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I.M. Pei, modernist architect, dies at 102

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The pioneering Chinese-American architect won a Pritzker Prize in 1983

Sygma via Getty Images

I.M. Pei, the Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese-American architect famous for his soaring, lyrical renditions of contemporary architecture, has passed away at age 102. [Update] Marc Diamond, director of communications at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, has confirmed the news.

Under his direction, Pei’s firm was responsible for a wide range of buildings in the United States and abroad, most famously the glass-topped extension of Paris’s Louvre Museum. The architect was celebrated not only for his great skill as a designer, but for his ability to collaborate with clients and bridge their needs in ways that did not compromise his own striking vision.

The jury for the Pritzker Prize, which was awarded to Pei in 1983, cited his incredible scope as one of the many reasons for awarding him the profession’s top honor.

“I.M. Pei has refused to limit himself to a narrow range of architectural problems,” the announcement reads. “His work over the past forty years includes not only palaces of industry, government and culture, but also some of the best moderate and low-income housing. Through his skill he has elevated the use of materials to an art.”

An early disciple of Gropius and Breuer

Born in Guangzhou, China, and inspired by the cityscapes of Shanghai, Pei came to the United States in 1935 to study architecture. He chose the U.S. over Britain, in part because he found the American experience depicted in Bing Crosby movies to be much more exciting. After another decade spend studying at the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Harvard, he had become a full-fledged disciple of modernist design, making connections with key figures such as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. By 1948, he was an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

That same year, he traveled to New York to meet developer William Zeckendorf, a flamboyant Manhattan real estate mogul of that era. Despite personality differences, the two gelled immediately: The businessman admired Pei’s intelligence and skill, and the younger architect was impressed by the developer’s brash approach. Pei moved to New York in 1948 to work for Zeckendorf’s firm, Webb & Knapp, where he designed his first solo project, the Gulf Oil building in Atlanta. In 1955, Pei would set off on his own, opening I.M. Pei & Associates.

A lifetime of understated masterworks

Pei’s breakthrough would come with his commission for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, which was completed in 1967. He executed a series of towers inspired by Anasazi cliff dwellings for the research facility, using pinkish, bush-hammered concrete to match the surrounding hills. Its maze-like layout and addition of crow’s nests encouraged interaction among staff while also allowing them to step away from the lab and appreciate the magnificent surroundings.

Pei would then go on to design an eclectic array of buildings across the globe, from the the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to Dallas’s futuristic City Hall. Pei’s design for the civic building center so unnerved Dallas’s then-Mayor Erik Jonsson—who felt the gravity-defying form would cause people to believe it would fall down—that a series of oval columns were added for reassurance. (The purely cosmetic additions don’t bear any of the weight of the upper floors.)

Referencing his work on the John F. Kennedy Library in Massachusetts, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy said of Pei, “He didn’t seem to have just one way to solve a problem. He seemed to approach each commission thinking only of it and then develop a way to make something beautiful.”

The Louvre pyramid, arguably his most recognizable work, illustrated his keen ability to synthesize different influences, analyze a building site, and create something seamless and understated. Pei was tapped for the project in 1981, and the steel-and-glass pyramid he proposed initially caused a commotion around the fact that a non-Frenchman would suggest something so audacious.

Pei, who had drawn inspiration from the artistry of French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, let the design speak for itself. When a scale model was placed in the museum’s courtyard for the public to evaluate, according to Carter Wiseman’s biography of the architect, 60,000 Parisians examined his proposal, many of whom changed their minds about what would go on to become an emblem for the City of Light.

Here, Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange reflects on Pei’s body of work.

Pei once said he wanted his buildings to “stand the test of time,” and looking back over his sixty-plus years of making buildings, it is clear that he succeeded. By focusing on simple, geometric forms, clad in concrete, then stone, then glass, he made buildings that look like sculptures, but then open up into unexpected vistas inside.

He collected modern art, and his museum buildings create a perfect backdrop for the overscaled, brightly colored works in vogue during his postwar rise. His staircases are masterworks in balance and massive form. He balanced light and bulk. Most people know him for the pyramid at the Louvre and the prism of the East Building at the National Gallery, but there’s something mesmerizing about his concrete high-rises too—like the ensemble of Kips Bay Plaza in Manhattan, where gardens and space and slabs all come in to play.

Outstanding legacy

Pei’s long career included more than 70 further major commissions across the globe. His honors, in addition to the Pritzker, including the AIA Gold Medal (1979), the first Praemium Imperiale for architecture from the Japan Art Association (1989), the Royal Gold Medal from RIBA (2010), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1993), and the Cooper Hewitt Design Award for Lifetime Achievement (2003).

He told the Guardian in 2010, “As a young man, of course I had been looking for something new, even revolutionary. I knew what Le Corbusier was doing. I wanted to go his way. But, after some years, I began to think differently. I became interested in a modern architecture that made connections to place, history and ­nature. Modern architecture needed to be part of an evolutionary, not a ­revolutionary, process.”

Pei Cobb Freed & Partners is still active across the globe, and the architect leaves behind four children, including two sons, Li Chung (Sandi) Pei and Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who are founding partners of their own architecture firm, Pei Partnership.