IM Pei: an audacious daredevil who built the impossible

From his provoking Louvre pyramid to his inverted wedge for Dallas, the Chinese-American architect was too modern for his time but his angular wonders look perfect now

So bold were IM Pei’s layouts, they were often regarded as wilfully controversial, designed to shock. But Pei himself never understood it like that. He was possibly the last living link to such founders of modernism as Le Corbusier and Bauhaus stalwarts Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, all of whom he satisfied. He carried their torch, abiding by their principles and adding prospers of his own- typically too many for the general public. To those modernist foundations of proportion, simplicity, geometry, Pei added audacious angles and structural audaciou. The outcome is a body of work that is instantly recognisable- more so than their withdraw inventor, who died this week aged 102.

Pei’s Dallas Civic Center was a statement of intent. Commissioned as part of a drive to rebrand the city following the assassination of President John F Kennedy, it was a statement of civic grandeur with more than a touch of sci-fi. It was later used as a place in the movie RoboCop. Its huge, inverted wedge of its term of office floors seemed too precarious in early intends: Pei had to express the stairwells as cylindrical towers, to give the impression they were holding up the seven-storey overhang when in fact they provided no structural purpose.

Contrast … IM Pei in 1979 at his John F Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Photograph: Boston Globe via Getty Images

Pei, a Chinese-American, certainly designed the building for dramatic wallop, but only as a statement of public pride. The overhang had some practical purpose, too- it shadowed the sunshine; and he threw most of the workers upstairs, in order to attain the ground floor public space. And, as with so many Pei structures, it makes absolute sense when verified both in relation to its surroundings( Pei wanted to create a civic counterpoint to the commercial-grade high rises of downtown Dallas) and from within, where its somewhat bulky kind opens out into an open, light-filled atrium space.

Pei never shied away from a good compare. He would have more clashes throughout his vocation, though the rising prestige of commissions indicates “therere” patrons who “got it”. His design for Kennedy’s presidential library- initially featuring a glass pyramid- was considered too intrusive for its original locate, close to Harvard, his alma mater. It had to be moved to a less-than-ideal spot at Boston’s Columbia Point. His 1978 extension to Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art took the opposite tack to the neoclassical original, with a grassland, sharp-edged monumental companion, and a spacious, light-filled lobby at its centre. Again, what does appear jarring proves to be respectful, practical and being aware of its site.

It was a similar story with his Louvre extension in Paris, although it was took Parisians longer to appreciate it. Pei’s glass pyramid was denounced for nearly a decade before it opened- and for many years after. It was considered a sacrilege on the 17 th-century palace, a mark of fatality, a gravestone to President Francois Mitterrand, an occult ability regional centres for the Illuminati/ Satan/ Dan Brown, a foreign intrusion, a modernist intrusion.

In fact, Pei’s extension went out of its space to avoid interfering with the original build. The sort of the pyramid itself attracted the hullabaloo; less attention was paid to what it did, which was to reconfigure the gallery’s entrance and circulation system to accommodate the swelling number of visitors, and to provide access to the Louvre’s galleries from underneath, thus taking some of the strain off the precious palace itself.

And it did the job beautifully, as guests detected once they get inside- after an hour or two of queuing. Added to which, before the pyramid arrived, the Louvre’s courtyard- the Cour Napoleon- was being used as a car park for the finance ministry. True, the eventual pyramid was not as transparent which was initially advertised, but as a statement of bold, high-tech modernity in the heart of a historic jewel, it was very much in keeping with Paris’s postwar reinvention.

Upstaging the neighbours … IM Pei’s Bank of China building, left, in Hong kong citizens; Norman Foster’s HSBC Tower is on the right. Photograph: Hemis/ Alamy

If I must be given to pick a personal favourite, it would be Pei’s Bank of China HQ in Hong Kong– one of the greatest, boldest, most distinctive skyscrapers ever designed, and a structure that still seems as if it has been teleported in from the future. In many styles it had: a future where China was the economic superpower it is today. At 72 storeys, it was the tallest build outside the US when it opened in 1990. It dwarfed it surroundings and upstaged its neighbour and competitive: the expensive, British-owned Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters, designed by Norman Foster.

The Bank of China tower gazes even taller than it is: the combination of huge diagonal megastructure and minimal, graph-paper glazing builds its magnitude somehow impossible to judge. Beautifully simple, it gazes more like a giant, abstract sculpture than a run structure. But it is practical, too: such structures employs half the steel of conventional skyscraper; added to which, it conceals a string of breathtaking atrium spaces. As a nod to the building’s innate Chinese-ness, Pei claimed to have modelled its form on the growth of bamboo. I prefer to think of it as four Toblerone barrooms of differing height, although the building’s feng shui was apparently dreadful for its neighbours.

It was never form for form’s sake with Pei. Wherever he built, he accommodated his speech to the context and the needs and requirements. Unlike some latterday arch-modernists( Richard Meier, say ), he remained supple and versatile. His 1963 Luce Memorial Chapel in Taichung, Taiwan, is a graceful tent of overlapping arcked planes. 30 years later, he was designing the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Versatile … Suzhou Museum, reflecting the tradition of China’s garden-variety city. Photograph: View Illustration/ UIG via Getty Images

His Suzhou Museum, in east China, reinterpreted the city’s black-and-white vernacular, while his Miho Museum in Japan respected Shinto tradition and modestly submerge itself into the landscape. His last-place great work, the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, opened in 2008, and incorporates Islamic design traditions yet remains, unmistakably, a Pei building.

Beneath the adventurism, Pei was always considerate, sensitive and wise. At the beginning of his career, he was too modern for his time. At the end of it, viewed from the perspective of our time, everything is gazes just right.

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