Ieoh Ming Pei
Date of birth : 1917-04-26
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Guangzhou (Canton), China
Nationality : Chinese-American
Category : Arhitecture and Engineering
Last modified : 2010-04-05
Ieoh Ming Pei was born in Canton, China on April 26, 1917. His ancestors lived for more than 600 years in Suzhou, a city in the Yangtze basin, northwest of Shanghai. The city of Suzhou flourished in rice and silk trade. The proverbial saying was, "In heaven there is paradise and on earth, Suzhou." At the time of Pei’s birth, Suzhou experienced political turbulence.
Pei’s father Tseujee, who worked in a bank, was asked to shift his family to the safety at Hong Kong, where they lived for nine years. There, Pei’s sister Wei and two brothers Kwan and Chung were born. In 1927 the family returned to mainland China and Pei’s father was made the manager of the bank in Shanghai. Their relationship was similar to the one that existed between Gandhi and his father.
Pei’s mother Lien Kwan was a gifted flute player and a devout Buddhist. Pei being the eldest son was her favorite. He felt at ease in her company and approached her with his problems. Because of this intimate rapport, she took him to religious retreats. This bond was broken on his mother death when he was 13 years old. But his love and the visit to the Buddhist temple remained engraved deep within him.
Even as a young boy, Pei noticed the interface of buildings and nature in the gardens. He was especially impressed by the way light and shadow interplay that created tremendous impact on the their design. After 50 years, Pei returned to this garden to refresh his memory before pursuing an architectural design project – The Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, China.
Art and commerce were both ingrained in Pei’s upbringing. He started hisI M Pei education at St John’s Middle School in Shanghai. At 17, Pei came to America in 1935, hoping to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, one of America’s top architecture schools. After two weeks, Pei was discouraged by the heavy emphasis on drawing. He lacked confidence; he thought his drawing skills were not at par with his peers.
He joined MIT for an engineering course. Pei was soon talked into returning to architecture by an instructor who noticed Pei’s latent talents.
Pei enrolled at Harvard Graduate School of Design and graduated in 1946. He was awarded the Wheelwright Traveling Fellowship by Harvard in 1951. The fellowship allowed him to travel throughout Europe, something he wanted to do for a long time.
Pei had plans of returning to China after his graduation. World War II and the deteriorating condition, made his father request Pei not to return. His father wrote, "The Communist government here has taken control of everything. They have forced us to move out. Forced us to close shop at the bank… Here life is not good". "The bonsai tree, where you first learned to walk and that river, that clean cool river that ran through the garden, where you first learned to swim… These images, these feelings and moments I want you to remember of China, Ieoh. Happiness."
At first, Pei’s father was against the idea of him learning architecture in America. The name Pei’s parents gave him proved prophetic because his name meant 'to inscribe brightly.'
As a student at Harvard, Pei was disenchanted to find the new buildings in one country similar as in most others. Away from Harvard, and out in the real business, he had to learn about serving the needs of his clients; he had to give the clients what they wanted.
From the outset, Pei was associated with large-scale multi-purpose developments, often connected with urban revitalization. Pei created such urban projects as the Mile High Center in Denver, Colo, the Hyde Park redevelopment in Chicago and the place Ville – Marie in Montreal.
Pei formed his own architectural firm I M Pei and Associates in 1955. It was later renamed I M Pei and Partners.
Ieoh Ming Pei has given this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms. Yet the significance of his work goes far beyond that. His concern has always been the surroundings in which his buildings rise. A remarkable guide, Pei walks viewers through his buildings, explaining in loving detail the first steps in his design process.
Much is not known about his family life. His two sons were not attached to him as he was with his mother. His children were aloof and were only silent spectators even in times of trouble. The roots of Pei’s success lay firmly in Shanghai. His family was established as the leading bankers and merchants in East China as early as the mid–Qing Dynasty. The grandeur of their ancestral home bears testimony to this.
Among the many gardens in Shanghai, Bei’s Lion forest owned by Pei’s ancestors is the most spectacular and most visited. I M Pei’s grandfather Bei Ruishing bought a large late 19th century mansion. He revamped the Western style, three-storey mansion to add a more Chinese flair, with everything from minute details to the grand structure drawing elements from the Lion Forest, turning the house into a genuine Shanghai style hybrid in the grand tradition.
The Bei family donated Lion Forest to the state in the 1950s and its been a state park ever since. The Shanghai home was still in the custody of Pei’s niece, since most of the family had moved out to Hong Kong and America. Bei’s family had continuously lived in this house for the past 90 years. Almost five generations have lived in this house. The house interior has remained in startlingly pristine condition and is one of Shanghai’s better preserved architectural monuments.
In 1940, Kuomintang troopes forcibly seized the first floor of the house and inI M Pei 1949 the Communists claimed it as their own because it had previously belonged to the Nationalists. During the Cultural Revolution, the entire family lived in the cramped service quarters behind the rest. The rest of the building was used for school. The beautiful, ornate tile work on the floors of the bathroom, kitchen and balconies were destroyed with shovel. The remaining tiles on the first floor, despite being covered in a thick sludge of mud, retain its original charm. All the stained glass windows were smashed. The house is marked for demolition. Yin, the official in charge of executing the demolition was quoted as saying, "With a big park, and only one house, these people will be too comfortable. It’s like asking the government to take care of the exotic birds."
The family has stepped up effort to save the house and Pei himself has handwritten a number of letters to the government requesting that his childhood home be spared the wrecking ball.
Yin commented, "They say this house is over 100 years old. That would make it from the Quing Dynasty. How can this possibly be ? It looks so new and so Western. They must be lying." The Bei’s family is fighting to keep Shanghai from throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Career and Works
Pei started his career, with many architectural contracts in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles. During the war, he worked with a unit of the NationalI M Pei Defense Research Committee. From 1945 to 1948, he was an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Design of Harvard University.
In 1948, Pei joined the firm of Webb and Knapp, New York City, as director of the architectural division, with a real estate developer William Zeckendorf, heading of the firm, Pei created many urban projects as the Mile High Center in Denver Colo, The Hyde Park re-development in Chicago and the Ville Marie in Montreal.
Pei formed his own architectural firm, I. M. Pei and Associates in 1955. The noteworthy projects executed by this firm were the Luce Memorial Chapel in Taiwan, The National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. and The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. For the Federal Aviation Agency, Pei designed a type of pentagonal control tower that was installed at many American airports. The establishment of his company gave him ample scope to work outside the area of commercial development. The first project that brought widespread recognition to Pei and his firm was the ‘National Center for Atmospheric Research’. This project helped ensure that the world recognize his unmistakable personal touch, he left behind in his buildings and projects.
Pei’s stature as an architect grew in size with every project. His
career is studded with prestigious awards. His firm was renamed I M Pei and Partners, which included distinguished architects Henry N Cobb and James Ingo Freed, and many other leading practitioners along with his two sons.
On the basis of a 1960 design competition, Pei was selected to design the multi-airline terminal at John F Kennedy International Airport. Pei came to National prominence when he was selected to design Jacqueline Kennedy the John F Kennedy Library in Boston. From here, there was no turning back for him as he kept climbing the ladder of success. Several years later, he was awarded the commission for the East Building of the National gallery of Art, which was chosen as one of the 10 best building in America by the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.
In 1979, Pei began Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, the first major building undertaken in post Maoist China. In 1989, he completed such significant buildings as the Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the 70 storey Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the first phase of the Grand Louvre in Paris. The second and final phase of the Grand Louvre was completed in 1993. In 1995, at the age of 78, Pei completed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. He retired from the firm in 1999, but remained active professionally.
Ieoh Ming Pei as a brilliant Chinese-American, back in Shanghai, saw many new buildings under construction. Pei was awed by the first high rise building he ever saw. It was 23 storey high ! Wherever he went, he began to be acutely aware of the buildings and the structures that surrounded him.
Pei has designed over 50 projects in America and abroad, many of which have been award winners.
Pei’s buildings were emerging from the old to modern. People still could not assimilate this new trend. Pei cites an example of how a house designed by him for a friend in Cambridge was refused a mortgage because it looked modern. "In this sense I belong to that generation of American architects who built upon the pioneering perceptions of the modern movement, with an unwavering conviction in its significant achievements in the field of art, technology and design," he said.
Pei wanted his architectural work to be accepted as an art. The design should be conceived out of necessity. One should have freedom of expression, but he should not be carried away. Freedom should be movement within a measured range, he felt. He recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s counsel that "strength is born of constraint and dies in freedom."
According to him, "Architects by design investigate the play of volumes in light, explore the mysteries of movement in space, examine the measure that is scale and proportion, and above all, they search for that special quality that is the spirit of the place as no building exists alone."
In 1968, Pei initiated work on the east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The completion of the east wing secured Pei’s place among the elite architects of the world. The east wing proved to be the first of many internationally acclaimed buildings of Pei. It was hailed as one of his finest achievements.
In general, Pei’s designs represent an extension of and elaboration on the rectangular forms and irregular silhouettes of the prevailing international style. He is notable however, for his bold and skillful arrangements and groups of geometric shapes and for his dramatic use of richly contrasted materials, spaces and surfaces.
I M Pei He has refused to limit himself to a narrow range of architectural problems. His work over the past 40 years includes not only palaces of industry, government and culture, but also moderate and low-income housing. His versatility and skill in the use of materials approach the level of poetry. Pei’s most controversial work was his expansion of the most famous museum in the world, the Louvre in Paris. When he presented his glass pyramid expansion as the new entrance to the museum, he received much criticism because his designs were too radical and because he was not French, but a Chinese American. Eventually Pei’s design won approval from the French Commission, intellectuals and media persons. Pei’s glass pyramid was erected and completed with great acclaim and enjoyment by the public.
Pei’s conviction always earned him his projects. His earlier projects spoke volumes for him. Amidst stiff competition and public opinion Pei was awarded the project. It was to be the crown jewel of his grand projects.
Pei carried out his architectural projects with meticulous precision. He evaluated every project before settling down to it. Pei says "that if he thought about design in his native Chinese the vociferous guardians of French culture… would have derived little comfort from the image of an American plotting the Louvre’s future in Chinese". Pei’s prodigious credentials as an institutional image-maker, his appointment provoked disapproval, particularly from French architects, who viewed him as an interloper.
Pei’s career spanned over a long period. At the time he designed the Louvre Museum, he appeared to be a slender soft-spoken person. "His face wasI M Pei mottled with age, but despite his 64 years he radiated a restless ticking alertness and boundless enthusiasm."
Pei is known for his ability to converse with anyone on any topic in a voice that still carries traces of China and his playful, expressive face lights up at the mention of his wide-ranging interests – French and Chinese cuisine, abstract art, gardening, travel and wine. "Pei dresses impeccably in conservative suits custom tailored in Hong Kong. One architecture critic has described his wardrobe as ‘formal’, but not so formal that you’d mistake him for a banker. It has just enough flair to let you know he’s creative."
As a Chinese-American, Pei offered the best of both worlds. He could import new world flash and efficiency without appearing conspicuously American. His Mandarin ancestry somehow inoculated him against French xenophobia. After bagging the Louvre project Pei commented, "I think being a Chinese-American has not hurt. History, you see is important to the French and I hope that I was able to convince them that I came from a country with a long history and I would not take this problem lightly."
Pei’s love for Nature always over rode his concrete structure, given a choice between 40 trees or piece of sculptor for the open area between buildings. Pei chooses the trees 'because it was for the people living in these buildings'.
Even while designing the Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, he said, "All of my work up to then was in cities. I’d seen the skyscrapers of New York – but they were nothing compared to the Rocky Mountains."
Pei had many partners in his company. But his wife played an important role in his career. Pei always tests his ideas on his wife. She is honest and direct. "And she’s always right," Pei admits.
Pei was blessed with four children. Pei’s relationship with his children was warm, but somewhat distant. His younger son Li Chung also known as Sandi along with his elder brother Chuin Chung were architects in Pei’s firm. Li is said to be more of an observer than a participant in his father’s life. Pei’s excellence in architecture can be well judged by the comments of Per Wahlin, a photographer. He had gone to America to celebrate the American Revolution Bicentennial. "The trip turned out to be a revolution in itself." It was here that he started his career as an architectural photographer.
View the full website biography of Ieoh Ming Pei.