked him to build high-rise hotels in Beijing. He declined in favour of rebuilding the Fragrant Hill hotel in an old hunting park. Here it was Pei’s turn to be deferential. Among the first western buildings to be completed after China opened up, the hotel, with its traditional inner courtyard and landscape, was the closest he ever got to revivalism.

There was a curious sequel. In 1982 emissaries from the Bank of China contacted Pei’s 89-year-old father. In a gesture of respect, they asked him if they might approach his son to design the bank’s new Hong Kong headquarters – the Trojan horse from which China would exert its financial muscle in the run-up to the colony’s return. Norman Foster’s showy Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank was then close to completion nearby. Conscious of the rivalry between the banks, Pei had to pull something out of the hat. Together with his engineer, Leslie Robertson, he came up with a sleek-faced, externally braced skyscraper that splits into nervy, triangulated sections as it rises. Arresting more than beautiful, it cost a fraction of the Foster building yet contained more office space.

The great glass pyramid at the heart of the Louvre in Paris, created by the architect IM Pei. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP

Pei was born in Canton but brought up mainly in Shanghai, where he attended St John’s Protestant missionary school. His father, Tsuyee Pei, a high functionary in the pre-communist Bank of China, came from a land-owning, art-loving family from Suzhou, ensconced among luxurious villas and private landscapes. His artistic, flute-playing mother, Lien Kwun, took him to see Chinese gardens and mountainside shrines.

The western-style buildings then rising along the Shanghai waterfront alerted him to architecture. Having taken the entrance exams for Oxford at his father’s request, he chose to study in the US, arriving in 1935, aged 17. After a false start at the University of Pennsylvania, Pei transferred to the engineering school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, only to be lured back into architecture. The solid technical teaching at MIT, coupled with the old-style disciplines of Beaux-Arts design still then espoused there, were to stand him in excellent stead.

Though he intended to go back to China, Pei found himself stranded in the US by the second world war. In 1940 he joined a large Boston engineering firm before undertaking war work on fuses for incendiary bombs. When peace came, he embarked on a master’s course in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, where Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were broadcasting a dogmatic version of modernism. Here he shone, making fast friends with Breuer. A project for an art museum for Shanghai from this time revealed his sensibility for painting and sculpture, both Chinese traditional and modern western. It also posed a question that troubled the young Pei: under modernism, could there be such a thing as a national architecture?

In 1942 he married Ai Ling (Eileen) Loo, an art and botany student of landscape from a cosmopolitan Chinese family much like his own. His first break came in 1948. William Zeckendorf, the colourful New York tycoon who had assembled the site for the United Nations, wanted an in-house architect to bring order and panache to his property empire. Courteous, astute and pragmatic, the unknown young designer appealed to Zeckendorf’s risk-taking instincts. For almost a decade he toiled away for Webb and Knapp, Zeckendorf’s firm, gathering assistants around him and building feverishly. Though many of these projects now look raw or tired, they got Pei noticed and gave him experience in planning and constructing on a big scale. Much of the work, such as Kips Bay in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia, was social housing. But Pei and Zeckendorf took on large commercial developments, too, such as the Mile High Center in Denver, Colorado.

Eventually Zeckendorf’s fortunes waned. Pei got out with his office staff before the crash and began to amass the mixed portfolio that was to typify his independent career: a scatter of smart “signature” buildings, mostly led by Pei himself, underwritten by lucrative commercial jobs. These Pei often left to assistants and, later, partners such as Henry Cobb, Araldo Cossutta and James Freed. The first of the prestige commissions was the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR, 1961–67), sited in isolation on a mountaintop above Boulder, Colorado. It set the Pei pattern: one of hooking in high-status clients (here, the climatologist Walter Orr Roberts) by dint of good manners and unruffled patience, persuading them to dare and spend more than they meant, yet keeping their friendship after the event. The NCAR vaunted the beefy masses and rugged concrete textures then fashionable. In that brutalist idiom, Pei displayed a mastery of planes and surfaces.

IM Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art at Doha, Qatar, completed in 2008.

In the wake of John F Kennedy’s assassination, Pei worked his magic on the family and hauled in the Kennedy Library against stiff competition. But the project became mired in conflicts. The original site next to Harvard, chosen by Kennedy himself, was shifted across the Charles River and then back again. As the battle dragged on, the surviving Kennedys drifted away. Eventually the library was withdrawn to a distant location on the bay side of Boston. The final building, opened in 1979, did the architect few favours.

There was a second setback in Boston. With Henry Cobb as leading partner, the Pei firm had taken on a mirror-glass-clad tower for the Boston insurance giant John Hancock, looming over august Copley Square. As it neared completion early in 1973, a hail of 500lb glass panels crashed to the ground in a storm. Claim and counter-claim ensued. Architects are seldom fully to blame for such incidents, but the mud sticks. The commercial side of the firm retracted for years.

After 1989 Pei withdrew by stages from his firm to enjoy the Miesian house he and Eileen had built in the 1950s at Katonah, New York, but he never really retired. Cultural projects of all types and sizes kept pouring out of him, such as the Morton H Myerson Symphonic Center at Dallas; the intricate Miho Museum in the hills outside Kyoto; his one English work, a little elevated garden pavilion at Oare House, Wiltshire; and finally the monumental Doha museum, completed in 2008.

Neither a teacher nor a theorist, Pei got on with each job in the terms in which it was offered to him, then giving his utmost to turn it into art. Simple geometries were generally the key to his designs. Though he consciously turned his back on the rigidity of orthodox postwar modernism, he was never a postmodernist in any meaningful sense of that term. He was committed to modern art and had many artist friends. What translated his gifts for design into exceptional success was his touch with the sundry moguls who paid for his vision. If his privileged background made him at ease with them, it mattered more that he always knew his own architectural mind. Like many good architects, Pei was a conformist at heart. One unkind critic compared his international signature buildings to “Louis Vuitton luggage”. But the architect Robert Venturi made the point in another way when he remarked that “IM Pei will never be happy on Route 66”, meaning that Pei saw no reason to question the remoteness of his high-style architecture from everyday American culture.

Eileen died in 2014. A son, T’ing Chung, died in 2003. Pei is survived by his sons Chien Chung (Didi) and Li Chung (Sandi), and a daughter, Liane.

• Ieoh Ming (IM) Pei, architect, born 26 April 1917; died 16 May 2019


[Editor] 张艳

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