The Legacy of I.M. Pei (1917–2019)
May 29, 2019
by John Morris Dixon, FAIA
The death of architect I.M. Pei (1917–2019) at age 102 elicited generous obituaries from publications such as Architect, Architectural Record, The Architects’ Newspaper, and The New York Times. He was indeed one of the greatest, most prolific architects of the past 100 years, leaving behind landmark structures from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Dallas to Paris, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Doha. And for the entire half-century-plus of his professional career he lived and worked among us in New York.
His location here was the result of several unexpected events early in his career. The son a prominent banker in China, Pei came to the U.S. in 1935 to study architecture, earning a bachelor’s degree from M.I.T. and a master’s under Gropius and Breuer at Harvard. His intention to return home after schooling was thwarted by the Communist advances there. After teaching a while at Harvard, Pei then took an unconventional—and risky—career step by agreeing to lead an in-house architectural studio established by the developer William Zeckendorf. The Madison Avenue offices he designed for the developer (1950–1951) featured a circular turret housing Zeckdorf’s own opulent office.
Projects completed for Zeckendorf in our DOCOMOMO chapter territory include the Kips Bay Plaza apartment complex (1957–1963) and the Roosevelt Field Shopping Center on Long Island (1952–1956)—both over one million square feet in size. Even before parting with Zeckendorf in 1960, he began work on Green Earth Sciences tower at M.I.T. (1959–1964) and other works for outside clients. In 1960 he set up his own firm, with names that evolved in stages to Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, from which he stepped down in 1990.
Notable Pei-designed buildings in the Tri-state region include: his own summer-weekend house in Katonah, NY (1952); University Village apartment towers in Greenwich Village, designed with partner-to-be James Ingo Freed (1960–1963); Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY (1961–1968); Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University (1968-73); 88 Pine Street office building in New York, designed with Freed (1968–1973); Mellon Center for the Arts (1968–1973) and Science Center (1985–1989) at Choate Rosemary Hall School, Wallingford, CT (1968–1972); Spelman Rockefeller student apartments at Princeton University, designed with Harold Fredenburgh (1971–1973); Javits Convention Center, New York, designed with Freed(1979–1986).
Also among his notable achievements were the Air Traffic Control towers he designed for the Federal Aviation Administration, erected at some 50 airports (1962–1972). Somewhat ironically, the most significant loss among Pei’s works has been the demolition of his National Airlines Terminal at JFK Airport (1962–1970), a structure not only elegant in form but innovative in its circulation systems.
Pei was not just a shaper of isolated landmarks, as much current press coverage implies. For instance, his Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris (1983–1989) is repeatedly described as a willful ornament in its open court, when it is in fact the most visible, and crucial, part of an extensive underground complex of lobby, ticket counters, corridors, and visitor amenities devised by Pei to rationalize the museum’s circulation.
One of Pei’s more general contributions to Modern architecture was his refinement of cast-in-place concrete surfaces. While Marcel Breuer had made muscular board-formed concrete visually appealing and Paul Rudolph displayed his signature vertically ribbed concrete, Pei worked with more finely crafted, smoother formwork, making concrete a finely honed material comparable to dressed stone. While the quality of the concrete work contributes to works such as the Kips Bay Plaza and University Village complexes in New York, his East Building of the National Gallery in Washington (1968–1978) celebrates concrete’s potential elegance by boldly juxtaposing it to fine marble cladding.
Another admirable quality of Pei’s work was his sensitive response to neighboring buildings and spaces, beginning at a time when few of his contemporaries showed such respect for context. His early Earth Sciences tower at M.I.T. provided a fitting, symmetrical campanile for a campus centered on Classical Revival structures, its concrete virtually matching the prevailing limestone. In his Columbus, IN, public library (1963–1969), his architecture thoughtfully complements the Eliel Saarinen church nearby and establishes an intimate plaza linking them. His East Building of the National Gallery in Washington is a subtly adjusted companion—equal in both prominence and quality—to the fine original building.
Only rarely, in his late works, did Pei show any of the Postmodernist impulse to adopt historical design devices. One obvious instance is the Fragrant Hill Hotel on the outskirts of Beijing (1979–1982), where the stuccoed walls of an essentially Modern structure displayed frankly ornamental geometrical patterns alluding to traditional Chinese design. Well after his departure from the Pei Cobb Freed firm, the museum in Suzhou (2002–2006), designed in association with his sons’ firm, the Pei Partnership, plays freely with geometries and view-framing devices derived from Chinese tradition. In both of these works, the buildings are closely interwoven with masterful reinterpretations of historical Chinese gardens. In his Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar (2008), Pei clearly adopted traditional Muslim building geometries, but abstracted and unornamented in a clearly Modernist way.
Throughout his career, I.M. (whose initials quickly became his spoken name) set an example for architects everywhere by always appearing fit, alert, and impeccably dressed.
I.M. Pei, Master Architect Whose Buildings Dazzled the World, Dies at 1o2, The New York Times, May 16, 2019.
I.M. Pei’s notable New York City Buildings, mapped, Curbed New York, May 16, 2o19.