June 18, 2019

The Greatness of I.M. Pei

“Architecture, especially in America, is an old man’s game, and no one was older than I.M. Pei, who died on May 16 at 102. Even in a profession where major commissions rarely materialize before a man (and, beginning only recently, a woman) is well past fifty, it is hard for anyone alive today to remember a time when I.M. Pei was not a dominant, commanding figure. Over half a century and more, he designed some of the finest public and private buildings in America, as well as in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. No one was surprised when he became one of the first winners of the Pritzker Prize (often called architecture’s Nobel) and the first architect awarded Japan’s Praemium Imperiale.

Born in Canton in 1917 to a wealthy banking family, Ieoh Ming Pei knew from an early age that he wanted to create buildings. To that end he came as a teenager to the United States and trained in modernism at MIT and Harvard, where he was mentored by Walter Gropius, one of the gods of the International Style.

But the style that most defined Pei’s practice was not so much the International Style as Brutalism, which emerged out of it in the postwar years and was partially a response to it. So-called because its favored material was béton brut or raw, unfaced concrete and also because it favored simple, aggressive volumes, Brutalism, as practiced by Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph was a strident, abrasive intervention into any architectural context in which it was found. Disruption was the entire point. Pei, however, altered it into a medium of grace and refinement, and it is difficult not to feel that there must be some correlation between that mood and the unfailingly genial elegance of his own manners. These qualities are supremely present in two of the finest residential developments ever to rise in Manhattan, the Kips Bay Houses and the Silver Towers, both of them conceived for the influential developer, William Zeckendorf. Here, across the flawlessly geometric, honeycombed modules of the facades, raw concrete assumed the polish and élan that limestone had achieved in the days of Louis Quinze.”

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