PEI, Ieoh Ming

(1917- )
   I. M. Pei is one of the most prolific modernist architects of the 20th century. Pei was born in China and grew up in the prosperous city of Suzhou, known for its beautiful gardens and historic homes. At the age of 17, Pei began his studies in the United States, which culminated in a graduate degree from Harvard University, where he studied with Walter Gropius. Very much influenced by Gropius and other International style architects such as Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer, Pei established his own firm in 1955 and began to work in a style of modernism that incorporated aspects of the Bauhaus style, Brutalism, and High-Tech architecture. I. M. Pei first experimented with the linking of concrete square and rectangular spaces to create a crisp, geometric appearance, as seen in his National Center for Atmospheric Research, built in Boulder, Colorado, in the 1960s. This style, often called Brutalism, was further refined in Pei's more intricately shaped, interlocking triangles that form the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, built in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. After winning the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983, Pei was commissioned to create a new entrance for the Louvre, Paris. Here he revisited the triangle shape proposed by a much earlier architect and refined it in his famous glass pyramid entrance constructed in 1989.
   The Christian Science Center, built in Boston in 1968-1974, combines Pei's interest in concrete and steel construction with his desire to include natural elements to form a quiet oasis in an urban setting. This 14-acre campus is the corporate headquarters of the Christian Science religion. In the center of this arena-shaped area is a broad reflecting pool surrounded by buildings and linden trees to separate the campus from its urban context and to create an oasis in the middle of Boston. The complex includes a 28-story administrative skyscraper on one side, while a band of administrative buildings with an open loggia lines the opposing side, stopping short of the preexisting mother church and angling out from the square to frame the church. The spare, geometric aesthetic of these modern buildings is softened by the rounded edges of the roof cornice above the loggia. The church had been built in a Romanesque Revival style in 1894, and the dome was added in 1906. A tall portico with colossal columns was built in 1975 to form a visual connection with the newer buildings. Pei's administrative skyscraper provides a visual balance to the opposing church, while his modernist buildings are all constructed with a concrete that matches the color of the granite used for the older church. Finally, the reflecting pool is edged with granite cut in a round shape to create a slow, shallow waterfall around the entire area of water. The subtle sound of falling water is soothing, and the reflections of the surrounding buildings move across the surface of the water in a manner that recalls the numerous pools of water found in the gardens of Suzhou, where Pei grew up.
   The idea of a reflective surface is carried into I. M. Pei's next Boston commission, the Hancock Tower, completed in 1977. There was a concern for the preservation of the historical aesthetic of Copley Square, which is framed by the Old South Church built in the Gothic Revival style in 1873, Trinity Church, built by Henry Hobson Richardson in 1877, and the Boston Public Library, constructed in 1895 by Charles Follen McKim in the Renaissance Revival style. Pei's ingenious solution involved the construction of a 60-story obelisk-shaped commercial office tower made with a blue tinted glass curtain wall that reflects its surrounding buildings. Seen from a distance, the blue glass renders the building almost invisible. Like most skyscrapers, the glass curtain wall is hung on a steel frame. A combination of the large size of the glass panes and its tinting and reflective coating began to stress the tape bond that holds the double panes together, and glass has subsequently fallen off the sides of the building. Studies of this dangerous situation have resulted in superior glass bonding methods found in later Post-Modernist and High-Tech architecture and seen in I. M. Pei's 72-story Bank of China office building, constructed in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
   Pei's most recent building, the Suzhou Museum (2006), reflects a distinctly Chinese rendition of modernism that blends traditional eastern aesthetics with a more spare western modern style. This interest in incorporating regional elements into the prevailing international architectural style is often called Critical Regionalism. With this work, Pei has come full circle, thereby establishing himself as one of the most enduring modernist architects of the 20th century, fully capable of working within the full range of architectural styles that exist today.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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