I M Pei 1917 – 2019

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Renowned architect of the Louvre pyramid and Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, taught by Gropius and Breuer, and whose first commission was the Mile High Center in Denver

I M Pei, who has died aged 102, brought clarity and quality to his buildings. They are beautifully designed in every detail and usually very well made, of good materials. To Europeans he was best known for his glass-pyramid design for the Louvre in Paris (1983-93) – the central and three smaller satellite pyramids daylighting the subterranean circulation area that completely freed up access to the various wings of the museum while providing the visitor facilities that a modern museum needs. This seemed like a culmination of his career – he was in his late 70s, and officially retired from practice, by the time it opened – but Pei just carried on, with such later works as his acclaimed Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, completed in 2008.  

Pei’s fame by then was such that – having been tempted out of retirement – he could reject all suggested sites for the museum and instead insist it was built on a new artificial peninsula at the southern end of Doha Bay. He travelled the Islamic world for six months while developing his design, Islamic motifs proving very congenial to an architect with such a love for pure geometry. He emerged again to receive the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 2010, having previously won every other significant award including in 1983 the Pritzker Prize. 

The eponymous company he founded in 1955 became Pei Cobb Freed in 1989 as the founder handed over to others. PCF contributed commercial buildings to London’s Canary Wharf district but the only pure Pei building in the UK came later, and in an unexpected place: the 2003 Oare Pavilion, in the grounds of Oare House in Wiltshire. It is a large summer house, right on axis in the avenue of trees leading down from the house. Again highly geometric and symmetrical, it is a true modern folly with a touch of the pagoda about it. His clients, Henry and Tessa Keswick, saw this as their personal Millennium project and – the Keswick family being noted Far East tai-pans – hired the world’s best known Hong Kong/Chinese architect. Drawings and other materials for this project are in the RIBA collections.  

Born in Guangzhou and brought up in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Pei travelled to the United States in 1935 to study architecture, and never returned to live in his home country. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and received a Masters degree from Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied under Gropius and Breuer. His first commission was for the noted planner-developer William Zeckendorf: the Miesian Mile High Center in Denver. His best known other buildings  are the Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research Boulder, Colorado (1961-67), the East Wing of the National Gallery Washington DC (1968-78), the John F Kennedy Library, Boston (1965-79), the Bank of China, Hong Kong (1982-89), the Miho Museum in Shiga, Japan (1991-97) and in Luxembourg the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art (2006).

Norman Foster has paid tribute to Pei, saying: ‘For me, he was an inspiration and a true master of monumental modernism… sensitive to tradition and the value of the vernacular. He drew on concepts developed by Chinese landscape architecture, reflecting a deep appreciation of the importance of the spaces between buildings. The integration of nature and landscape into his designs is a theme that runs through much of his work right to the Miho Museum in Japan which was literally built into the landscape.’

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire added: ‘It is a rarity for one architect to have such a vast portfolio of exceptional international work…(he) practised a humane modernism that touched generations of architects and will continue to do so.’