The China Legacy of Modernist Architect I.M. Pei
I.M. Pei, the famed architect whose distinctive designs can be found in a dozen countries across the globe, has died at the age of 102. The modernist master passed away Thursday at his home in Manhattan, his son told The New York Times.
Born in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in 1917, Pei spent his childhood in Hong Kong and Shanghai before moving to the United States at the age of 18. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his undergraduate degree. He completed a master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1946.
Pei’s name is synonymous with iconic structures in the U.S., Europe, China, and elsewhere, distinguished by their modernist, minimalist designs. Best-known for the Louvre pyramid in Paris, Pei also designed the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, and the Suzhou Museum in eastern China.
After spending decades in the U.S., Pei returned to China an American citizen in 1974 as part of an exchange program organized by the American Institute of Architects. But it wasn’t until 1982 that Pei completed his first project in China: the now 290-room Fragrant Hill Hotel on the outskirts of Beijing. The same year, Pei won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, one of the profession’s most coveted accolades.
As people the world over pay tribute to the peerless architect, Sixth Tone highlights his enduring legacy in China.
A stone’s throw from Shanghai, the Suzhou Museum in the eastern Chinese city of the same name is one of Pei’s most notable buildings in the country. A mix of traditional Chinese architecture coupled with modernist elements, the museum was inaugurated in 2006.
In a tribute Friday, the Suzhou Museum referred to itself as one of Pei’s beloved “little daughters” and a precious gift to the city’s residents. “Although Mr. Pei has left (this world), he will always be remembered through the Suzhou Museum, which epitomizes the light of his life,” the museum posted Friday on its Weibo microblog.
Fragrant Hill Hotel
Opened in 1982, the Fragrant Hill Hotel just outside Beijing was Pei’s first project in China. He told The New York Times then that he had had to learn about Chinese history and culture “all over again” in designing the hotel. “In emotional energy, this has to be the most difficult and the most tortuous thing I’ve ever done, because I have to deal with a system I don’t understand,” he told the Times.
However, some in China were unimpressed by the finished product. The year the hotel opened, the state-run newspaper People’s Daily dismissed the structure as “strange.”
Bank of China Tower
Described by some as the world’s “best bank building,” Pei’s distinctive glass high-rise with geometric lines partitioning the facade into triangles and diamonds joined Hong Kong’s iconic skyline upon its completion in 1990. Pei’s son, Sandi, helped his father design the 70-story structure. Often likened to a bamboo shoot, the Bank of China Tower held the crown as the tallest building in Asia for a few years in the early ’90s. Sandi Pei told the South China Morning Post in 2017 that he and his father had taken the ancient Chinese art of feng shui into consideration in designing the building so that it would have a “comfortable relationship” with the neighboring structures.
“My father has a tremendous gift to understand the scene of the place,” the younger Pei said of the elder. “He could create a landmark building which is practical while at the same time inspiring.”
Macao Science Center
Opened in 2009, the Macao Science Center was a collaboration between Pei and Pei Partnership Architects, the firm his two sons established in 1992. Spanning over 20,000 square meters, the cone-shaped silver structure is a “place that fascinates and inspires, a true learning hub for the young and old,” according to the firm’s website.
In a tribute post on its official Facebook page, the Macao Science Center honored Pei by praising the sustainable design elements he had incorporated into the building. “Mr. Pei is a legend of modern architecture,” the post said. “Today, the center has become one of Macao’s major landmarks, with a mission of promoting education to young people.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei laughs while posing for a portrait in front of the Louvre’s glass pyramid — his most famous design — at the Paris museum prior to its inauguration, March 29, 1989. IC)