I.M. Pei, Master Architect, Dies at 102 [SLNYT]
May 17, 2019 6:34 AM   Subscribe

I. M. Pei, who began his long career designing buildings for a New York real estate developer and ended it as one of the most revered architects in the world, died early Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 102. Best known for designing the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre in Paris, Mr. Pei was one of the few architects who were equally attractive to real estate developers, corporate chieftains and art museum boards (the third group, of course, often made up of members of the first two). And all of his work — from his commercial skyscrapers to his art museums — represented a careful balance of the cutting edge and the conservative.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic (36 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
posted by evilDoug at 7:03 AM on May 17

My favourite, and for my money, the greatest of our time. His sense of space, his attention to detail, his absolute precision, his knowledge of context. The master. It is asy to point to his masterworks of the Louvre pyramid, the National Gallery's East Wing, Qatar, but for me, I prefer his smaller works. The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY, or the library in Columbus, Indiana. Seeing his masterworks in world capitals is one thing -- they're expected there -- but visiting tiny utilitarian gems no less masterful in flyover America is quite another.

In Everson, you can see him play with the idea of the floating staircase he would use later at the Louvre, or surprise you that this hard, grey building is actually pink and soft, amaze you with this precision of line that is only obvious in its simplicity. In Columbus, he uses the same precision that he uses in the angles of the National Gallery, but for a balustrade or a janitor's closet.

It is in these smaller projects that Pei shows such attention and care, that the only architect who could be entrusted with buildings of international legacy is the one who knows the small scale first and perfects it, who knows the needs of individual people and communities and respects them, and knows the value of architecture in creating space itself.

Godspeed, sir.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:06 AM on May 17 [29 favorites]

posted by meinvt at 7:17 AM on May 17

I love the East Building but yeah, the Everson is just as much of a marvel.
posted by PussKillian at 7:32 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]

In Boulder, CO the NCAR Mesa Lab is one of the city's unmistakable landmarks. Sitting alone on a plateau above the city, nestled right up by the flatirons it both stands out and fits right in. Great blend of nature and design.

(It was awesome for school trips too - you could go see a tornado and supercomputer, then hike up a mountain!)
posted by Wulfhere at 7:37 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


I have some family connection; my great-uncle Kurt was a model builder for Pei's firm for many years in the days before computer model rendering. I don't know everything he worked on but I specifically remember him talking about building the physical models for the Louvre and the Javits Center.
posted by octothorpe at 7:40 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]

He designed the front of the May D&F department store in Denver that I used to pass every morning on my way to work. It was torn down in the 90s, sadly, but I still remember it.

posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:43 AM on May 17

As controversial as the Louvre entrance was when it was built, I think his design rationale was impressively justified and demonstrated real thought and care for the project and how it fit within the local environment.

The R&R HoF, on the other hand, makes no sense to me.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 7:59 AM on May 17

I am lucky enough to live within a few blocks of Pei's Des Moines Art Center addition. It's my favorite section of the museum. I don't really know how to write about architecture, but the building has it's own sound and unique feeling within the air as soon as you pass through the doors from one of the other sections. You know it's something special before you round the corner and see what a monumental space it is. My favorite little detail is the rain spouts that send water in a perfect laminar arc from the roof to the ground just outside of the windows.
posted by TrialByMedia at 8:01 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]

posted by ZeusHumms at 8:25 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]

His Louvre entrance was one of the first marvels of modern architecture I ever experienced, shortly after it was opened. It's given me a life-long liking of airy glass-and-steel.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 8:30 AM on May 17


I should go take another photo of our campus museum.
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:39 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]

I've never 'got' him as an architect - so many of the things he designed were terrible or imposing while others were great. Check the 'museum' vs 'library' from Capt Renault above. The crappy cement ground around so many of his buildings too. I swear the guy hated people and nature, and had no concerns about climate.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:49 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]

posted by Thorzdad at 9:04 AM on May 17

I enjoyed this twitter thread from Darran Anderson that starts with a sincere appreciation for Pei’s legacy and concludes with “The public are both the toilet and the bomb. Can I have a lectureship now please?” which without context is probably the best thing I’ve seen on the internet all week.
posted by rodlymight at 9:07 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]

posted by tychotesla at 9:16 AM on May 17

posted by condour75 at 9:19 AM on May 17

I've been working in this building for over a decade... still get a little thrill, crossing the lobby.
posted by borborygmi at 9:37 AM on May 17 [3 favorites]

🙅🏽‍♂️ L'Enfant Plaza
🙋🏽‍♂️East Building

posted by schmod at 10:26 AM on May 17

The R&R HoF, on the other hand, makes no sense to me.

Did you realize it looks a lot like a record player when viewed from above?

In any case, you've got to appreciate the level of humility from a world-famous architect, that he would initially turn it down on the grounds that he wasn't a rock n'roll fan and then still make the effort to go to a bunch of rock concerts before he felt comfortable designing it.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:37 AM on May 17 [5 favorites]

posted by q*ben at 11:10 AM on May 17

posted by clavdivs at 11:40 AM on May 17

Greater Greater Washington has a neat little article covering works of his in the DC area (it mentions both 🙅🏽‍♂️ L'Enfant Plaza and 🙋🏽‍♂️East Building :)
posted by exogenous at 11:43 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]

My friends lived in one of his houses he designed in Philadelphia.

It was really nice. Lots of light. Didn't fit in with the surroundings. But really nice to be in.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:44 AM on May 17


In retrospect it's hard to imagine anything that would have been better for the Louvre entrance than what Pei came up with. I wonder what the people who were so against it at the time had in mind as their ideal solution. Something that mimicked the surrounding baroque facades? That would have been outrageously kitschy. Something small, dull and unremarkable? That wouldn't have fulfilled the mandate he'd been given to revive the museum. Something more French? Take a look at Boullée's various proposals and tell me the pyramid doesn't follow that lineage.

There was apprehension about the plans before Pei revealed them, but probably not because of aesthetic considerations -- after all the museum forecourt was previously being used as a parking lot for the Finance Ministry, which occupied a whole wing of the palace and few seemed to care much about that. It was because he was "not French enough" but more specifically because he was Chinese (he talked of being the target of anti-Chinese racism).

It makes me wonder if there'll be a similar outcry when plans for a new roof and spire for Notre Dame are unveiled. There's a lot of voices now calling for an exact restoration (though possibly with modern techniques and materials), despite the fact that the spire was just a 19th Century attempt at copying the original medieval spire, except with the medieval-ness dialed up to 11.
posted by theory at 12:07 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

I worked in Kennedy Theater at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on and off for over a decade and it will always be the theater to which I compare all other theaters. Thank you, Mr. Pei.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:03 PM on May 17

Pei wasn't a great urban planner, and his larger projects often ran into grim political realities that compromised their vision (as happened in Denver and DC). This wasn't exactly limited to Pei's work either -- large-scale urban-renewal projects (particularly from this era) have a seriously mixed track-record.

I can't really blame Denver for sacrificing the work of a famous architect in favor of building urban space that actually worked on a human-scale.
posted by schmod at 2:05 PM on May 17


Oh my gosh, 102 years of age is a feat. I never knew I.M. Pei's name until today, which makes me sad. Similarly and differently, I'm reminded of when I discovered Zaha Hadid too upon her untimely death.
posted by one teak forest at 4:54 PM on May 17

posted by Mouse Army at 5:28 PM on May 17

posted by Standard Orange at 11:04 PM on May 17

posted by mmascolino at 8:16 AM on May 18

They currently have a little table set up at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art with a framed statement and some flowers. It's next to the wall by the entrance where it says "ARCHITECT / I.M. PEI & PARTNERS".
posted by hyperbolic at 5:10 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

posted by riverlife at 10:46 PM on May 18

posted by radwolf76 at 7:24 PM on May 19

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