I.M. Pei, a dominant figure in American architecture for more than three decades who designed the Louvre’s crystal pyramid and the angular East Building of Washington’s National Gallery of Art, has died. He was 102.
His son Chien Chung Pei said on Thursday that his father had died overnight, the New York Times reported.
Pei gave “this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms,” said the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which Pei won in 1983.
Though reserved and supremely diplomatic, Pei’s face, always crowned by round thick-rimmed glasses, could break unexpectedly into a wide, dazzling smile. He approached clients with charm and a quick wit, and they usually succumbed happily.
“Mr. Pei is at once the most pragmatic and the most visionary of architects, his work poised skillfully between the demands of the real world and the dreams of art,” Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of the New York Times, wrote in 1989 after the opening of the Louvre pyramid in Paris.
Pei’s more than 50 projects ranged from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Luxembourg (2006) and the 72-story Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong (1989) to the John. F. Kennedy Library in Boston (1979) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland (1995).
Among his many honors were the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1979; the Grande Medaille d’Or from the Academie d’Architecture de France three years later; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., from President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Ieoh Ming Pei was born in Canton, China (now Guangzhou), on April 26, 1917, the son of a bank manager. His family later moved to Suzhou, a city near Shanghai. As a young boy, Pei was enthralled by construction of high-rise buildings in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
He came to the U.S. to study architecture at age 17, receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940 and a master’s from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1946. At Harvard, he studied with Walter Gropius, one of the masters of modern architecture.
Pei honed his skills, in both design and coddling clients, under the tutelage of the prominent New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf Sr. As in-house architect for Zeckendorf’s Webb & Knapp Inc., Pei designed shopping centers, offices and residential towers, such as Manhattan’s Kips Bay Plaza.
“I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art,” Pei said. “To become art it must be built on a foundation of necessity.”
In 1955, he left Zeckendorf to form I.M. Pei & Associates, which would become I.M. Pei & Partners in 1966 and then Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in 1989.