For the Chinese, 2007 is the year of the boar, the last in the cycle of the 12 animal years. For
I. M. Pei ‘40, 2007 is also a crowning and propitious year–the one in which he turns 90, celebrates his 65th wedding anniversary, and witnesses the opening of the 60th building he played a major role in designing. Pei has been called “the mandarin of modernism,” “the world’s greatest architect,” and “modernism’s elder statesman,” but he is impressed neither with labels nor with the hallmarks of age. “I don’t really believe in ‘isms,’” he says. “And age is not everything.”
On a misty Manhattan day in mid-January, Pei is nursing a cold. He and his wife, Eileen, have just returned from Qatar, where they attended the wedding of a daughter of the emir, for whom Pei has designed a new museum of Islamic art. Dressed in an elegant brown glen-plaid jacket–Pei is known for his sense of style and has most of his suits custom made in Hong Kong–he stands near a table stacked neatly with books and architectural drawings in his spare downtown office and asks a simple question, with his hands held open. “Why does MIT want to interview me? Will people know who I am?”
It’s difficult to imagine anyone who pays any attention to architecture not knowing who I. M. Pei is. And it’s equally difficult to imagine that his modesty is not genuine; both humble and cultured, Pei represents a world of formality and tradition in which distinguished and reserved gentlemen bow to each other as a sign of respect. Yet he personifies the modern world as well. During a career that has spanned nearly seven decades, Pei has worked with some of the world’s leading politicians and artists. He studied with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus movement, and collaborated on building projects with the sculptor Henry Moore. Pei was also commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to build the John F. Kennedy Library; encouraged by J. Carter Brown, then director of the National Gallery of Art, to push the edge of architecture and art with the gallery’s East Building; chosen by French president François Mitterrand to modernize the Louvre, one of France’s most beloved and important historical landmarks, which he did with a controversial glass-pyramid entrance; and championed by pop-culture icon and Atlantic Records CEO Ahmet Ertegun to design Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Although Pei retired from his firm in 1990, he’s not the sort of man who can easily give up his calling. These days, he treks regularly to a small office tucked away on the 10th floor of Wall Street Plaza, a sleek building designed in 1973 by I. M. Pei and Partners, which he formed in 1955. The firm changed its name to Pei Cobb Freed and Partners in 1989. “I was 73 and decided it was time to let the younger people take over the firm, but I was not ready to hibernate,” he says. “I had to do something different than what I had been doing. It was at that time that I made a turn from my usual past practice.”