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Master Architect I M Pei: The Gently Arching Bridge between Tradition and Modernity

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on 8 days ago

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Ieoh Ming Pei, an ideal  life and an ideal architect of the century gone by, breathed his last earlier this month after a brilliant life of 102 years. Personally, this funny looking, gentle, affable 1930s Chinese import to the land of promise and opportunity, USA, was no less than a God ever since I was introduced to his life and work in my early days as an architecture student. My introduction to Pei through, of course, his Magnum Opus in the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris, led me to find out more about the life and works of this Chinese-American architect, and understand the philosophy he espoused. In whatever I have found till date – from the Chinese schoolboy who dreamed the American dream to the way he pursued and lived that dream with steadfast yet gentle commitment, his sagely patience at handling the challenges in his career to his calm and contented enjoyment of his successes, his resolutely firm adherence to his own convictions in any design to his innovative flexibility in resolving issues, the simultaneous sagacity and humour, humility and authority that his personality exuded – all make him worthy of reverence and emulation. To have this opportunity to pay this written tribute to this genius is, indeed, an unforeseen pleasure.

Pei was never very good at drawing or sketching which are generally considered the prerequisites of a career in architecture. But, that never stopped him from entering the field which he did as a student of the University of Pennsylvania when he moved from China to the US in 1935. Though he did try changing over to an engineering major when he changed schools after two years at U Penn to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was quickly advised to stick to architecture by his dean who observed in him a keen mind for design. And how correct he was! For Pei, design is a mental process which begins at grasping the core or essence of an issue, resolving this essence first and then proceeding towards the details. In the style of working adopted at all his firms, Pei is said to have been creating the design or the concepts which were then put on paper by his partners and colleagues. Yes, the designs were indeed a function of his mind’s genius coupled with his sound understanding of technology and materials honed at MIT.

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Pei was not initially aware that his departure from China would actually come to be a permanent one, By the time he finished his graduation from MIT in 1940, he had met the love of his life, Eileen Loo, a Chinese student of Landscape Design at Harvard whose connections influenced Pei to sign up for a master’s course at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1942. Taking a two year break from this course to work at the National Defence Research Academy (NDRA) for the ongoing World War II, he completed his Masters’ from GSD in 1948. After this Pei worked for NYC real estate magnate Zeckendorf for seven years before establishing his own practice under the name of I M Pei & Associates in 1955 (changed to: I M Pei &Partners in 1966, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in 1989) and had a brilliant career till his retirement in 1990. Out of the four children from his marriage to Eileen, his three sons established and ran Pei Partnership Architects where he was consultant post retirement. The World War and China turning communist in its aftermath prevented Pei from returning permanently to China, persuading him to take the emotionally difficult decision to severe the umbilicus and become a US citizen.

© Courtesy of internet resources

Steadfastly pursuing the American opportunity, Pei forged ahead in his chosen field, befriended, influenced and mentored by modernist greats like Walter Gropius, Marcel Bruere and Le Corbusier. Not much impressed with the classically rooted Beaux-Arts style that the design schools he attended focussed on, he discovered the modernist joys of working with concrete and steel from these personalities. What’s notable, though, is that in his own work Pei surpassed the realm of style and substance that these greats belonged to, contributing to the world a refreshing narrative in architecture. Pei’s narrative was one that acknowledged the wisdom of tradition by placing his structures in a diametrically opposite futuristic language, observing and saluting their essence by stepping away in expression.

© Courtesy of internet resources

The dominant narrative in Pei’s architecture is all about his love for geometry, a penchant for abstract ideas and a reverence for light. He also had an uncanny ability to voice the language of space, or make his spaces amply pronounce whatever he wanted to convey through them. This feature comes to the fore beautifully in his design for the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum at Boston located next to the University of Massachusetts. Hand-picked by the late president’s wife Jaqueline Kennedy to design this memorial, Pei delivered a bold yet simple geometrical composition as the repository of the 35th US President’s official archives. The centre piece of the design is the enormous fully glazed, ocean facing 35 m high pavilion which is the spill out space entered from the concrete building of archive offices as well as the circular building housing two theatres. As a visitor finishes with the archives and memories with the late president on his/ her mind and enters this towering column of empty space with just a gigantic American flag suspended from the top, he/ she can assimilate the president’s soaring spirit and all that he stood for in that vast emptiness!

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From his earlier works like the Mesa laboratory for the National Centre for Atmospheric Research at Colorado or the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame at Cleveland, Ohio, to  works done very later in life like the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, one can see geometry ruling his design. Geometry, he said, is the beginning of structure, (something) that ties everything together. After that fundamental is in place, you have texture, colour, space, light and a range of other elements taking their place to complete a scheme. This is best exemplified in his most famous skyscraper, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the city where he grew up as the young son of the former head of the same bank. Though one of his earliest projects, the Hancock Tower in Boston, was the tallest in the world when it was built, Pei didn’t profess any fondness for skyscrapers as there was to him nothing more than the importance of structure in its design, to which he had nothing to add. This was until he was commissioned to design the Bank of China tower where he used a triangulated geometry of structural steel members, so far unexplored, to design it to resist all the superlative forces that a skyscraper must resist.

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Pei designed many museums in his life, his major contribution being to make his architecture attract and ensure more visitors to them. All his obsessions with geometry, and modernism, steel and glass, and light, and simplicity of form and essence of structure came to be crystallised in his most controversial and yet most convincingly magnificent creation – the steel and glass pyramid for the Grand Louvre museum in Paris. From battling the hostility of French society and media towards the alleged ‘foreign’ intrusion in their cultural matters, and nudging the French government and bureaucracy to make radical changes bang in the centre of their existence, to impressing President Mitterrand with his design concept to wowing the world with his final delivery of the design – Pei conquered it all! Today, this 70 feet high solidly stable, crystal clear, magical rainbow-creating pyramid that caps the subterranean entrance to the humungous, historically rich museum complex is one of the most famous icons of French pride!

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Needless to say, Pei was much celebrated and conferred with much international recognition including the Japanese Praemium Imperiale for architecture in 1989, RIBA Gold Medal in 2010, the AIA Gold Medal in 1979 and the Pritzker in 1983. In terms of personality, Pei whose mother was a devout Buddhist and flautist and whose ancestry traces to the Ming dynasty, comes across as some kind of a smiling Buddha – exuding sagacity and humour. A favourite narrative he liked to repeat was about his childhood summer visits to the 14th century Shizhlin garden in Suzhou where the weathering effects of centuries on natural and human-made forms seemed to render them closer to their intended zenith of beauty. This, to Pei, underlined the importance of time and brought home the wisdom that there was no instant gratification. Today, a look at Pei’s net worth of a whopping $245 million at the time of his death, and the fact that this included his ownership of shrewd stock investments, properties, restaurants, a football team, a perfume, a fashion line and his own Vodka brand only tell how well he internalised that wisdom. He lived a lifetime working patiently and diligently at the opportunity he received to craft it into perfect poise in all spheres by the end. Long live the Master!

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