I. M. Pei: Mandarin, Brahmin, Mover + Shaker

by Trevor Boddy / The Architectural Review, London / Published in September, 2012

Following the life and impact of IM Pei: the first non-Western architect to rise to the peaks of the global profession

There is a world of difference between the two Chinese-born architects who have won the Pritzker Prize. 1983 winner Ieoh Ming Pei left China as a teenager for studies in the US, graduating directly into a dozen-year spell as in-house designer for prominent New York developer William Zeckendorf.

Accordingly, Pei’s work is corporate in character (leavened by loss-leading cultural complexes) and only rarely, and almost guiltily, Chinese. The 2011 Pritzker Prize went to Wang Shu − whose work is tactile, hand-shaped, at times surreally idiosyncratic, but also linked to Chinese traditions in ways the roots-seeking Pei never understood. Shu’s Pritzker win can only be read as a pointed rejoinder to Pei’s cohort of global corporate firms.

Pei should ultimately join his former teacher Walter Gropius near the front of the long line of most over-praised architects of the 20th century. But he is important for other reasons: crucially, as the first non-Western architect to rise to the peaks of the global profession. That ascent is worth examining, because it says much about both the profession, and this architect’s managerial acumen − his major legacy.

Pei’s father was manager of the Bank of China’s Canton branch when the Chinese civil war broke out (forcing him to bundle the two-year-old Ieoh Ming off to refuge in Hong Kong); he returned later to Shanghai when things stabilised and rose to govern the country’s key bank. The father was distant and imperious, a style the architect adopted more than he might have wished − he was known as ‘IM’ to even the closest of associates, and his office often featured no chairs other than the senior partners’.

Pei was Mandarin-born to China’s moneyed class, but barely a dozen years after his 1935 American arrival he had achieved an equal cultural status as a Boston Brahmin, followed by his ultimate triumph as a Mover and Shaker of big business in New York City.

His breakthrough projects were all bank towers where his family connections and good name were not unimportant: Montreal’s 1962 Place Ville Marie (for the Royal Bank, with Zeckendorf as developer and Henry Cobb as associate); Toronto’s 1965 Commerce Court; Singapore’s 1976 Oversea-Chinese Banking tower; and to bring home his family’s continuing import even after the Communist takeover, the Bank of China’s 1989 Hong Kong tower, then the same bank’s Beijing 2001 Head Office.

Pei started design studies at the University of Pennsylvania then MIT in 1935, but was repulsed by their Beaux-Arts derived curricula, so switched to architectural engineering, maintaining a geometer’s passion throughout his career.

He excelled in architecture at Harvard soon after, but went straight from studies under Gropius to a business-oriented apprenticeship under Zeckendorf. Pei learned the arts of planning (both in the building approvals and in the layout senses of the word) and managing a large team here, at least as important as anything learned at Harvard.

The prestige that accrued from business buildings was never enough for Pei, so whenever he could he called in his social markers to shape art galleries (for Syracuse, Cornell, Des Moines, Choate, Boston, Luxembourg, Berlin, Qatar and Shiga, Japan) or museums and libraries (for Columbus, Berlin, and for Kennedy’s archive, outside Boston).

This ongoing interest in cultural buildings and inter-cultural dialogue is what separates the sometimes Brahmin Pei from the alphabet soup of his peer firms, the SOMs, HOKs and KPFs. This said, Pei’s gallery designs tend to the distractingly arty, unconvincing sculptural compositions dedicated less to the exhibition of art than the sorts of geometric form-making not possible in his large urban development work.

Most contain photo-friendly set-pieces such as sculptural stairs, dramatic cantilevers or heroic vaults, but have mediocre exhibition rooms. The proponents of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum thought they had bought corporate status and funding streams with their bizarre selection of Pei in 1987, but the resulting building is icy and over-eager, Nirvana performed by Mantovani. Much the same can be said of his East Wing of Washington’s National Gallery, where the triangulated and inadequate new galleries are sideshows to Pei’s true brilliance here − a re-organisation of its public and support spaces.

Pei’s developer-generated genius for planning and organisation reach its zenith with his re-working of the Cour Napoléon at the Louvre in the 1980s, perhaps his only flat-out masterwork. Many of the strengths of the East Wing are extended here − moving support space and entry underground, the rationalisation of functions, the pre-show rituals of visitation brought together by pulling natural light deep underground beneath a spectacular skylight.

Pyramids in wood had been built on this location for urban festivals since the 18th century, but still there were objections to Pei’s proposal; however his ultra-clear ‘white glass’ and bracingly lucid steel structure later charmed many with the finesse of its construction.

Work on a second phase continued into the 1990s, and here Pei learned from previous mistakes, making much more amenable exhibition spaces. Above all, the plan for Pei’s Grand Louvre is sublime, a solution so profound as if to seem inevitable, and millions of us can hardly imagine entering this great museum any other way. It took the skills of a Mandarin, a Brahmin, and a Mover and Shaker to deal with the Grand Louvre’s political, aesthetic and technical demands.

Pei’s GSD thesis under Gropius was an art museum for Shanghai with courtyards and garden, all set within a typically Chinese bounding wall. With Moshe Safdie’s transformation of his McGill thesis into Habitat 67 the welcome exception, most conversions of student projects into built works are recipes for failure. Sixty years after Harvard, Pei designed a sprawling museum and garden for his family’s ancestral home of Suzhou. The local vernacular is updated in steel, glass and concrete, but the result is elephantine, tired and cold-hearted, descriptors that apply also to Doha’s 2008 Museum of Islamic Art.

Neglected by the press and its current owners, IM Pei’s most successful exploration of his Chinese cultural roots is the 1982 Fragrant Hills Hotel, north of Beijing. With simpler planning and form-making here, Pei inflects, not replicates Chinese traditions via a limited repertoire of window and wall tile patterning. The Fragrant Hills Hotel remains a model of what Chinese contemporary architecture might have been, if easy corporate formulas and global fads had not prevailed through the greatest building boom in human history. It is now up to the likes of Shu to pick up the pieces.

At 22 years and counting in his ‘retirement’ Pei has built more and practised longer than most architects ever do, and, with his two architect sons playing an increasing role, his dynastic succession is guaranteed. My Chinese architectural colleagues always think of Pei’s architecture as being American, not Chinese, and never more so than in such projects as Suzhou.

By pioneering large and impersonal design organisations, IM Pei may have indeed imparted the permanent influence he always wished for in the country of his birth, but not in the way he intended.


IM Pei

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Harvard Graduate School of Design
Key buildings
Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art (1973)
Louvre Pyramid (1989)
Bank of China Tower (1990)
Museum of Islamic Art,
Doha (2008)
AIA Gold Medal (1979)
Pritzker Architecture Prize (1983)
RIBA Gold Medal (2010)
‘I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art. To become art it must be built on a foundation of necessity’

by Trevor Boddy
The Architectural Review, London
Published in September, 2012
Posted in the online edition 28 August 2012