Remembering the Genius of IM Pei

HONG KONG: From the moment I first laid eyes upon it, I was captivated by the east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. When it opened in 1978 from my work place across the National Mall I marveled at its sharp angles and irregular shapes so strikingly different from the main gallery’s neo-classical style. It was apparent that not only was IM Pei exceedingly bold in presenting the design but the government officials who approved it deserved credit for supporting it.

During a 1980’s visit to the east wing, which was wildly popular with the public,  Pei said “a carpet of stone” had been his solution for linking the side door of the old gallery with the low squat 4thStreet front of the new one.  A waterfall and three glass pyramids poke out from the stone carpet, the latter providing light to the underground walkway that likewise connects the two galleries.

East-Building-National-Gallery-of-Art-Washington
nga west
The carpet of stone linking the east and west buildings of Washington’s National Gallery of Art

Pei defended his design with the persuasive claim that contrasting styles were appropriate since the initial 1930s structure houses grand masters while the east wing would house art from the modern era.

In praising the building, Pei accompanied an interviewer inside observing, as if surprised, “you come in low and then the building explodes above you.”  Walking innumerable times through that portal, of course, the architect’s assessment is spot on.

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IM Pei described his commission at the Louvre as the most difficult of his career.  The challenge was overwhelming.  As long-ago Louvre visitors recall, you used to enter the museum from the street, from the Rue de Rivoli.  What Pei accomplished was pivoting to the Tuileries gardens on the interior side, creating a grand entrance marked by a 70-foot-high pyramid.  Visitors assemble in that charming outdoor venue laden with centuries of French history. Then they descend underground  into a vast concourse of polished marble able to move left or right into the galleries of their choice. The surfaces mirror what he used so successfully at the national gallery.

As a project of immense prestige wrapped up in national pride, then president Francois Mitterrand courageously chose a non-French architect. The design, of course, was instantly controversial, being as it was a fundamental break with the traditional architecture of the French capital. When it opened in 1989 the Louvre design was reviled by critics, some calling Pei’s entrance “an annex to Disneyland.”

As with the national gallery, Pei’s Louvre has aged well and is hugely popular with visitors. Reflecting on his effort to merge the old and new, Pei said he wanted to create a modern space that did not detract from the traditional part of the museum.

 

louvrePei pyramid adjacent to the Louvre’s 17thoriginal

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Pei’s Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong was the Chinese-born architect’s only skyscraper and it too has aged with grace and popularity. Its diagonal lines and triangles make the 72-story Bank of China stand out in a busy skyline cluttered with very tall structures. Pei said the diagonals represented bamboo shoots, a symbol of prosperity in Chinese culture.

But it is more than that. Without the diagonals the Bank of China would be just another tall building. As it is, lit at night often with multiple colors, it has become a symbol of Hong Kong, akin to what the opera house is to Sydney or the Empire State building to New York.

As Pei observed on multiple occasions, the tight footprint of the Hong Kong project presented a huge challenge. It was, he said, “a less than ideal site.”  In addition, intrusive close in elevated walkways and urban thoroughfares meant there couldn’t be a main entrance. Indeed, as I can personally attest, it’s very hard for a pedestrian to get to the front of the tower as external obstacles crowd in too tightly.

b of ch

b of china

Pei called architecture the mirror of life.  “You only have to cast your eyes on buildings to feel the presence of the past, the spirit of a place; they are the reflection of society.”

 

Pei photo

IM Pei was born in Guangzhou, not far from Hong Kong, part of what is now called the Greater Bay Area. He came to the United States in the 1930s, studied at MIT, and worked at Harvard with the famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius.

When we lost IM Pei in May at the age of 102, we lost a great master..

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