IM Pei Leading Late-Modernist Architect Celebrates His 100th Birthday

IM Pei the Chinese-American architect is 100 today. Born, Leoh Ming Pei on the 26 April 1917 in Guangzhou, China, he moved to the US to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, then engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and finished his degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design – where he studied under the leading Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Pei was also influenced by the work of US architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1938 he drove to Spring Green, Wisconsin, to visit Wright’s famous Taliesin building. After waiting for two hours, however, he left without meeting Wright.

“Architecture is the very mirror of life. …“I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art” – IM Pei

Pei’s style is described as essentially modernist, with significant cubist themes. He is known for combining traditional architectural elements with progressive designs based on simple geometric patterns. As one critic writes: “Pei has been aptly described as combining a classical sense of form with a contemporary mastery of method.”

Louvre Pyramid by IM Pei
Louvre Pyramid by IM Pei

Pei has been called “the most distinguished member of his Late-Modernist generation still in practice”. At the same time, Pei himself rejects simple dichotomies of architectural trends. He once said: “The talk about modernism versus post-modernism is unimportant. It’s a side issue. An individual building, the style in which it is going to be designed and built, is not that important. The important thing, really, is the community. How does it affect life?”

Pei’s work is celebrated throughout the world of architecture. His colleague John Portman once told him: “Just once, I’d like to do something like the East Building.” But this originality does not always bring large financial reward; as Pei replied to the successful architect: “Just once, I’d like to make the kind of money you do.” His concepts, moreover, are too individualized and dependent on context to give rise to a particular school of design. Pei refers to his own “analytical approach” when explaining the lack of a “Pei School”. “For me,” he said, “the important distinction is between a stylistic approach to the design; and an analytical approach giving the process of due consideration to time, place, and purpose … My analytical approach requires a full understanding of the three essential elements … to arrive at an ideal balance among them.”

IM Pei has been awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 1979, the Pritzker Prize in 1983, first Praemium Imperiale for Architecture in 1989, and the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal for architecture in 2010.


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