I. M. Pei died Thursday at the age of 102 after a long career as an architect of great renown. Most known for his glass pyramid addition to the Louvre Museum in Paris and the East Building addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the China-born, U.S.-trained architect took on commissions that helped reshape cities around the world through the second half of the 20th century.
After studying under former Bauhaus master Walter Gropius at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Pei worked for New York City real estate developer William Zeckendorf from 1948 to 1960, where he designed various gridded concrete towers. In the following decades he helped define the ambitions of modern cities through various cultural, academic, and civic commissions on high profile sites. While his straightforward geometric forms aren’t for everyone, so many of his buildings are used by seemingly everyone. Here are some that have delighted and confounded CityLab staff over the years:
The Louvre Pyramid, Paris
“The first year and a half was really hell. I couldn’t walk the streets of Paris without people looking at me as if to say … ‘What are you doing to our great Louvre?’” Pei’s words (told years later to a documentary crew) capture just how negative the reaction was to his famous pyramid when its design was unveiled.
The embodiment of French culture, the ancient Louvre has been a medieval fortress, a royal palace, and since the French Revolution, a public museum (it is now the world’s largest art museum). After so many modifications over the centuries, it had become a dense, confusing maze for visitors. Which is where Pei came in, in 1983. His solution was a bold one: Build a new entrance in the exterior courtyard, as well as new public spaces and corridors underground. The new entrance would be a metal-and-glass pyramid, utterly different from the buildings around it in form and style. Parisians were appalled.
But there’s more than one way to show deference to history. Instead of competing with the surrounding buildings, the diaphanous pyramid accentuated their age and beauty. Pei’s inspired approach to combining old and new won Paris (and the world) over, and made his pyramid an enduring symbol of the city in its own right.
—Amanda Kolson Hurley
L’Enfant Plaza, Washington, D.C.
Marking Pei’s 100th birthday a couple of years ago in the Washington City Paper, I wrote that L’Enfant Plaza is “a dead zone, an overscaled void where you expect to see tumbleweeds blowing through.” With all respect for the dead, my opinion of it hasn’t changed. L’Enfant doesn’t work as an urban space. The proportions are wrong; it doesn’t offer a sense of enclosure as the Louvre’s courtyard does. The street on its western edge is a Brobdingnagian 150 feet wide. Not all of L’Enfant’s failures were due to Pei, its master planner. A proposed cultural facility that became Washington’s Kennedy Center was initially supposed to go here—that would have brought nighttime foot traffic and vitality. Pei also opposed the construction of the federal Forrestal Building, which effectively cuts the plaza off from the National Mall. Now, the brand-new International Spy Museum has filled in much of the central void, but the monolithic character remains (stores are buried in an underground mall). L’Enfant Plaza is a reminder that architecture and urban design are distinct arts, and that innovation can rapidly curdle into obsolescence. Design is always contingent on a host of factors: site, budget, policy, the client’s whims, cultural trends. Pei was a modern master, but any designer’s mastery has its limits.
—Amanda Kolson Hurley
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
When the East Building of the National Gallery of Art closed in 2013 for a comprehensive renovation, it offered a protégé of Pei the opportunity to think deeply about triangles. The museum was built around a singular primitive geometric conceit—the isosceles triangle—and architect Perry Chin highlighted this form throughout the three-year renovation. The East Building, which is arranged as a series of towers around a central atrium, is now more legible than ever, thanks to new hexagonal staircases, detailed in stainless steel and featuring glass balustrades. This museum has always been a difficult space: There’s no straightforward path between the galleries in the three towers, and the atrium is too fragmented to be useful as a space for art. Still, the recent renovation shows that even a flawed work by Pei still encodes a concept with integrity—an idea that another architect was able to carry forward.
Dallas City Hall, Dallas
Pei had more hand in designing Dallas than any other architect. His firm designed three of the city’s sharpest skyscrapers (One Dallas Centre, Energy Plaza, and Fountain Places), leaving the architect’s fingerprint on the skyline. But Pei’s projects in Dallas also express his range of interests. Dallas City Hall, which Pei designed in 1970, is an imposing Brutalist wedge; nearly 20 years later, he gave the city the Meyerson Symphony Center, a light and flowing study in geometry. Both are composed of many of the same materials. Of all these, Dallas City Hall may stand out as his finest work: an expression of the twin strains of populism and idealism that make anti-ornamental Brutalism the language of civic structure.
Everson Museum, Syracuse
Years before his additions to the Louvre and the National Gallery, Pei built perhaps his finest museum in downtown Syracuse, New York. The Everson, which specializes in ceramics and video, does not have upstate’s biggest nor best art collection, but it does provide a superior architectural experience.
Pei’s cantilevered, sculptural concrete building and its generous public plaza arrived during a period of large-scale, state-wide urban renewal and cultural investment under Governor Nelson Rockefeller. First receiving the commission in 1961, he had only recently broken free from an exclusive contract with New York City developer William Zeckendorf. The Everson project provided Pei with a unique opportunity to take what he learned from his Harvard thesis, “A Museum for a Chinese City”—a contemplation on regional vernaculars in building materials and exhibited art—to create a consciously un-Miesian design. (Fittingly, Mies had once proposed “A Museum for a Small American City” for Syracuse as part of a 1943 Architectural Forum and Fortune project).
Pei’s museum was to be just one element of an official renewal plan by Victor Gruen for a “Community Plaza” in which multiple cultural and civic structures would be built along a superblock on the edge of downtown. Opened in 1968, the building exceeded the ambitions of its donors and launched Pei towards bigger cultural commissions in the following decades. Its delightfully complex spatial arrangement of galleries, accented by concrete and natural light and anchored by an unforgettable atrium with its signature spiral staircase, make it Syracuse’s finest postwar building. It is Pei at his best, years before the world fell in love with his greatest hits.
Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong
Pei had lived in Hong Kong as a child and was given the chance to build one of the city’s most distinct towers at the height of his career. The Bank of China asked him to build their new headquarters in 1982, one year before he won the Pritzker Prize.
Locally, its construction represented an era of tremendous real estate speculation and civic uncertainty. The skyscraper’s neighbors included Norman Foster’s HSBC Tower, the instantly recognizable “High-Tech” kinetic facade, and Paul Rudolph’s dramatic, glass-enclosed Bond Center. But, completed just one month after the May 1989 Tiananmen Square protests against the government of China— which would take back the city from British rule the following decade—the tower ended up receiving limited promotion at first. It was also designed without consulting Hong Kong’s feng shui masters, who deemed its sharp corners as “knife blades aiming at the building's neighbors.” Its X-shaped steel supports didn’t win many favors among Chinese traditionalists who looked at the tower and thought of the “X” mark used to strike through the name of someone scheduled for execution. For most everyone else, the tower stands as a bold and elegant solution to an extremely difficult site. As Hong Kong continues to build up years later, Pei’s addition to the skyline still stands out.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland
It’s probably for the best that I. M. Pei didn’t know anything about rock. The then-seventysomething architect admitted he was more of a jazz fan when he was handed the impossible task of creating a shrine to the aging icons of a youthful art form. Rolling Stone founder and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun dutifully dragged Pei to Memphis and New Orleans for a crash course in the roots of the music. Of course, the building itself would be sited not in those cities but in Cleveland, where city leaders were willing to bankroll the goofy idea of a $92 million megaproject celebrating the Majesty of Rock.
This idea was hatched in the mid-1980s, a time when Cleveland really needed a win. And an I. M. Pei-designed waterfront attraction, complete with one of the architect’s signature glass “tents,” looked like just the economic-development ticket. When it opened in 1995, critics mostly raved about the complex’s funky swirl of geometric shapes (“Mr. Pei adds the Pyramid, the Spiral and the Drum to the Frug, the Swim and the Watusi,” Herbert Muschamp declared in the New York Times) and general swagger. Since then, the museum has welcomed 12 million visitors and many entertainingly shambolic induction ceremonies. (That annual event is now shared with New York City.) For tourist-hungry Cleveland, the Rock HOF remains a major draw: A 2018 study found that visitors to the attraction spent $127 million in 2017; the Hall claims a total economic impact of almost $200 million annually. Johnny Rotten might not be a fan, but Pei’s unlikeliest gig has won over plenty of fans.
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca
If you live in Ithaca, New York, and you are hosting out-of-town guests who’ve never visited the bucolic Upstate New York college town, you’re going to face this question, very quickly: “What’s going on with that?”
That is the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, which looms over the town from the hill that holds the Cornell University campus. It’s inevitably and not inaccurately described as “the sewing machine,” but in truth the structure can assume any number of forms in the viewer’s imagination. From the front three-quarters angle it’s more like a giant Brutalist piano; stand right below it and it’s a big beige Transformer, frozen somewhere in between robot guy and kitchen stove.
What it basically never looks like is a building: It’s got that novelty-architecture roadside attraction vibe. Pei’s curious design was shaped by the challenges of its setting. Cornell wanted a signature structure on a fabled corner of its campus—the very spot, Big Red lore had it, where Ezra Cornell stood in 1865 to choose where to build his university. That location enjoyed sweeping views of Cayuga Lake and the town of Ithaca below, but university officials didn’t want to block views from the adjoining Arts Quad, and the amount of buildable land on the rugged site was limited. So Pei came up with a compact package: a 107-foot tower with a cantilevered fifth floor held up by two piers. You enter through a brick-shaped lobby in the space sheltered by that gallery floor. In the many gaps, the lake views remain.
The museum, which was just the third museum commission for Pei’s firm, was built using poured-in-place architectural concrete, a buff-colored mix of local materials designed to complement the Finger Lakes geography. When it opened in 1973, critics were largely enthusiastic—former Washington Post architecture writer Wolf von Eckardt told Museum News that it was “a perfect museum. You don’t suffer museum fatigue, because the gallery spaces vary in size and height.”
But students, profs, and locals found it somewhat more divisive. They still do. The Johnson Museum looms large in Ithaca—perhaps too large. You see that big concrete piano standing over the trees from most points in town, like some kind of powerful but benevolent machine. Its structural concrete façade has been sorely tested by the climate over the decades. Cornell’s relationship to its most iconic building remains somewhat fraught as well. A few years after an elegant 2011 addition was completed, university officials sued Pei Cobb Freed & Partners for “architectural malpractice” because of a host of problems with the new wing, including cracks and difficulties maintaining the correct temperature and humidity.
But, love it or hate it, the museum’s unmistakable shape dominates its host community (and the university’s branding) like few buildings can. And even if you despise looking at it, you’ll probably like the view from inside: Head up the fifth floor to get the full effect from the wide swath of Pei’s horizontal windows—a panoramic view of the lake, the gorge, and the little city nestled up beneath it.