I.M. Pei, a pillar of modern architecture, dies at 102

I.M. Pei. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Maggy Donaldson, with Michael Langan in Washington

New York (AFP) -- I.M. Pei, the preeminent US architect who forged a distinct brand of modern building design with his sharp lines and stark structures, has died in New York, his sons' architecture firm said Thursday. He was 102 years old.

From the controversial Louvre Pyramid in Paris to the landmark Bank of China tower in Hong Kong, the Chinese-born Pei was the mastermind behind works seen as embracing modernity tempered by a grounding in history.

Pei Partnership Architects confirmed Pei's death to AFP. The New York Times, citing Pei's son Li Chung, said the architect had died overnight Wednesday into Thursday.

"Contemporary architects tend to impose modernity on something. There is a certain concern for history but it's not very deep," Pei, with his owlish round-rimmed glasses, 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," he said.

"A lasting architecture has to have roots."

His work earned the 1983 Pritzker Prize, considered architecture's Nobel. Of his nearly 50 designs in the United States and around the world, more than half won major awards.

Modern angles

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 master's degree in architecture in 1946. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1954.

In one standout undertaking, he deftly inserted into the monumental structures of the capital of his adopted country the modern angles of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, opened in 1978.

The stunning concrete and glass structure features huge mirrored pyramids and a 50-foot (15-meter) waterfall.

It was "a composition of angular stone forms... that remains the most visible emblem of modern Washington," said a New York Times review 30 years after its unveiling.

French president Francois Mitterrand was so impressed that he had Pei hired to build a glass pyramid into the courtyard of the Louvre, the world's most visited museum.

The project was deeply controversial in Paris and Pei endured a roasting from critics before the giant glass structure opened in 1989, but his creation is now an icon of the French capital.

"I received many angry glances in the streets of Paris," Pei later said, confessing that "after the Louvre, I thought no project would be too difficult."

Grace and drama

Other well-known and characteristic Pei projects -- often graceful combinations of geometric planes -- include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio; the Miho Museum of Shigo in Japan; the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and The John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

He brought drama to the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan and Raffles City in Singapore.

His Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, completed in 1982, was intended to incorporate technology and indigenous building principles in a blend that would open the way to a particularly Chinese brand of modern architecture.

Despite being a confessed Islamic art novice, Pei was also commissioned to design the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, which opened in 2008 to great fanfare.

The desert-toned building, inspired by the 13th-century Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun in Cairo, incorporates geometric patterns and is lit by reflected light entering from above.

Pei spent months traveling the Muslim world seeking inspiration.

"Islam was one religion I did not know," he told the Times the year of the opening. "So I studied the life of Muhammad. I went to Egypt and Tunisia."

Architectural 'poetry'

Pei dedicated energetic efforts to supporting the arts and education, serving on visiting committees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Harvard and MIT as well as a range of US government panels including the National Council on the Humanities and National Council on the Arts.

He dedicated the $100,000 prize money he was awarded as laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize to setting up a scholarship fund for Chinese students to study the craft in the United States, on the condition they return home to design and build.

In 1975, Pei was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Three years later he became Chancellor of the Academy, the first architect to hold the position.

He was also one of 12 naturalized US citizens then-president Ronald Reagan awarded the Medal of Liberty in 1986.

In 1988, 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.

In addition to his museum oeuvre and contributions to the government and commercial landscape, Pei also worked on moderate and low-income housing.

"His concern has always been the surroundings in which his buildings rise," wrote the Pritzker jury that bestowed to him in 1983 architecture's most prestigious prize.

"His versatility and skill in the use of materials approach the level of poetry," the committee wrote. "His tact and patience have enabled him to draw together peoples of disparate interests and disciplines to create a harmonious environment."


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