Pei, I(eoh) M(ing)

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PEI, I(eoh) M(ing)

(b. 26 April 1917 in Canton [now Guangzhou], China), award-winning architect known in the 1960s for his large-scale glass, cast-in-place, and concrete-clad buildings.

Pei, the second of five children, grew up in Hong Kong and later in Shanghai. His father, Tsuyee Pei, was a senior banker with the Bank of China, while his mother, Lien Kwun (Chwong) Pei, was a musician and devout Buddhist. Pei attended Saint John's Middle School in Shanghai before moving to the United States in 1935 to study briefly at the University of Pennsylvania before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he received a B.Arch. in 1940. He served with the National Defense Research Committee in Princeton, New Jersey, from 1943 to 1945 during World War II. On 20 June 1942 Pei married Eileen Loo, a Harvard architecture student. They have four children. Pei graduated with an M.Arch. from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1948. He and his wife became American citizens in 1954.

In the early 1950s Pei worked for William Zeckendorf's real estate development firm, Webb and Knapp. There he learned the practicalities of design on important developments such as the Kips Bay Plaza apartments in New York City (1957–1962). It was on this building that, along with engineer August E. Kommendant, Pei developed the unique window truss load-bearing wall. Pei's talent for design was obvious. With these early projects he established his trademark style of blending buildings with their surroundings for mutual enhancement. Pei's ideas about urban design fit perfectly with the trend in the 1960s for large-scale, integrated urban planning, and many of his designs from that decade have become architectural classics.

Though it was personally rewarding, Pei's work for Zeckendorf did not help his reputation with other designers, who saw working as the employee of a developer as a form of selling out creative freedom. Perhaps with this in mind, in 1955 Pei established the firm of I. M. Pei and Associates with Henry N. Cobb and Eason H. Leonard. As the 1960s progressed Pei acquired a reputation as one of the finest architects of his generation. The years at Zeckendorf taught him the importance of adhering to formulas, and much of his early work is considered conservative. He was, however, also left with a distrust of theorizing. Unlike architects such as Walter Gropius, with whom he is sometimes compared, Pei has expressed a preference for developing ideas through his designs rather than in theoretical writings. For example, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado (1961–1967), which Pei has called his "breakout" project, has twin cylindrical towers that contrast powerfully with the mountains behind. The project effectively announced his arrival as a world-class architect, and did so through visual impact and functionality alone. Unlike Gropius and others, Pei saw no need to explain the building's place in a grand scheme for the future of architecture and design.

In 1964 Pei's rising status was reflected in his selection to design the John F. Kennedy Library at Columbia Point, Boston, Massachusetts. The project took over a decade to complete and was eventually dedicated in 1979, having gone through three design incarnations for three different sites. Yet Pei remained true to the ideas explored in earlier buildings, especially in his efforts to allow the building and the landscape to enhance one another.

In the second half of the 1960s Pei began to move away from his modernist origins. Abandoning the cool efficiency of Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Pei's design for the Everson Art Museum at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York (1966–1968), is bold and dramatic. Four rectangular concrete blocks contain the gallery spaces and tower over a plaza. Pei became a specialist at designing museums and other municipal buildings and proved especially skilled at creating gallery spaces and entrances. But it was not just the buildings and their interiors that were impressive. In the case of the Kennedy Library, for example, outstanding views to the outside were also a key feature of the design.

In 1966 Pei's firm changed its name to I. M. Pei and Partners to recognize the collaborative nature of its projects. The Dallas Municipal Center (1966–1977) brought Pei and the firm international recognition. Built from concrete in the shape of an upside-down pyramid embedded in the ground, the Dallas Municipal Center combines two of the characteristic features of Pei's buildings: high drama and a fascination with geometric shapes. The Dallas pyramid is an early example of many Pei pyramids, including the Grand Louvre project in Paris (1989). Other key buildings designed by Pei and his collaborators in the 1960s include the standardized model for air traffic control towers around the United States (1967–1970); the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Complex, Toronto (1967–1973); the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (1968–1973); and the east wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1968–1978). The last of these revolutionized museum design with its entrance hall and galleries designed to maximize visitor flow in combination with usable display space.

In 1979 Pei won the gold medal for architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and by the 1980s had become one of America's most respected architects. He won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983 and used the $100,000 award to fund a scholarship for Chinese students to study architecture in the United States. On 4 July 1986 he became one of only twelve naturalized Americans to be awarded the Medal of Liberty, and in 1990 President George H. W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

Pei designed some of the most important public buildings of the 1960s, transforming many American cityscapes in the process. He also experimented with materials, helping make possible the glass-clad tower blocks characteristic of the 1970s and becoming a major influence on the design of museums and other public buildings. Throughout the 1960s he pushed the limits of materials such as glass and concrete, but he managed to be innovative and flamboyant without overembellishing his designs. For example, the Chinese influence evident in Pei's design for the Henry Luce Chapel at Taunghai University, Taida, Taiwan (1954–1963), is achieved without resorting to obvious, superficial Chinese motifs. Perhaps the most important feature of Pei's designs in the period is his sensitivity to making each design fit with its surroundings and intended use. The best of Pei's buildings, including the Dallas Municipal Center, add a dramatic, sculptural presence to their setting.

Pei explains his ideas about urban design in the article "The Nature of Urban Space" in Harry S. Ransom, ed., The People's Architects (1964). Biographies of Pei include Bruno Suner, Ieoh Ming Pei (1988), and Carter Wiseman, I. M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture (1990). Biographical information is also found in Paul Heyer, Architects on Architecture (1966); Contemporary Architects, 3rd ed. (1987); Pamela Dell, I. M. Pei: Designer of Dreams (1993); Michael T. Cannell, I. M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism (1995); Aileen Reid, I. M. Pei (1995); and Gero von Boehm, Conversations with I. M. Pei: Light Is the Key (2000). Among the best articles about Pei's work in the 1960s are "Paeans for Pei," in Progressive Architecture (Oct. 1963), and Peter Blake's "I. M. Pei and Partners," in Architecture Plus (Feb. 1973 and Mar. 1973).

Chris Routledge