I.M. Pei, Architect Of Some Of The World's Most Iconic Structures, Dies At 102 | KERA News

I.M. Pei, Architect Of Some Of The World's Most Iconic Structures, Dies At 102

May 16, 2019
Originally published on May 21, 2019 12:13 pm

Crowds around the world flow through the buildings designed by architect I.M. Pei; in Paris, they stream into the Louvre's Pyramid entrance. In Cleveland, they wander through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And in Hong Kong, they travel up and down the soaring Bank of China Tower.

Pei's death was confirmed by Thomas Guss, his press contact. He was 102.

His designs were widely praised — but not always at first. When his large glass pyramid opened at the entrance to the Louvre museum in 1989, it was not well received.

"I would say the first year and a half was really hell," the architect said in a PBS documentary. "I couldn't walk the streets of Paris without people walking looking at me and saying, There you go again. What are you doing here? What are you doing to us? What are you doing to our great Louvre?"

Two decades passed and, in 2009, NPR's Susan Stamberg paid a visit to the Pyramid. Henri Loyrette, the Louvre's director at the time, called it a masterpiece. He said that when you ask visitors why they are at the Louvre, they generally give three answers: for the Mona Lisa, for the Venus de Milo and for the Pyramid. It was not the first time shock has given way to admiration in architecture.

Pei didn't like labels. He said there's no such thing as modern, postmodern or deconstructivist architecture. But he was considered a modernist. Back in 1970, he defined his approach in an interview for a documentary on one of his buildings — the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

"If the problem is a complicated problem, then the building will result just that way," Pei said. "But then after that we have to simplify it. We have to eliminate the inessential."

That is pretty much the definition of modernism in architecture — eliminate the inessential, leaving clean lines and spare geometric forms. But, he said, his architecture was not just geometry.

"There are many other elements that come into play to create a form," said Pei. "Space, which is what architecture really is. You have to have light. ... Light is terribly important."

What are shapes without light, he asked — and added, "The light of the sun is magical."

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is located on the shores of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland.
Mark Duncan / AP

Pei was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1917. He grew up in a house where gardens and airy pavilions merged with the landscape. Pei biographer Carter Wiseman says that the natural world deeply influenced Pei.

"Having come from China, where he was exposed to garden architecture, he had a very different concept of time," Wiseman explains. "He was interested in the sculptural properties of rocks. There was an affinity for nature and for history that most Americans do not get, no matter how hard we try."

Pei's father was a banker, his mother an artist. He came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1935, went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was influenced by the work of pioneering modernists Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Pei's privileged upbringing helped him navigate the alpha-male world of architecture and real estate. He was able to schmooze with the powerful, which led to projects like the apartments on Manhattan's East Side called the Kips Bay Towers, the Kennedy Library in Boston and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Pei didn't get everything right. His 1980s design for New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, for instance, is still less than loved.

His Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, completed in 1982, uses a traditional Chinese design. In 1990, the Bank of China Tower opened — and his modern, soaring design instantly became one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in Hong Kong.

Completed in 1990, the Bank of China Tower is among the tallest skyscrapers in Hong Kong.
Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images

Pei inspired younger Chinese architects, like Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Wang Shu; he says Pei "awakened" him. Wang believes Pei figured out a way to bridge East and West, old and new, and he thinks of Pei as a teacher — someone who came before him and whose successes and mistakes he learned from.

From the Macao Science Center to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, Pei continued building through 2009. His name, I.M., stands for Ieoh Ming, which means, roughly, "to make an indelible mark."

: 5/20/19

A previous Web version of this story mistakenly said the Louvre's Pyramid opened in 1988; it opened in 1989.

Previously posted on May 17: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say that I.M. Pei was born in Suzhou, China. In fact, he was born in Guangzhou.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, opened to the public in 2008.
Hassan Ammar / AP

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The architect I.M. Pei designed some of the most significant buildings of the last 60 years - the pyramid entrance to the Louvre museum in Paris, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, to name just three. I.M. Pei died today. He was 102 years old. NPR's Ted Robbins has this remembrance.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: I.M. Pei's best-known work was not well-received. He took a parking lot in front of one of Paris's most treasured sites, the Louvre, and he made a new entrance to the museum - a large glass pyramid. In a PBS documentary, the architect with the easy smile and the signature round glasses recalled how he was slammed after the pyramid opened in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

I M PEI: No, I would say the first year and a half was really hell. I really couldn't walk the streets of Paris without people walking and look at me as if to say, there you go again; what are you doing here? What are you doing to us? What are you doing to our great Louvre?

ROBBINS: Two decades passed, and in 2009, NPR's Susan Stamberg revisited the site. The Louvre's director at the time, Henri Loyrette, called the pyramid a masterpiece.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HENRI LOYRETTE: And when you ask the visitors, why are you coming to the Louvre, they give mainly three answers - for the Mona Lisa, for the Venus of Milo and for the pyramid.

ROBBINS: Not the first time shock has given way to admiration in architecture, but I.M. Pei didn't like labels. He said there is no such thing as modern, post-modern or deconstruct architecture. Listen to him back in 1970, though, talking with WGBH on the site of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which he designed, in Boulder, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PEI: And if the problem is a complicated problem, then the building will result just that way. But after that we'll have - then have to simplify it. We'll have to then eliminate the unessential.

ROBBINS: That is pretty much the definition of modernism in architecture - eliminate the inessential, leaving clean lines and spare geometric forms. Though again on PBS, Pei said his architecture is not just geometry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEI: There are many other elements that come into play to create a form - space, which is what architecture really is. You have to have light. Now, light is terribly important. What are shapes if there's no light? The light of the sun is magical because it changes so much.

ROBBINS: I.M. Pei was born in Suzhou, China. He grew up in a house where gardens and airy pavilions merged with the landscape. Pei biographer Carter Wiseman told journalist Edward Lifson, who contributed to this remembrance, that the natural world deeply influenced Pei.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER WISEMAN: Having come from China where he was exposed to garden architecture, he had a very different concept of time. He was interested in the sculptural properties of rocks. There was an affinity for nature and for history that most Americans do not get no matter how hard we try.

ROBBINS: Pei's father was a banker, his mother an artist. He came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1935, went to MIT and was influenced by the work of pioneering modernist Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Pei's privileged upbringing helped him navigate the alpha male world of architecture and real estate. He was able to schmooze with the powerful, which led to projects like the apartments on Manhattan's East Side called the Kips Bay Towers, the Kennedy Library in Boston and the east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Pei didn't get everything right. His design for New York's Jacob Javits Convention Center, for instance, is still less than loved. In 1990, the Bank of China Tower opened, and his modern, soaring design instantly became one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Younger Chinese architects like Wang Shu admired I.M. Pei's success.

WANG SHU: It really awakened something to me.

ROBBINS: Wang Shu, like I.M. Pei decades earlier, won the Pritzker Architecture Prize. He says Pei figured out a way to bridge East and West, old and new. He gives Pei a high compliment, calling him teacher.

WANG: Teacher means he do something before me, and I can think about in his work which way is right.

ROBBINS: From the Macau Science Center to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, I.M. Pei continued building through 2009. His name, I.M. - it stands for Ieoh Ming, which roughly means to make an indelible mark. I.M. Pei certainly did that. Ted Robbins, NPR News. [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous version of the Web story, we say that I.M. Pei was born in Suzhou, China. In fact, he was born in Guangzhou.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.