I.M. Pei, Revered Architect Who Designed Eye-Catching Addition to National Gallery, Dies

May 17, 2019 by Dan McCue

I.M. Pei, the tirelessly globe-trotting architect who placed a giant glass pyramid outside the Louvre and designed the trapezoidal addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, among other eye-catching structures, has died at age 102.

Pei’s death was confirmed Thursday by Marc Diamond, a spokesman for the architect’s New York firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. On Friday, the firm’s website was adorned with a large, smiling portrait of the master.

Pei’s son, the architect Li Chung Pei, later told reporters his father had died peacefully Thursday morning, but had recently been well enough to celebrate his birthday with a family dinner.

Throughout his remarkable career, Pei’s work was marked by his love of provocative geometric shapes and majestically wide-open public spaces.

In addition to the works mentioned above, Pei captured the spirit of youthful rebellion in his design for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; created sandstone towers at the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado that perfectly blended in with the mountain range behind it; and rendered his vision of Asia’s future in the striking steel and glass design of the Bank of China building in Hong Kong.

Other significant Pei works include the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Two of his last major projects, the Museum of Islamic Art, located on an artificial island just off the waterfront in Doha, Qatar, and the Macau Science Center, in China, opened in 2008 and 2009.

And his firm is continuing to work on the International African American Museum planned for the Charleston, South Carolina waterfront.

Born in Canton, China, on April 26, 1917, Leoh Ming Pei came to the United States in 1935 with plans to study architecture and then return home to practice in China.

However, the outbreak of World War II and the Chinese revolution that followed prevented him from going back for decades.

Instead, he studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, quickly moved on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and then went to work for others, designing low-income housing and modest office buildings.

In 1955, the year he became a U.S. citizen, Pei opened his own architectural firm in New York City — then at its peak as the “headquarters city” for many of the world’s top companies — and would stay rooted there for the rest of his long life.

But Pei’s big break came in another east coast city. In 1964, he was chosen over many better known architects, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to design the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston.

The president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, said at the time that the thing the drew her to Pei was that he loves things to be “beautiful.”

“I am not an architect who has a body of theories,” he humbly said in “First Person Singular,” a 1997 documentary. “I don’t think that’s how my architecture should be looked at. But if you are true to yourself, you have a signature, and the signature will come out.”

In 1968, Pei was chosen by art collector and philanthropist Paul Mellon to build the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The site, adjacent to the original neo-Classical National Gallery that had opened in 1941, was a difficult one to design for: it was shaped like a trapezoid — essentially a rectangular space in which only two sides were parallel.

Pei later said he did a rough sketch splitting the trapezoid diagonally in half, forming two triangles. One triangle would become gallery space divided into smaller rooms; the other would be a more scholarly study center as well as offices.

The interior would gain excitement and grandeur by the installation of a monumental Alexander Calder mobile that hovers overhead in the central space.

Pei then conceived the exterior design, with its now-famous “knife edge” where two outside walls meet.

Writing in the Washington Post when the addition opened in 1978, architectural critic Wolf Von Eckardt called it, “I.M. Pei’s architectural hallelujah.”

But Pei, who always came across as a kind and unpretentious man, was no stranger to controversy.

Many in France responded angrily when in 1984 he proposed a 71-foot glass pyramid in the front courtyard of the Louvre in Paris.

They “raised holy hell,” Pei once said.

But then-French President Francois Mitterrad, who personally selected Pei to oversee the museum’s renovation, stood by the architect and saw the project through.

The glass pyramid is now one of Paris’ best known and most visited tourist sites, serving as the Louvre’s entrance and home to popular restaurants and shops.

Pei later told ARTnews, “I consider the Grand Louvre the greatest challenge and the greatest accomplishment of my career.”

Although he officially retired in 1990, the year he completed the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong — then Asia’s tallest building — he continued to work on projects.

Pei, who won the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983, once told an interviewer, “at one level my goal is simply to give people pleasure in being in a space and walking around it.

“But I also think architecture can reach a level where it influences people to want to do something more with their lives. That is the challenge that I find most interesting,” he said.

Two of his sons, Li Chung Pei and Chien Chung Pei, former members of their father’s firm, formed Pei Partnership Architects in 1992. Their father’s firm, previously I.M. Pei and Partners, was renamed Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

Pei’s wife, Eileen, whom he married in 1942, died in 2014. A son, T’ing Chung, died in 2003. Besides sons Chien Chung Pei and Li Chung Pei, he is survived by a Pei daughter, Liane Pei Kracklauer.

In a tribute, China’s foreign Ministry said Friday that Pei “has made important contributions to the mutual understanding between the Chinese and American people and the exchange of eastern and western cultures for a long time.”

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