In Memoriam: I. M. Pei

Bing Crosby is rarely cited in histories of 20th-century architecture, yet he had a significant role in shaping it. Ieoh Ming Pei—born in China in 1917 to Lien Kwun, an accomplished flute player, and Tsuyee, a bank manager—was inspired by the crooner’s dulcet tones and captivated by American college life as portrayed in his films. Consequently, an opportunity to study at Oxford was abandoned for the New World.

Commerce Court West and East in Toronto were designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners with Page and Steele. Photo by Art James for Canadian Architect.

Pei left Shanghai for San Francisco and took a train to Philadelphia, where he had been offered a place to study architecture at Penn. However, intimidated by the beaux arts renderings and attitudes discovered there, he quickly moved north to Boston and enrolled at MIT, where he received an undergraduate degree. In 1940 he moved again—albeit a shorter distance this time—to enrol in the graduate program in architecture at Harvard. Pei flourished under the supervision of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, both of whom valued his reconsiderations of tradition. Pei’s thesis design for a Museum for Chinese Art in Shanghai was subsequently published in Progressive Architecture, accompanied by an essay written by Gropius, and in 1948, in L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui.

At 57 storeys, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s west tower was the tallest building in Canada until 1976. Photo by Art James for Canadian Architect.

Perhaps surprisingly, after graduation Pei worked for William Zeckendorf, a prominent American developer. Driven to build, and with an interest in design, Zeckendorf acquired Webb and Knapp, a real estate development company, in 1949, and went on to initiate large urban projects throughout North America. Pei worked for Zeckendorf for eight years and during that time played a role alongside colleagues (including Henry Cobb) in the design of commercial developments such as Place Ville Marie in Montreal. The complex encompassed more than three million square feet and was, on its completion in 1963, reputed to be the largest development in the world.

Designed by I. M. Pei & Associates with associate architects Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Michaud & Sise, Place Ville Marie sits atop an elevated plaza in downtown Montreal. Photo by Dik Nye, reprinted from The Canadian Architect, February 1963.

Pei also collaborated on the design of residential schemes for the Federal Housing Agency in cities across America and other large office developments. That experience was to inform the subsequent design for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto, which was completed in 1972. These were hectic, yet rewarding times that enabled the newly graduated architect to realise major buildings and become familiar with different clients, building costs, deal-making and construction.

Unable to return to China because of war, Pei became an American citizen and, in 1955, established his own practice in New York. He would build it into one of the most influential architectural offices in the world. Pei designed many notable projects, and his work was consistently contemporary while responding thoughtfully to different settings—whether the spectacular backdrop of the Rockies that defined the site of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, or the axial vistas which informed the design of the East Building at the National Gallery  in Washington, DC.

Place Ville Marie’s 40 floors of office space are composed of four wings that radiate out from a central service core, cantilevering beyond their column supports. Photo by Langford Studios, reprinted from The Canadian Architect, February 1963.

While Pei was to remain an exile, he was invited to design a new hotel at Fragrant Hills in Beijing shortly after the “opening” of China to the West. The building was completed in 1982, and in that same year he was commissioned to plan a new headquarters for the Bank of China—his father’s former employer—on a prominent site in Hong Kong. The commission for an extension to the Grand Louvre in Paris in 1983 presented Pei with different challenges. However, the glassy pyramid that he designed, at first decried as Disneyland architecture, has subsequently become a widely admired contemporary addition to a set of significant historic buildings, and a landmark that now defines the museum and its city.

When he was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1983 the citation noted that “I. M. Pei has refused to limit himself to a narrow range of architectural problems. His work over the past forty years includes not only palaces of industry, government and culture, but also some of the best moderate and low-income housing. Through his skill he has elevated the use of materials to an art.”

Brian Carter, a registered architect in the U.K., is a graduate of the University of Toronto. He was Chair of Architecture at the University of Michigan and is currently Professor  of Architecture at the School of Architecture & Planning at the University at Buffalo.