I.M. Pei (pronounced PAY), the versatile, globe-trotting Chinese-American architect, has died at the age of 102. Pei’s most renowned work is the giant glass pyramid structure at the Louvre museum in Paris, France.
His buildings added elegance to landscapes worldwide with powerful geometric shapes and grand spaces. They include the trapezoidal addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The chiseled towers of the National Center of Atmospheric Research in the reddish mountains of Boulder, Colorado, are also his design.
His work spanned almost 70 years, starting in the late 1940s and continuing into the new millennium.
Pei painstakingly researched each project. Before he began designing, he first studied the project’s intended use and relationship to the surrounding environment. But he also was interested in architecture as art and not just building. He put great effort into the effect he could create.
“At one level my goal is simply to give people pleasure in being in a space and walking around it,” he said. “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.”
Pei was born in China. As a schoolboy in Shanghai, he was inspired by a 1930s building boom. He immigrated to the United States in 1935 and studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He advanced from designing office buildings and low-income housing to a worldwide collection of museums, municipal buildings, and hotels.
Pei fell into a modernist style blending elegance and technology. The results were crisp, precise buildings.
I.M. Pei’s big break came in 1964. He was chosen over many prestigious architects, such as Louis Kahn and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to design the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston.
At the time, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy said all the candidates were excellent, “But Pei! He loves things to be beautiful.”
His 71-foot faceted glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre was met with controversy. French President Francois Mitterrand, who personally selected Pei to oversee the decaying, overcrowded museum’s renovation, endured a barrage of criticism when he unveiled the plan in 1984.
Many of the French vehemently opposed a modern change to the traditional symbol of their culture. The main museum structure was once a medieval fortress and then a national palace. But Mitterrand and his supporters prevailed. The pyramid was finished in 1989. It serves as the Louvre’s light-filled entrance.
In 1988, President Reagan honored Pei with a National Medal of Arts. Pei also won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal. President George H.W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992.
Pei officially retired in 1990 but continued to work on projects.
(Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei stands with his plans of the Suzhou Museum in eastern China in 2003. Photo: Chinatopix via AP)