I.M. Pei, Architect of Glass Geometries

Chinese-American Pritzker Laureate b. 1917

elderly Chinese man with round glasses
Architect I.M. Pei in 2009. Dario Cantatore/Getty Images (cropped)

Architect Ieoh Ming Pei (born April 26, 1917 in Canton, China) is known for using large, abstract forms and sharp, geometric designs. His glass-clad structures seem to spring from the high-tech modernist movement. In the U.S. Pei is popularly known for designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio. Winner of the 1983 Pritzker Architecture Prize, Pei is more concerned with function than theory — his writings are few. His works often incorporate traditional Chinese symbols and building traditions.

In Chinese, Ieoh Ming means "to inscribe brightly." The name Pei's parents gave him proved prophetic. Over a decade's long career, Ieoh Ming Pei has designed more than fifty buildings around the world, ranging from industrial skyscrapers and important museums to low income housing.

Fast Facts: I.M. Pei

  • Occupation: Architect
  • Also Known As: Ieoh Ming Pei
  • Born: April 26, 1917 in Canton, now Guangzhou, China
  • Parents: Lien Kwun and Tsuyee Pei, banker and financier at the Bank of China
  • Education: B.Arch. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1940), M.Arch. Harvard Graduate School of Design (1946)
  • Key Accomplishments: 1983 Pritzker Architecture Prize, Designer of Modern Architecture such as the Louvre Pyramid (1989) in Paris and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (1995) in Ohio
  • Spouse: Eileen Loo
  • Children: Three sons, T’ing Chung (T’ing), Chien Chung (Didi), and Li Chung (Sandi), and one daughter, Liane
  • Fun Fact: Pei overstayed his student visa after graduating from MIT but became an American citizen in 1954

Early Years & Marriage

Pei grew up in privilege — his father was a prominent banker — and graduated from prestigious Anglican schools in Shanghai. With a student visa in hand, the young Pei arrived at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, California on August 28, 1935. His plan was to study at the University of Pennsylvania, but he found a better fit at the schools near Boston, Massachusetts. In 1940 he earned a B.Arch. in architecture and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In the middle of his studies at MIT, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident occurred in China. Unrest in the Pacific and with China at war with Japan, the young graduate was unable to return to his homeland. From 1940 to 1942 Pei took advantage of a MIT Traveling Fellowship.

At a nearby women's college Pei met his future wife, the Chinese-born Eileen Loo (1920–2014), who graduated from Wellesley College in 1942. They married and both attended Harvard Graduate School of Design, he earning a M.Arch. degree in 1946 and she studying landscape architecture. At Harvard, I.M.Pei studied under Bauhaus modernist architect Walter Gropius. During the World War II years, Pei worked at the National Defense Research Committee in Princeton, New Jersey from 1942 to 1944. Back at Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1945 to 1948 Pei was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

The couple traveled again in 1951 on Harvard's Wheelwright Traveling Fellowship. Between 1944 and 1960, the couple had three sons and one daughter.

In 1954 Pei became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Professional Years

In 1948 Pei was recruited by New York City developer William Zeckendorf to work for his company, becoming Director of Architecture at Webb & Knapp, Inc. for over a decade. Pei's urban renewal buildings during this time established his personal business beginning in 1955, from I. M. Pei & Associates to I. M. Pei & Partners and the better known Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Eason Leonard and Henry N. Cobb had worked with Pei since 1955, but became founding partners of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. James Ingo Freed was partner until his death in 2005. Since 1992, Pei Partnership Architects has been a business with his sons, Chien Chung Pei and Li Chung Pei.

In 1976 I.M. Pei & Partners had a business nightmare when a new skyscraper in Boston, Massachusetts started losing its reflective glass facade panels. Pei hadn't designed the mirrored John Hancock Tower near Trinity Church, but his name was on the architecture firm. Henry Cobb was the design architect of the Hancock Tower, but the Pei organization took the hit in publicity. Pei spent a good part of the rest of his career designing glass structures to show the world he knew how to build with framed glass.

In 1983 Pei was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. With the prize money, Pei established a scholarship for Chinese students to study architecture in the United States provided they return to China to practice architecture.

Important Buildings

Considered one of the first skyscrapers in Denver, Colorado, the 23-story Mile High Center was one of Pei's early glass clad high-rises. Built in 1956, the Center is now the Tower as it was completely renovated by someone else who knows a thing or two about glass — Philip Johnson's architectural firm of Johnson/Burgee Architects. Pei's 1970 Terminal 6 at JFK International Airport in New York City was not so lucky to be renovated — it was demolished in 2011.

Visit the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado to experience Pei's modernity without an emphasis on glass. This 1967 design is more similar to the 1968 Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York and the 1973 Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. — designed as asymmetrical sculptures. More mature museum projects include the 2006 Musée d'Art Moderne in Kirchberg, Luxembourg and the 2008 Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

The glass pyramids used as skylights complemented Pei's sculpture-like design of the National Gallery of Art, East Building in Washington, D.C. Its 1978 opening brought Pei national and international renown.

modern white stone building in background and glass pyramids on ground in foreground
National Gallery East Wing, Washington, D.C. Charles Rotkin/VCG via Getty Images (cropped)

Major American cities often called on Pei's expertise to bring exciting but restrained modernism to their urban areas. In Boston, Massachusetts Pei was asked to design the 1979 John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and its extension in 1991, and the 1981 Museum of Fine Arts West Wing and Renovation. In Dallas, Texas Pei took on Dallas City Hall (1977) and the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center (1989).

Pei has designed a number of buildings in Asia, including the 1976 Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Centre and the 1986 Raffles City complex in Singapore; the 1997 Miho Museum in Shiga, Japan; the 2006 Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China; the 1982 Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, China; and perhaps most importantly, the 1989 Bank of China Tower, his father's bank in Hong Kong.

I.M. Pei's international reputation was cemented, however, with the controversial and highly successful new entryway into the very old Louvre Museum in Paris. The 1989 Louvre Pyramid created a skylit underground entrance that managed the crowds of visitors away from and into the aged museum.

Chinese man in suit sitting in front of a large glass pyramid
Louvre's Pyramid Entrance, 1989, Architect I.M. Pei. Bernard Bisson/Sygma via Getty Images (cropped)

The same year I.M. Pei was finishing the 1993 Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, he was also finishing another phase of the Louvre project — La Pyramide Inversée or The Inverted Pyramid, an upside-down glass pyramid skylight built into an underground shopping mall near the Louvre.

interior space with large glass pyramid of glass pointing into the space all the way to near the floor
he Inverted Pyramid of the Carrousel du Louvre, Paris. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images (cropped)

Quote

"I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art. To become art it must be built on a foundation of necessity." — I.M. Pei, Acceptance of the 1983 Pritzker Architecture Award.

Legacy Repurposing Designs

It turns out that the venerable Chinese-born Pei was not only a Pritzker-winning architect, but also an astute businessman. It's been said that Pei's controversial Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, France evolved from an early design for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts, eventually completed in 1979 with an extension in 1991.

Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy chose Pei to honor her late husband, and Pei accepted the commission in December 1964. "Pei's initial design for the Library included a truncated glass pyramid symbolizing President Kennedy's abruptly cut-off life," declares the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, "a design that re-emerged 25 years later in I.M. Pei's design for the expansion of the Louvre Museum in Paris."

And in 1995 he did it again in Cleveland, Ohio with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — a glass pyramid.

glass pyramid with sign in foreground: ROCK AND ROLL
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio. George Rose/Getty Images

The inventive Mr. Pei is an elder statesman of modernism and a living connection to the age of le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. We should have figured that he was also a master at repurposing. The ingenuity of architect Ieoh Ming Pei is typical of successful architects — if at first one design is rejected, use it somewhere else.

Sources

  • I.M. Pei, Architect. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
    https://www.jfklibrary.org/about-us/about-the-jfk-library/history/im-pei-architect
  • Nahm, Rosemarie. I.M. Pei’s Angel Island Beginnings. Immigrant Voices. Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. https://www.immigrant-voices.aiisf.org/stories-by-author/i-m-peis-angel-island-beginnings-2/