Legendary architect I.M. Pei, whose creations punctuate cultural institutions and museums all around the world, has died at the age of 102.
The Pritzker Prize winner started Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in 1955 with Henry N. Cobb and Eason Leonard, and led the New York-based firm for 35 years until his retirement in 1990. In addition to the Pritzker, he earned the AIA Gold Medal and the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, among many honors. The firm’s vast portfolio spans from Syracuse to Singapore. Committed to craftsmanship, sophisticated in form and sensitive to how structures not only affect, but invite in the public at large, Pei created landmarks that were more welcoming than foreboding. Le Grand Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the Dallas City Hall, and Copenhagen’s Tivoli Hjørnet.
Born Ieoh Ming Pei in Guangzhou, China, he came to the U.S. to study architecture, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940. Pei added to his education with a master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1946, where he stayed on for two years as an assistant professor. That same year he took up William Zeckendorf Sr. on his offer to become the director of architecture at the real estate development company Webb & Knapp. With a troupe of young designers from Harvard, Pei spearheaded an assortment of enterprising architectural and planning projects across the country, including Mile High Center in Denver in 1956, the Southwest Washington Urban Renewal Plan in 1962 and Society Hill in Philadelphia in 1964. Nine years earlier, Pei teamed up with his colleagues Cobb and Leonard to form I.M. Pei & Associates, which became I.M. Pei & Partners in 1966. Another name change happened in 1989 — Cobb Freed & Partners.
One of his more defining buildings was the sculptural cast-in-plate concrete National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. The modernist glass pyramid East Building of the National Gallery of Art that he designed in 1978 furthered his ascent in the world of architecture, as did the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston a year later. Testimony to the forward-thinking architect can be seen in the spring 2015 Carolina Herrera advertising campaign, which Willy Vanderperre shot in front of the aforementioned East Building. Without question, the monumental architect had a reputation for fastidiousness, professionalism and an exacting eye. Everywhere he went he absorbed his surroundings. “Everything here is epic and span,” the architect told WWD at the National Gallery of Art dinner in Washington, D.C., in 1983. He designed the building’s East Wing. Comparing the art-adorned space with the Fragrant Hill Hotel he designed outside Peking in 1980, Pei told WWD, “The Chinese have a lot to learn about maintenance, how to maintain a building and keep it from falling apart.”
In total, he designed more than a dozen museums — the Miho Museum in Shiga Japan (1997) and the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China, (2006) among them. Louis Vuitton set its cruise 2018 presentation at the Miho Museum, which rests amid lush vegetation in the Shiga mountains near the Japanese city of Kyoto. It features a huge tunnel leading to a structure with a steel-and-glass roof and a floor and walls made of a warm, beige-colored limestone from France — the same materials the architect used to create the pyramid and reception hall at the Louvre museum in Paris, which was the setting for creative director Nicolas Ghesquière’s fall collection for the brand. Churches, hospitals, municipal buildings, academic facilities and libraries were among his many contributions to the landscape of the world. New Yorkers may know him for the soothing interiors he created for the Four Seasons Hotel in 1993, which made many reconsider how they developed grand hotels. After retiring from the partnership, he worked on such projects as the Fours Seasons Hotel, the Miho Museum and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Luxembourg in 2006. In 2008 — well before many designers descended on Doha with signature boutiques — Pei had already given many tourists reason to visit with the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.
Pei, who became a U.S. citizen in 1954, did not return to China until the late Seventies when he was commissioned to design the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, which opened in 1982. Like the Suzhou Museum, his only other work built on mainland China, the Fragrant Hill Hotel blended advanced technology with an indigenous building practice, resulting in a new distinctly Chinese form of modern architecture, according to his former firm’s site. At a 1980 event at Mr. Chow’s in honor of the Shanghai Peking Opera troupe, Pei shared his opposition to the development of the neutron bomb. He told WWD at that time, “I’m not interested in buildings. I’m interested in people. I’d rather we develop a bomb that destroys buildings and spares people.”
Two years later, Lord & Taylor honored him with the Rose award for his “worldwide architectural contribution to the aesthetic evolution of man’s environment.” In honoring him at that black-tie gala, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw narrated a tribute to Pei while guests like Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. listened in. The architect’s triumphs and tribulations were detailed including the 15-year effort to complete the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Stephen Smith said of that venture, “Perhaps not since the pharaohs has an architect had such a long, ongoing relationship with a client,” before adding that behind Pei’s “gentle soul is a spine of steel and the tenacity of a bulldog on the bite.”
In the late Eighties, Pei joked with WWD about another slow-moving project — the $106 million Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. Standing on a white carpet instead of white marble at the venue’s opening, he said, “I can’t believe after all these years I can’t finish a building on time.”
His awards were many — the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum. He also held honorary doctorates from three Ivy League universities: Harvard, Columbia and Brown. Vera Wang said Thursday, “I.M. Pei was one of the most influential and brilliant architects from the 20th century. His passion, education and formidable talent led to such iconic projects as the National Gallery in Washington, the Pyramid at the Louvre, even a private museum for a mother/daughter in Japan only accessible through a mountain via an extraordinary bridge. His passing reminds me of the true end of an era that knew no boundaries or limitations in terms of architecture and paved the way for the buildings of today and those of tomorrow.”
Having been neighbors with Pei for more than 30 years, Yue-Sai Kan said he often spent mornings sitting in the Sutton Place garden they shared, reading the newspaper. “He was always the most gentle gentleman. He was always kind, thoughtful — just a sweet man,” she said. “He obviously is one of the best known architects in the world and he has definitely left a lot of wonderful work around the universe. Almost everywhere you go, you see his work. You can literally go anywhere and see his work. For somebody who was so important, he was extremely low-key. He would just go around doing his thing.”
Pei was not one to talk about work with his neighbor. “He didn’t have to speak of his work. His work speaks for himself.”