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I'm Still Here

World-renowned architect I. M. Pei ‘40 officially retired from Pei Cobb Freed and Partners. But at age 90, he’s still designing buildings in Europe, the Far East, and the Middle East, following the sun and an inner light.

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.”

I.M. Pei ‘40

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.”

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For Pei, that meant looking beyond the American geography that had dominated his imagination since the 1950s: his postretirement projects have taken him to Japan, Spain, Greece, England, Germany, Luxembourg, China, and Macao. Although Pei began working on the Louvre while he was still a full partner at the firm, the time he spent in France spurred him to venture even farther from his New York City base.

“I’d been going to the Louvre since 1951. I thought I knew Paris and the French, but I didn’t really,” he says. “You know how easy it is to make friends when you are traveling. People are curious about you, you are curious about them. But you never really make friends that way. After the Louvre, I discovered that I have friends now because I have enemies. Unless you fight, unless you really confront each other with differences of opinion, you don’t really know each other. That project gave me a wake-up call. It said, ‘If you are truly interested in the world, you have to work there.’ So I said, Now that I am retired, I am going to learn something about the world. It’s not too late. I’m still here.”

And he’s still going back to Paris, where the Louvre now needs interior changes to accommodate growing crowds. “If you go under the pyramid, it looks like an airport,” he says, noting that the museum now draws more than eight million people a year, up from about four to five million when he started working on the expansion and modernization in 1983. When asked what he thinks about the idea of Mary Magdalene being buried beneath his famous inverted pyramid, as was suggested in The Da Vinci Code, he scoffs and says, “Fiction,” but he is smiling as he says it. “The movie wasn’t very good. Disappointing. The book was better.” But The Da Vinci Code, he points out, “is part of the reason for the eight million people coming to the Louvre.” And he smiles again.

Pei, who comes from a prominent Chinese family, grew up in Hong Kong and Shanghai; he left China in 1935 and became an American citizen in 1954. When he came to the United States for college, however, he had no idea that global politics would keep him from returning to China for nearly 40 years.

He still feels the pull of his homeland. “You have to give up one citizenship in order to acquire another one. That’s the only honest thing to do,” he says in the 1997 documentary First Person Singular: I. M. Pei. “But it was really difficult for me to give up China.” Upon winning the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983, he used the $100,000 award to establish a fund to help Chinese students study architecture in the United States, with the stipulation that they return to China. And when hundreds of people were killed in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Pei was so distressed that he wrote a piece deploring the violence, titled “China Won’t Ever Be the Same,” for the New York Times. In 1990, he cofounded the Committee of 100 to foster relations between citizens of the United States and China.

He has designed significant buildings in China as well. In the early 1980s, he began work on the Bank of China headquarters in Hong Kong, a project that tied together three generations; his father, Tsuyee, had been one of the bank’s early managers, and Pei’s collaborators on the project were two of his sons, Chien Chung (Didi) and Li Chung (Sandi), who have their own firm, Pei Partnership Architects. In keeping with the Chinese tradition of respecting elders, the Bank of China asked Tsuyee for permission to approach his son about designing the building. However, the elder Pei did not live long enough to see the bank open in 1989. The building, a stunning structure of glass and steel, was an engineering triumph. Challenged to make it resistant to typhoons, Pei abandoned the traditional column-and-beam structural model. Instead, most of the building’s weight is borne by huge diago­nal trusses, which are fitted into the interior and connected to the vertical planes of the exterior. The trusses transfer the building’s wind and gravity loads to its four corners, which are reinforced with composite columns. The Bank of China tower soars 72 stories and was the tallest building in Asia when it opened. A model of the bank is one of the few embellishments in Pei’s New York office.

In October 2006, Pei was on hand when the Suzhou Museum, which he also designed with Didi and Sandi, opened with great fanfare in the Chinese city of Suzhou. The media made much of the Pei family’s 600-year history in the ancient city, a center of art and culture known for elaborate retreats built by well-to-do families. Pei spent his childhood summers there, playing in the famed rock gardens at his family’s retreat, the Garden of the Lion Forest.

In First Person Singular, he tells of how rock gardeners choose rocks, chisel them, and place them on a beach to let the tides smooth away the edges, sometimes for decades. His early exposure to the Suzhou rock gardeners, with their respect for the importance of time, had a lasting effect on him–“not just [on] my work but the way I am,” he says in the film. “There is no instant gratification in creating a work of art. … A work of art or architecture needs time [for us] to finally make a judgment as to whether it is right or not.”

Pei’s architectural sensibility, too, took time to develop. When he left China, he planned to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania but was dismayed by Penn’s adherence to the Beaux Arts style and left after two weeks. He says, “I wrote to MIT that I wanted to come and learn about architectural engineering. I had an adequate [math and] science background, but not art, especially Western art. So I thought that might be a better field for me to pursue.”

William Emerson, dean of MIT’s School of Architecture, encouraged Pei to study architecture, but Pei resisted, saying that he didn’t draw well. Emerson countered that he didn’t know any Chinese who couldn’t draw. “The dean was wonderful,” says Pei. “I owe a lot to him.”

In the early years of his career, Pei claims, he was “an empty vessel” with no defined aesthetic of his own, aside from a debt to the Bauhaus movement, which he encountered when studying with Gropius in graduate school. He had always been interested in light, however. “The essence of architecture is form and space,” he says, “and light is the essential element to the key to architectural design, probably more important than anything. Technology and materials are secondary.”

For Pei, technology has its uses, but it never drives design. He readily admits that he is “anticomputer” and does not use ­computer-­aided design tools for conceptual work. “MIT will be surprised to hear that, and probably not very happy,” he says. “What does a computer show you that you yourself can think about? For making drawings today, I can’t imagine practicing without a computer. In a technical sense, it is a very wonderful tool. But in the conceptual sense … does the computer help poetry?”

Pei, who comes from a long line of artists, poets, calligraphers, and musicians on his mother’s side, says that he is an admirer of poetry, particularly Whitman, Thoreau, Li Bai, and Du Fu. He recites Chinese poetry and writes his own poems in Chinese. Like poetry, architecture depends on inspiration from an internal source, he says.

For the Museum of Islamic Art, Pei drew on his knowledge of Islamic buildings in Spain, India, and places in between. But traveling to North Africa to learn more, he saw that Islamic architecture follows the sun. For an architect whose best works are defined by the play of light, the commission was ideal.

“The architecture is determined by the sun,” he says. “I had to look for the essence of Islamic architecture …. All the way from Cordoba to Fatepuhr Sikri is all sun, but the sun does different things in different places.” In the desert, the sun reveals form, and form, he says, takes on a special importance there: “Geometry and mathematics actually origi­nated in this part of the world. So I decided to find the magical example, if there is such a thing. I found it in Egypt.

“There is a mosque called Ibn Tulun. Inside the mosque is a big courtyard, and there is a little ablution fountain. It starts as a square inside another square, then an octagon, then a circle. It’s a small thing. The total height of that little ablution fountain could not be more than 60 or 70 feet, but because of that piling up of geometric forms, under the sun, it is magical. You walk around it, and it changes all the time. Therefore, my building learned from that building,” says Pei.

“That little building is a poem.”

To create his own poem, Pei collaborated with the sun. “The form comes to life under light,” he says of his Museum of Islamic Art, which opens in Doha, Qatar, this fall. “It doesn’t matter where you build, but when you are building under the desert sun, it becomes more important. Form doesn’t need to be complicated. The light gives it so much life. In northern architecture–the cathedrals of Europe and all the little churches–the details, the carving of stone, become necessary because the light is not there to help you very much. You have to enrich surfaces. The desert reduces form to its simplest nature. There is no need for gargoyles or flying buttresses in the desert.

“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.

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