The Chinese-born Pei was the mastermind behind the bold Louvre pyramid in Paris, the landmark 72-story Bank of China tower in Hong Kong and Athens’ Museum of Modern Art, works seen as embracing modernity tempered by a grounding in history. He passed away on May 16 at the ripe old of 102 years old.
In his adopted home country the United States, Pei became perhaps best known for his landmark East Building at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, deftly melding sharp modern angles with the monumental grandeur the US capital is known for.
“Contemporary architects tend to impose modernity on something. There is a certain concern for history but it is not very deep,” Pei told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. “I understand that times have changed, we have evolved. But I don’t want to forget the beginning.”
“A lasting architecture has to have roots.”
Born in China in 1917, banker’s son Ieoh Ming Pei came to the US at 17 to study architecture, receiving an undergraduate degree in the field from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940.
He then enrolled in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where he received a masters degree in architecture in 1946. He became a naturalised US citizen in 1954.
His revered projects include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio; the Miho Museum of Shigo, Japan; the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, and The John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.
Despite being a confessed Islamic art novice, he was also commissioned to design the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, which opened in 2008.
In 1988, then-French president Francois Mitterrand inducted Pei as a Chevalier in the Legion d’Honneur, later raising him to the rank of Officier when Phase II of the glass-and-stainless steel Grand Louvre pyramid was completed in 1993.
US president George Bush awarded Pei the Medal of Freedom that same year, when he was also elected an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Below, five architectural landmarks by architect I.M. Pei:
France: Louvre pyramid (1989)
Pei’s addition of a giant glass pyramid to the courtyard of the historic Louvre palace, today the world’s most visited museum, was highly controversial and hotly rejected by many in France.
It has since become celebrated as “a symbol of the modernity of the museum and an emblem of Paris across the world,” Louvre president Jean-Luc Martinez said in 2017.
Opened to the public in 1989, the giant structure essentially provided a new entrance for the growing number of visitors.
Pei’s masterstroke was to link the three wings of the museum with vast underground galleries bathed in light streaming in through the glass and steel pyramid.
“Pei had imagined the hall under the pyramid as a space between the city and the collections, an interface between the outside and the works,” Martinez said.
China: Bank of China Tower (1989)
This 367.4-metre skyscraper, which appears to be made up of triangles, is one of the tallest office buildings in Hong Kong and arguably one of the most striking on the skyline.
Its four shafts, clad in glass and aluminium, form a prism that reflects the sun and the movement of the sky.
“The diagonal cuts that generate the prism create a sequence of atrium spaces that flood the tower with natural light,” says the website of Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, the firm from which Pei retired in 1990.
The 72-storey building was met with some controversy after claims that its sharp, triangular design exerts bad feng shui on surrounding structures.
Japan: Miho Museum (1997)
Located on a mountainside in a nature preserve near the Japanese town of Shigaraki, near Kyoto, around 80 percent of the Miho art museum is underground to preserve its scenic setting.
Visitors are led down a walkway enveloped by cherry trees and pass through an arching tunnel and over a suspension bridge before arriving at the collection of Asian and Western antiques.
Opened in 1997, the museum’s glass roof is made up of geometric combinations of triangles.
“I think you can see a very conscious attempt on my part to make the silhouette of the building comfortable in the natural landscape,” Pei is quoted as saying on the museum’s website.
Qatar: Museum of Islamic Art (2008)
“Traditional Islamic architecture meets the 21st century,” is the museum’s description of the building which incorporates geometric patterns and is lit by reflected light entering from above.
Pei told The New York Times in 2008 that he wanted the museum to embody the “essence of Islamic architecture” and spent months travelling the region for inspiration.
US: National Gallery of Art (1978)
A “study in triangles” is how Architecture Week magazine describes Pei’s East Building addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The concrete and glass structure features huge mirrored pyramids and a 15-metre (50-foot) waterfall.
The Washington Post wrote at its opening in 1978 that it was “an architectonic symphony of light and marble, color and glass, painting and sculpture.”
“This building helped to shape attitudes to museum building throughout the United States in the 1970s and later,” architect Dennis Sharp wrote in “Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History” (2006).
“Islam was one religion I did not know,” he said. “So I studied the life of Muhammad. I went to Egypt and Tunisia.”
“The museum is an object,” he said. “It should be treated as a piece of sculpture.”