I.M. Pei, Architect of Glass Geometries

b. 1917

Architect I.M. Pei in 2009, born in China 1917
Architect I.M. Pei in 2009. Photo by Dario Cantatore / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images (cropped)

Ieoh Ming Pei is known for using large, abstract forms and sharp, geometric designs. His glass-clad structures seem to spring from the high tech modernist movement. Pei is popularly known for designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio. However, Pei is more concerned with function than theory. His works often incorporate traditional Chinese symbols and building traditions.


Born: April 26, 1917 in Canton, China


  • 1940: B.Arch., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA
  • 1940-1942: MIT Traveling Fellowship
  • 1944-1946: M.Arch., Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA
  • 1951: Harvard's Wheelwright Traveling Fellowship

Professional Experience:

  • 1942–1944: National Defense Research Committee, Princeton, NJ
  • 1945–1948: Assistant Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA
  • 1948–1955: Director of Architecture, Webb & Knapp, Inc.
  • 1955–1966: I. M. Pei & Associates
  • 1966–1989: I. M. Pei & Partners
  • 1989–1990: Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
  • 1992–Present: Pei Partnership Architects, with sons Chien Chung Pei and Li Chung Pei

Important Buildings:

Related People :

Pei Quote:

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

More About I. M. Pei:

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

Pei grew up in Shanghai, but in 1935 he moved to the United States to study architecture and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and later at Harvard University. In 1954 Pei became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Selected Awards and Honors:

  • 2014: Gold Medal, International Union of Architects (IUA)
  • 2010: Royal Gold Medal, Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)
  • 1993: Medal of Freedom
  • 1983: Pritzker Architecture Prize. With the Pritzker prize money, Pei established a scholarship for Chinese students to study architecture in the United States providing they return to China to practice architecture.
  • 1981: Grande Médaille d'Or, Académie d'Architecture de France
  • 1979: Gold Medal Award, AIA
  • 1979: Gold Medal for Architecture, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1979: Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA)
  • 1976: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Medal for Architecture
  • 1961: Arnold Brunner Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters

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. Who knew?

According to the JFK Library's website, 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 Ohio with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—a glass pyramid (view image).

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.

Learn More:

  • I.M. Pei: Architect of Time, Place and Purpose by Jill Rubalcaba, 2011
  • I.M. Pei: Complete Works, Rizzoli, 2008
  • I.M. Pei - First Person Singular (1998) and The Museum on the Mountain (1998) by Peter Rosen (DVD)

Sources: I.M. Pei, Architect at www.jfklibrary.org/About-Us/About-the-JFK-Library/History/IM-Pei--Architect.aspx [accessed May 27, 2014]; Photo of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Barry Winiker/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images; Biography and Project List at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects LLP [accessed February 19, 2015]; Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize, Design Intelligence; Curriculum Vitae, I.M. Pei FAIA, RIBA, Founder pcf-p; 2014 AIA Gold Medal Recipient, AIA [accessed April 22, 2015]