Life of Pei

In November 1971, shortly after I returned from a journalistic assignment to China, I was surprised to receive a phone call from I.M. Pei. I was thrilled. I knew that this Chinese-American was already one of the most famous architects in the world — renowned for his geometric juxtapositions that contrasted the classic with the modern, the curving with the angular. He had recently designed the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. And after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his widow, Jacqueline, chose Pei to design the Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Pei had read my reports in The New York Times and my cover story “Return to Changing China” in the National Geographic and was eager to hear more about my visit to his ancestral home in Suzhou, where he was born Ieoh Ming Pei in 1917. His father made a fortune selling medicinal herbs. His family can trace their ancestry back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), yet he chose to make his own family home in Katonah. Pei will reach the honorable age of 100 on April 26 of next year and is still going strong.

As journalists, my husband, Seymour Topping, and I met with Pei and his beautiful wife, Eileen Loo, also an architect, on several memorable occasions. We were immediately charmed by his modest demeanor. Pei exuded positive energy. His ever-smiling face, lit up by alert, bright eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, revealed the earnest inquisitiveness of a true creator.

At the age of 10, Pei’s family moved to Shanghai where he attended St. John’s Middle School, run by American Protestant missionaries. He learned English by reading the Bible and Charles Dickens. He became enthralled by Hollywood movies and claimed that Bing Crosby’s films, which made college life in the U.S. look like fun, had a great influence on his choosing the United States instead of England to pursue his education.

In 1935, Pei sailed on the SS President Coolidge to San Francisco and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in architecture. But when he found that the professors based their teachings on the old-hat Beaux Arts style, rooted in the classical traditions of Greece and Rome, he transferred to the engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technoloy (MIT). The dean of the architecture school noticed his eye for design and convinced him to return to his original major. But Pei found the MIT architecture faculty also focused on the Beaux Arts school, so he explored art and architecture on his own. In the  library, he found three books by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and was inspired by the innovative designs of the new International style, which used glass and steel materials. He was also influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, but he later asserted, “I have cultivated myself.”

Pei received a B.S. in architecture from MIT in 1940 and an M.S. in architecture from Harvard University in 1946, teaching at Harvard for two years.

Soon, however, he was inundated with projects. In 1952 he worked on a series of projects in Colorado that helped him conceptualize architecture as part of the larger urban geography. “I learned the process of development,” he said, “and about the city as a living organism.”

In 1978, Pei was asked to initiate a hotel project in China. He chose a valley called Fragrant Hill on the outskirts of Beijing that was once an imperial garden. After visiting Suzhou, he created a design based on traditional residential buildings with a four-story central atrium covered by glass panels. This was to be surrounded by abundant gardens.

But alas, a series of mistakes ensued, stemming from a lack of sophisticated machinery in China. Whereas 200 workers might have been used for a similar building in the U.S., the Fragrant Hill project employed more than 3,000 workers. As the opening neared, Pei found the hotel desperately needed work and the 325 guest rooms were in dire need of cleaning. Later he laughingly told us how he put his family to work. He and Eileen began scrubbing floors themselves and he ordered his three sons and daughter to make beds and vacuum floors. The project imposed an emotional strain on the whole family, but the opening celebration Oct. 17, 1982 was a grand affair. Unfortunately, the whole place soon fell into disrepair.

Pei is probably best-known for his controversial design of the glass-and-steel pyramid for the Musée du Louvre in Paris in the early 1980s. He became the first foreign architect to work on the historic art museum. At the center of the courtyard, he designed the glass-and-steel pyramid to serve as an entrance anteroom skylight. It was mirrored by another inverted pyramid underneath, to reflect sunlight into the room. During the digging, construction teams discovered an abandoned set of rooms containing 25,000 historical items that were incorporated into the rest of the structure to create a new exhibit space.

Some critics found Pei’s original design shocking. One called it a “gigantic, ruinous gadget.” The Louvre director, André Chabaud, was so upset he resigned from his post complaining that Pei’s design was “unfeasible.” Another condemnation bore nationalistic overtones: “I am surprised that one would go looking for a Chinese architect in America to deal with the historic heart of the capital of France.” However, Pei and his team eventually won support from many architecture enthusiasts, including Prince Charles of England, who found it “marvelous, very exciting.”

The experience was exhausting but rewarding for Pei. The opening of the Louvre Pyramid coincided with four other successful projects he designed, including the IBM complex in Somers. Paul Goldberger, then The New York Times’ architecture critic, called him “The High Priest of Modernism” and declared 1989 to be “the year of Pei.” At the age of 72, Pei gave up thoughts of retiring and continued working long hours to see his designs come to fruition.

“For me,” he said, “the talk of Modernism versus Postmodernism is unimportant. It is a side issue. An individual building, the style in which it is going to be designed and built, is not that important. The important thing, really, is the community. How does it affect life?”

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