Pritzker Prize-winning architect IM Pei – born in China, raised in Hong Kong and educated in America – passed away in May at the age of 102 (1917-2019). Practising architect and leading academic Nelson Chen examines his legacy
In the occasion of Ioeh Ming Pei’s 100th birthday in 2017, an academic symposium titled 'Rethinking Pei' was organised by Harvard University, M+ museum and the University of Hong Kong. Speaking at the event, I raised a question: Why does his career require rethinking in the first place? For me, it should simply be 'Appreciating Pei'; he is one of the most accomplished and revered architects of his – or any – generation.
It is a paradox that IM Pei’s works are so publicly recognised yet under-theorised in the architectural field, especially within academic circles. In large part, this may be because it was easy to take him for granted, since he was so prolific and successful in all genres – from commercial buildings to cultural projects. He was also an architect who would have his body of built work speak for itself rather than espousing design theories via lectures and publications.
I had the good fortune to have a conversation that I still remember almost verbatim to this day. My lasting memory was how he treated everyone the same
Having said that, my first and only personal encounter with IM Pei’s was at one of his rare public lectures, more than 40 years ago. His third son, Li Chung Sandi Pei, and I were students at Harvard at the same time. After the lecture, Sandi Pei and I went down to the podium to greet his father, and I had the good fortune to have a conversation that I still remember almost verbatim to this day. My lasting memory was how he treated everyone the same, whether the university president or a student like me.
Another reason why we take Pei for granted is that he made it all look so easy. As much as he was a master form-maker, he was equal parts a master strategist – conceiving and synthesising seemingly impossible sites and complex problems with singular design solutions that were daring and innovative, while ultimately being compelling and timeless.
His design for the East Building (1968-78) of the National Gallery in DC framed the years when I was an architecture student. It was very much in the public eye during its design, construction and completion. The site is an awkward trapezoid, essentially a leftover fragment in the L'Enfant master plan from 1791.
His bold design for the Pyramid at the Louvre Museum overcame widespread public opposition to become a widely beloved icon
It was a near-impossible site that Pei resolved elegantly with two triangles (for the museum and study centre) to maintain axial symmetry with the original National Gallery opposite it, and successfully merging a contemporary architectural form and vocabulary in harmony with the classical, traditional buildings and monuments on the National Mall. When you see and experience this building that is so right and compelling, you cannot imagine any other solution.
Similarly, his bold design for the Pyramid at the Louvre Museum (1983-89) overcame widespread public opposition to become a widely beloved icon for both Parisians and international visitors alike. Again, we appreciate the form, presence and symbolism of the Pyramid, but the success of this design is actually not its abstract geometry – no matter how elegant – but the resulting space, light and movement made possible by the audacity to excavate the central courtyard (Le Cour Napoléon) that revitalised the entire museum complex. Both audacity and artistry in equal measure.Closer to home, at Fragrant Hill Hotel, Beijing (1979- 82), it is easy for us to forget that it represented the first major architectural contribution to China on the advent of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms just over 40 years ago. This commission came about because of Pei's refusal to design a series of high-rise hotels in close proximity to the Imperial Palace. At Fragrant Hill, instead of sculptural abstraction or angular geometry, there is a series of linked, low-rise wings amid surrounding landscaped gardens. In terms of architectural form-making, Pei was striving for a contemporary architectural language that respected and extended the cultural tradition of China. One can see its continued legacy 25 years later in his Suzhou Museum (2004-06) pictured below.For the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, it is amazing to consider that, when built (1990), it was the tallest building in Asia – in fact, the first high-rise building outside of the US that exceeded 1,000 feet (300 metres) in height. Today, it is no longer even among the top 50 tallest structures worldwide and only the fourth tallest in Hong Kong. But, in my mind, BOC Tower is still one of the best designed high-rise buildings worldwide. It was innovative back then, and it is timeless now.
There is a saying that the contemporariness of a student's education can be traced to when his or her professors were educated. If that is so, I am afraid my architecture students at Chinese University of Hong Kong get more than their share of 'old school' from me – many references to Le Corbusier, Kahn, Saarinen, Stirling, Maki and, of course, Pei. What I always try to convey to my students, as exemplified by Pei's works and career, is to design with less concern for 'what's first', but with a profound commitment to 'what lasts'.
Professor Nelson Chen, FAIA FRIBA FHKIA, is principal architect of Nelson Chen Architects and director of the School of Architecture, CUHK
Photos. IM Pei: Pei Partnership Architects; Bank of China: Dicky Liu