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GREAT LIVES: I.M. Pei created a modernist geometric language for his iconic buildings
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GREAT LIVES: I.M. Pei created a modernist geometric language for his iconic buildings

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PHOTO: East Building

The I.M. Pei-designed East Building of the National Gallery of Art.

CHINESE-born American architect I.M. Pei (leoh Ming Pei, 1917–2019) was one of the most acclaimed architects of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Two years ago, on May 16, 2019, Pei passed away at the age of 102. In its obituary, the New York Times named him as the “Master Architect Whose Buildings Dazzled the World.”

Pei understood how to convey the relationship between human and nature, modern and postmodern, and the old and new in his modern designs.

Pei was awarded the 1983 Pritzker Architecture Prize for his iconic design of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (1968–78) in Washington, D.C.

The prize committee emphasized how Pei had the talent for creating a harmonious environment of public spaces by devising a modernist geometric language that defined his designs, without turning away completely from architectural traditions. He often incorporated local materials into his buildings.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Pei became well-known for his use of structural concrete and concomitant interpretation of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the German term for art understood generally as a synthesis of different forms that together create a vision of an ideal society.

During Pei’s years at Harvard, Walter Gropius (1883–1969), one of the most significant architects of modern architecture and the founder of the German Bauhaus Institute (1919–1933), praised the upcoming architect as maintaining a modernist perspective without losing the progressive concept of contemporary postmodern design.

Pei’s buildings represent a wide range of skyscrapers, university buildings, and art museums in and outside of the U.S. In each case, Pei strove to demonstrate harmonizing effects of his buildings with the surrounding skyline, cityscape and landscape.

The East Building at the National Gallery of Art is quintessential I.M. Pei; walls clad in smooth Tennessee pink marble, the building has a concrete frame molded by skilled cabinetmakers displaying the “Pei isosceles triangle” motif, easily identifiable in many of his designs.

Seen throughout the building, Pei employed the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk by creating patterns in the marble floor tiles and in the panes of glass on the skylighted ceiling above the atrium. In each of these details, the triangle stands as the architect’s shape of choice.

Under the direct request of Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994), Pei designed the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library (1976–79) in Boston. Overlooking Dorchester Bay, the structure is created out of a series of triangles, squares, and circles. The triangular tower sits atop a cylindrical base, and above that is a square-shaped memorial pavilion made of glass. The outsized empty pavilion, when bathed in sunlight, becomes a place of respite where the viewer can meditate and experience some calm.

Appointed head architect of the new Grand Louvre project (1983–93) in July 1983, Pei designed an underground central reception area crowned by a glass pyramid, which allows onlookers to see directly into the space from ground level. The underground channel enables direct access to the Louvre’s three wings.

Pei carefully juxtaposed the modern glass structure with the Louvre’s older French Classicist building, a choice that seems to have unwittingly created an effect that augments each structure’s magnificence.

One of Pei’s most memorable qualities was his jovial spirit and hearty constitution. He always enjoyed conversations with anyone, regardless of status.

“Life is architecture,” he once said, “and architecture is the mirror of life.”

Dr. Suzi Kim is assistant professor of Asian Art History at the University of Mary Washington. She will speak on I.M. Pei on Thursday, February 11, at 7:30 p.m. as part of the University’s Crawley Great Lives Series. The talk can be accessed via Zoom at umw.edu/great lives.

Dr. Suzi Kim is assistant professor of Asian Art History at the University of Mary Washington. She will speak on I.M. Pei on Thursday, February 11, at 7:30 p.m. as part of the University’s Crawley Great Lives Series. The talk can be accessed via Zoom at umw.edu/great lives.

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