“The stronger the light plays into it, the more architecture tends to be simple; the light itself can enrich simple forms,” he says. “The Pyramids are perfect, but you can’t put the Pyramids in the middle of Manhattan. In the desert, the combination of light and form makes it perfect.”
Pei’s Architectural Mark on MIT
When I. M. Pei began designing buildings for MIT in the 1960s, he had just finished a low-cost-housing project in Manhattan’s Kips Bay. The Institute, he says, gave him the opportunity to move beyond a developer-architect relationship to a client-architect relationship: “I was a member of a development company, almost a hired hand. But I became an independent practitioner with MIT.” He designed the Green Building for earth sciences (1964), the Dreyfus chemistry building (1969), the Landau chemical-engineering building (1976), and the Wiesner Building (1984, above), which houses the MIT Media Lab.
The Wiesner Building, he says, was an “interesting combination of architecture and art,” a collaboration that incorporated Kenneth Noland’s artwork directly into the design. And because the building would mark the edge of East Campus, “we made a big gateway there that not only enters into the Media Lab but enters into the East Campus,” Pei says.
Though he seems proud of his MIT buildings, Pei does not consider them his best work. “The chemistry building is probably for me a nuts-and-bolts building, but it’s quite well done, and I am not ashamed of it,” he says. “It defined the campus at the time. You have no idea how Eastman Building all the way to the dorms was one big field with nothing there. The buildings are there to define spaces, and I think they have played that role well. Before, even grass did not grow there. If I made any contribution to MIT, it’s more in site planning than in buildings.”
But O. Robert Simha, MCP ‘57, retired MIT director of planning and a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, has worked with Pei and says that he is being too modest. Simha says while the designs of the Green, Landau, and Dreyfus buildings are deliberately–and appropriately–understated, their elegance brings together landscape and buildings, architecture and art. “The buildings themselves are not dramatic, they don’t scream at you, but it’s the ensemble of the buildings that’s the achievement,” he says. “They have an architectural interest and visual impact that is quite amazing.
“I. M. is loyal to his alma mater,” says Simha, “and his contributions will be lasting. He was always technologically on the cutting edge, always brought a sense of grace and cultural sensitivity, and really cares about the place. He’s also indefatigable.”
As for the architectural risks being taken on campus now, Pei is impressed. “I would like to work for MIT today if I were younger,” he says.–G.M.