Renowned architect

Born: April 26, 1917

Died: May 16, 2019

I.M. Pei, who has died aged 102, was one of the leading architects of the 20th century. Born and raised in China, but schooled and based in America, his designs were highly significant among the schools of late modernist and post-modern architecture in the second half of the century, and informed the contemporary tradition of bright, steel-and-glass building. His projects combined respect for the traditional and a taste for the futuristic, and often focused on simple geometric shapes and lots of access to light.

Among those world-famous structures created to Pei’s vision were the geometrically fascinating East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (1978), the distinctively-shaped glass pavilion of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts (1979), and the glass and steel pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris (opened in 1989). The latter was possibly his most controversial construction, certainly among architectural traditionalists, but the project was pushed through by President Mitterrand and has since become synonymous with the museum.

Pei was also responsible for the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong (1990), whose segmented, triangular glass panels gave it a sense of unearthly shapelessness; the distinctive tower-and-pyramid design of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1995) on the bank of Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio; the glowing white collection of cubes and arches which constitute the Museum of Islamic Art (2008) in Doha, Qatar; the imposing Dallas City Hall (1978), which was used as a futuristic location in the film Robocop; and the contemplative, partly underground Miho Museum (1997) near Kyoto, Japan.

Pei was known for his intensive research process for each new building he designed, and for his treatment of each project as a new entity in sync with its own surroundings and community, rather than an off-the-shelf design; he designed the placement of art and sculpture into his projects. “I became interested in a modern architecture that made connections to place, history and ­nature,” he once said. “Modern architecture needed to be part of an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, process.”

“He didn’t seem to have just one way to solve a problem,” Jacqueline Kennedy said of her choice of Pei to design the Kennedy Library from a distinguished field of candidates. “He seemed to approach each commission thinking only of it and then develop a way to make something beautiful. He was so full of promise, like Jack (Kennedy) - they were born in the same year. I decided it would be fun to take a great leap with him.”

Born in Guangzhou, China, in 1917, Ieng Ming Pei was one of five children of Tsuyee and Lien Kwun. His father was a banker and his mother an artist and poet; he gravitated more towards her tastes and visited Chinese gardens and shrines with her as a young boy. He was deeply affected by her death, when he was 13; his mother’s influence greatly affected his later decision to become an architect.

Pei was raised in Hong Kong until the age of ten and in Shanghai throughout his teens, before deciding to study in America. Despite an offer from Oxford, he enjoyed the spectacle of Hollywood, and considered America the more glamorous choice; in 1935 he sailed to San Francisco and practised English with the stewards. Upon arriving in America, he crossed the country by train to reach the University of Pennsylvania, before moving on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Unimpressed by the Beaux-Arts style of architecture taught at each institution, Pei was instead highly influenced by a meeting at MIT with the defining French modernist architect, Le Corbusier.

Moving to Harvard in 1942 – before a time spent researching weapons during the Second World War with the US National Defense Research Committee – he received an assistant professorship, and became friends and colleagues with the exiled Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. In 1948 he joined the New York firm Webb and Knapp, where his first completed construction was the modest Gulf Oil Building in Atlanta, Georgia. His career with the company took off, and he founded his own New York-based firm I.M. Pei & Associates in 1955 (later renamed I.M. Pei & Partners then Pei Cobb Freed & Partners). At the turn of the 1990s Pei moved into semi-retirement, acting as consultant for his sons Chien Chung and Li Chung’s architecture firm . A number of his significant buildings came after this.

Pei’s many awards included the Pritzker Prize in 1983 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992. He was married to Eileen Loo from 1942 until her death in 2014. The couple had three sons, T’ing Chung (who died in 2003), Chien Chung and Li Chung, and a daughter, Liane. Pei worked in America throughout his career and described himself as a “western architect”, yet proudly asserted that “I’ve never left China. My family’s been there for 600 years.”

David Pollock