I M Pei, the versatile, globe-trotting architect who forged a distinct brand of modern building design with his sharp lines and stark structures, has died at age 102.
Pei’s death was confirmed on Thursday by Marc Diamond, a spokesman for the architect’s New York firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. One of Pei’s sons, Li Chung Pei, told The New York Times his father had died overnight on Wednesday into Thursday.
Pei’s works added elegance to landscapes worldwide with their powerful geometric shapes and grand spaces, seen as embracing modernity tempered by a grounding in history.
The Chinese-born architect was the mastermind behind the bold Louvre pyramid in Paris, the landmark 72-storey Bank of China tower in Hong Kong and the striking Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
Other creations included the trapezoidal addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to the chiselled towers of the National Center of Atmospheric Research that blend in with the reddish mountains in Boulder, Colorado.
Pei painstakingly researched each project, studying its use and relating it to the environment. But he also was interested in architecture as art – and 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.”
Born in China in 1917, Pei immigrated to the United States and studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He advanced from his early work of designing office buildings, low-income housing and mixed-used complexes to a worldwide collection of museums, municipal buildings and hotels.
He fell into a modernist style blending elegance and technology, creating crisp, precise buildings.
His big break was in 1964 when 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, Jacqueline Kennedy said all the candidates were excellent, “But Pei! He loves things to be beautiful.” The two became friends.
A slight, unpretentious man, Pei developed a reputation as a skilled diplomat, persuading clients to spend the money on his grand-scale projects and working with a cast of engineers and developers.
“I.M. Pei was really one of those people who was able to push the envelope with innovative new things and yet make architecture that was interesting to a broad range of people,” Paul Goldberger, an architectural critic, author and columnist, told Al Jazeera from New York.
“So he could create a building like the National Gallery in Washington, DC that was incredibly popular and yet was also avant-garde,” he added.
“He was somehow able to, almost magically, blend the cutting edge with things that people were interested in and wanted and liked and responded to – so, he made modern architecture something that people loved.”
Some of his designs were met with much controversy such as the 22-metre faceted glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre museum in Paris. 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 such a change to the symbol of their culture, once a medieval fortress and then a national palace. Some resented that Pei, a foreigner, was in charge.
But Mitterrand and his supporters prevailed and the pyramid was finished in 1989. It serves as the Louvre’s entrance, and a staircase leads visitors down to a vast, light-drenched lobby featuring ticket windows, shops, restaurants, an auditorium and escalators to other parts of the vast museum.
“All through the centuries, the Louvre has undergone violent change,” Pei said. “The time had to be right. I was confident because this was the right time.”
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan honoured him with a National Medal of Arts. He also won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, 1983, dedicating the $100,000 prize money he was awarded 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.
He also won the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, 1979, while 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. Two of his sons, Li Chung Pei and Chien Chung Pei, former members of their father’s firm, formed Pei Partnership Architects in 1992. Their father’s firm, previously I M Pei and Partners, was renamed Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.
Pei’s wife, Eileen, who he married in 1942, died in 2014. A son, T’ing Chung, died in 2003. Besides sons Chien Chung Pei and Li Chung Pei, he is survived by a daughter, Liane.