BEIJING | The legacy of American architect I.M. Pei stretches from west to east, from the Louvre museum to his native China, where he helped fuse tradition and modernity as the country opened up after the Cultural Revolution.
Pei, who died earlier this week at the age of 102, added elegance to landscapes worldwide with powerful geometric shapes and grand spaces, from a trapezoidal addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the giant glass pyramid at the Louvre.
Born in southern China, he migrated to the United States and was one of the first overseas architects to visit China during its initial period of opening up, said Tan Xin, a garden designer who worked with him in the early 1980s on the Fragrant Hill Hotel, which still stands on the outskirts of Beijing.
Pei was highly influential in helping Chinese architects and landscapers imagine how Chinese architecture could be modernized while retaining its traditional elements.
“He was so modest and unassuming,” Tan said in an interview Friday at her Beijing office. “Even though he was Chinese American, he loved China and traditional Chinese culture. In our architectural and cultural worlds at the time, he was a pioneer.”
While the Fragrant Hill, or “Xiangshan,” hotel is widely considered one of Pei’s less successful works, he adapted the same concepts to the much-loved Suzhou Museum, situated in his family’s southeastern ancestral home.
The museum blends features of Suzhou’s famed classical gardens and white stucco dwellings with a modern facade of steel and glass. He endearingly called it his “young daughter.”
Pei “has made important contributions to the mutual understanding between the Chinese and American people and the exchange of eastern and western cultures for a long time,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said Friday.
Ieoh Ming Pei (YEE-oh ming PAY) was born on April 26, 1917, in Canton, China, the city now called Guangzhou. He came to the United States in 1935 with plans to study architecture, then return to practice in China. However, World War II and the revolution in China prevented him from going back.
Inspired by the 1930s building boom as a schoolboy in Shanghai, Pei 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 established his own architectural firm in 1955, a year after he became a U.S. citizen. He remained based in New York City. Among the firm’s accomplishments are the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
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 for his grand-scale projects and working with a cast of engineers and developers.
Some of his designs were met with much controversy, such as the 71-foot faceted glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre museum in Paris. Then 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 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.”
No challenge seemed to be too great for Pei, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which sits on the shore of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Pei, who admitted he was just catching up with the Beatles, researched the roots of rock ‘n’ roll and came up with an array of contrasting shapes for the museum. He topped it off with a transparent tent-like structure, which was “open — like the music,” he said.
In 1990, Pei completed the soaring Bank of China tower in Hong Kong, which at 70 stories was Asia’s tallest building at the time. As with the Suzhou Museum, Pei had a personal connection to this project — his father was previously a manager at the bank.
While the tower’s triangular quadrants are unquestionably modern, the base of the structure imitates bamboo shoots as a symbol of a revitalized Chinese culture.
“The design of this building is in itself a very Chinese way of thinking about architecture, and a very innovative way of trying to put Chinese architecture within the dialogue of western architectural theory and practice,” said Andy Xiong, an architecture student.
The building was erected the same year that Pei officially retired, though he 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, whom 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.
McCormack reported from New York. Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela in New York and videojournalist Alice Fung in Hong Kong contributed to this story.