History Lesson: I.M. Pei

Ieoh Ming Pei, more commonly known as I.M. Pei, was a Chinese-American architect who moved to the United States in 1935 to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Once arriving Pei was so discouraged by the teaching style of his professors and intimidated by the skill levels of his peers that he decided to transfer to MIT and changed his major to engineering. However, not long after arriving, the dean of MIT’s architecture school noticed his eye for design and encouraged Pei to switch back to architecture.

Pei was most inspired by Swiss architect, Le Corbusier and had the opportunity to meet him when he visited MIT. Pei referred to the time Corbusier visited MIT as “the most important day in my architectural education.” Pei graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in architecture.

After graduating, he joined the Harvard Graduate School of Design and befriended architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. In 1948, Pei was recruited by William Zeckendorf and worked for seven years before establishing his own independent design firm, I. M. Pei & Associates, in 1955 which later became Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Pei retired from full-time practice in 1990.

Check out a few of his most popular works below:

Louvre Pyramid

Pei was the first foreigner to work on the Louvre. He proposal included a central entrance to link the three museum buildings. At the center of his design was a large pyramid made of glass and steel. At the time, there was large opposition from the Louvre director and even the majority of the citizens of Paris. As a response to his, Pei placed a full-size model of pyramid in the courtyard. Almost 60,000 people visited the Louvre to see it and Pei gained enough support to go ahead with his plans. The courtyard was opened to the public in 1988 and the pyramid entrance opened a few months later. The Louvre Pyramid is considered Pei’s most famous structure.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

One project Pei considered his “most important commission” was the John F. Kennedy Library. This library was built as a memorial after the President’s assassination in 1963. Jackie Kennedy picked Pei to complete the project. Pei had to submit multiple designs and site locations before the project was moved to Columbia Point. The new design included a large glass-enclosed atrium and a circular walkway. The Library was dedicated in October 1979.

National Gallery East Building

In the 1960s, directors of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. offered Pei the commission on a new building.

Pei took to the project and his first obstacle was the unusual shape of the site. Inspiration struck Pei in 1968, when he scrawled a rough diagram of two triangles on a scrap of paper. The larger building would be the public gallery; the smaller would house offices and archives. This triangular shape became a singular vision for the architect.

Pei expected large crowds of people to visit the new building, so he planned accordingly. He designed a large lobby roofed with skylights. Individual galleries are located along the sides, which allowed visitors to return after viewing each exhibit to the main room.

The East Building was unveiled to the public in June 1978. Large crowds visited the new museum, and critics generally voiced their approval. Fellow architect Allan Greenberg called the building a “masterpiece.”

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