Ieoh Ming Pei (1917–2019) was arguably the most important architect of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, having designed iconic buildings and civic spaces across the world during a remarkable 70-year career.
1917 – 1935
Life in China
1935 – 1948
Early Years in the United States
1948 – 1960
Webb & Knapp Real Estate Corp.
1958 – 1965
I.M. Pei & Associates
1966 – 1989
I.M. Pei & Partners
1990 – 2008
Retirement and Independent Practice
Although frequently celebrated as “the senior statesman of Modernism,” he never embraced the view that a building is just a pure abstract form, but instead, carefully positioned each in its own physical and cultural contexts, respecting history and place when other architects typically did not. Pei’s big-picture approach saw buildings as part of an organic whole inseparable from the landscape and, whenever possible, monumental works of art. How his buildings related to neighbors and to the larger city, and how they reflected contemporary life, were driving concerns. Design was always paramount, but he was also deeply committed to the craftsmanship of architecture — how buildings are made — and challenged technology to the highest levels of achievement.
Pei’s buildings are distinguished by their refinement, precision detailing, and complexity distilled to apparent simplicity. Exacting geometric masses provided the framework for his architecture but always in response to a building’s site or program, rather than geometry for its own sake. Nothing is random, no line is unconnected. Everything is balanced in rhythmic asymmetry and charged by exciting spatial relationships that can seem magical, almost spiritual in his best work. Regular people not schooled in architecture sense something special in Pei’s buildings even if they can’t explain it. The response is often tactile: as telltale stains attest, people like to touch his buildings’ sharp angles and textured walls.
The foundations of Pei’s architecture lay in his seamless integration of Eastern and Western influences. Educated in the United States by Bauhaus émigrés, he was by his own admission a modern Western architect — but with strong ties to his native China. Most impactful were recollections of Suzhou, the Pei family’s ancestral home for more than six centuries, specifically the Lion Grove family garden dating back to the Ming dynasty. It was there that young Ieoh Ming learned the ancient Chinese cultural traditions that he, as the eldest son, would be expected to maintain. Playing among the lion-like rockeries that gave the garden its name, he discovered the nuances of changing light, the intrigue of shifting perspectives, and the drama of experiential paths of movement through spaces not seen as a whole, but revealed sequentially, step by step, in carefully framed views. All of this was foundational for Pei’s architecture.
Most profoundly, he learned the essential oneness of man and nature in continuum through time, the built environment in balance with the natural world. Pei never indulged in style or in the many architectural “isms” of the past half-century but remained committed to the art of pure architectural form. Drawing on a cultural legacy that stretched back thousands of years, his goal was to make an enduring contribution beyond ephemeral fashion.
I.M. Pei was very much a citizen of the world, having worked in 18 countries on four continents. He expanded the scope of his architecture to include intangibles like diplomacy, politics, economics, social and symbolic needs. He worked with artists, presidents, kings, corporate magnates, and spiritual leaders, but engaged equally with ordinary people. More than any other architect, he transformed museums from the privileged refuge of connoisseurs into vital centers of popular culture. In the process, he introduced quality architecture to a broader public and became a household name, somewhat of a cross-cultural folk hero, especially to aspiring architects and young immigrants inspired to achieve.
Upon his 100th birthday in 2017, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) saluted Pei as “the smiling face of the profession.” His son, L.C. (Sandi) Pei explained that it was not a smile of self-satisfaction, but a warm expression of sincerity and openness. Confidence. I.M. Pei was modest and genteel, and treated everyone with dignity and respect. In a profession very often conflicted by high-stake disputes, particularly over schedule and budget, Pei — a brilliant strategist with a steel will — charmed his clients and made them friends. In their service, but always with an eye toward the greater public good, he created a wide range of building types, including landmark high-rises, office campuses, commercial buildings, hotels, large-scale housing, schools, laboratories, health care facilities, government compounds, aviation projects, community development, performing arts centers, chapels, and hardly least, designs for nearly two dozen museums.
The gauge of I.M. Pei’s success is marked, in part, by the fact that he received every major award offered by his profession, including the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Architectural Firm Award, which was given to I.M. Pei & Partners in 1968 in recognition of its richly collaborative practice. Among the most significant honors conferred on Pei individually were the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture (1976), the Gold Medal for Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1979), the AIA Gold Medal (1979), the National Medal of Arts (the highest arts award granted by the U.S. government, 1988), and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale (1989). He was one of only 12 people ever to receive the United States Medal of Liberty (1986) and six years later, was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom (1992). In recognition of his work on the Louvre, Pei was inducted into the French Légion d’honneur as a Chevalier in 1988 and subsequently elevated to Officier. He was awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2010.
Perhaps most significant was the Pritzker Prize (1983). Broadly considered the most important award in the field of architecture, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, it is granted to “a living architect whose built work has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity through the art of architecture.” With the $100,000 prize money, Pei established a scholarship for Chinese architecture students to study in the United States (offering the same opportunity he had enjoyed) but with the proviso that they return to China to practice (as Pei himself had intended to do but was not permitted by China’s civil war).
Life in China (1917 – 1934)
Life in China (1917 – 1934)
I.M. Pei was born on April 26, 1917. His mother, Lien Kwun, a devout Buddhist, was an accomplished calligrapher, flutist, and poet. His father, Tsuyee Pei, was a banker, as was his grandfather Li-tai Pei. Historically, the Pei family had practiced medicine and were purveyors of medicinal herbs; by the eighteenth century, they were landed gentry and one of the famous “four wealthy families of Suzhou.” Fifteen generations of Peis had lived in Suzhou, dating back to the middle of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Located some fifty miles northwest of Shanghai, the city was an important financial and commercial hub as well as a center of scholarship, craftsmanship, and the arts. “The Venice of the East,” it was famous for its many bridges and canals and especially for its gardens (numbering in the hundreds and representing the peak of classical Chinese garden design).
The Pei family was known for its charity and good works. During famine, as opportunistic merchants raised the cost of food, Pei ancestors had slashed prices and forgave personal debt in great numbers. In 1917, grandfather Li-tai Pei established a new bank in Suzhou to help local businesses and allowed the general public to open accounts with just a single silver dollar. He went on to found Suzhou’s first kindergarten, an orphanage, and hospital, contributed to public welfare, building roads in the manner of the ruling class. In the early decades of the 20th century, as civil war ravaged China, Li-tai paid plundering marauders to spare Suzhou from ruin.
In 1914, 22-year-old Tsuyee Pei accepted a job in the accounting department of the Bank of China (BOC) in Peking, and thus launched a brilliant 6-decade career in world finance. In 1917, he became the bank manager in Canton (Guangzhou); it was there that Ieoh Ming was born, the second of five children. Tsuyee soon ran afoul of local warlords for refusing their demands to release the bank’s assets and was forced to flee with his family to Hong Kong, where he re-established the Canton branch bank under the safety of British rule. Tsuyee quickly distinguished himself in arbitrage, buying and selling foreign currencies to maximize profits from different exchange rates.
In 1927, Tsuyee Pei was promoted to manager of BOC’s headquarters in Shanghai, one of the world’s largest cities and a bustling nexus of Western commerce and culture. The family lived a privileged life in a 2-story house in the French Concession. Shortly after the move, Ieoh Ming’s mother fell ill with cancer. Warm and loving (as opposed to Pei’s relationship with his father, which was respectful and formal), she was the greatest influence on his young life. Pei remembered many years later how she taught him to “listen to silence” as he was made to sit quietly during her long hours of meditation. Ieoh Ming alone among his siblings was allowed to accompany his mother on Buddhist retreats. In sickness, he had the honor of preparing the opium pipe prescribed for her pain. Lien Kwun’s death was a devastating loss for 13-year-old Ieoh Ming, but as the eldest son, his comportment was expected. Tsuyee Pei remarried three years later after which the children were raised by an amah (nanny) under the supervision of grandfather Li-tai Pei.
Ieoh Ming attended St. John’s Middle School and high school at prestigious St. John’s University, the so-called “Harvard of China.” Run by American missionaries, the rigorous boarding school regimen was taught primarily in English. Pei was an excellent, but not bookish, student who enjoyed more entertaining aspects of Shanghai’s Westernized culture, including billiards (which he mastered) and motion pictures. He especially liked films with Bing Crosby and Betty Grable and, indeed, Hollywood’s fun-loving depictions of college life led him to study in the United States.
At the other end of the spectrum, balancing a life grounded in both East and West, was Pei’s grandfather Li-tai, who schooled him in ancient cultural traditions like calligraphy, ancestor worship, and Confucian codes of conduct during summer visits to Suzhou. Central to the experience was the Lion Grove, a fourteenth-century garden that Ieoh Ming’s grand-uncle Runsheng Pei bought for 800,000 silver dollars in 1917, restored, and gave to the extended family. The Lion Grove offered quiet refuge in a carefully composed setting of water, plants, and rocks in microcosmic recreation of the natural world. As family elders gathered, the children played among the fantastical rock formations that were the garden’s most distinctive features.
Pei later acknowledged the profound influence of the Lion Grove on his work. Its rocks – the equivalent of sculpture in Western gardens – were shaped by artist rock farmers in concert with natural forces. Carefully selecting and then roughly chiseling individual rocks (usually porous volcanic varieties), they would place the raw-shaped boulders strategically at the edge of a lake or stream where running water would erode them over years or generations to produce the desired shape. “This sense of connection, of continuity, is an extremely telling aspect of Chinese culture – the father will sow, the son will reap – and, in principle, it is a primary impulse in considering the results of any action….My own development…is very much in that spirit,” Pei explained. “Creativity is the result of both human ingenuity and nature.”
When the question of Ieoh Ming’s future arose, his father hoped he would choose medicine or finance, but the former found him squeamish and the latter, with its many pressures, seemed unfulfilling. Intrigued instead by the construction of Shanghai’s new 24-story Park Hotel, a dizzying 275 feet when everything else was barely a quarter of that height, Pei decided to study architecture. The idea of a building that tall, he recalled, “was as exciting to me as a trip to the moon for a young man today. I decided that was the kind of work I wanted to do.”
But at age 17, he was not really sure, what architecture was, whether construction, engineering, or design. There was no established profession of architecture in China at the time (although Pei’s uncle Shoutong was among the first Chinese to study architecture in the West/Germany, beginning in 1910). Captivated by college catalogs and alluring feature films, Ieoh Ming decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania, which had a strong history of Chinese enrollment dating back to the 1820s.
Tsuyee Pei went on to play an important role in the development of modern banking in China. In 1934, as Ieoh Ming was preparing for college, he helped stabilize the country’s fluctuating currency and transition to a more reliable paper currency known as fapi; his signature appeared on the front of banknotes issued by the Bank of China. He subsequently became acting general manager of the Bank of China, and then governor in 1946, and held other influential positions, including in 1952 a directorship of C.V. Starr & Company, an insurance and investment enterprise in the United States and Asia. Tsuyee Pei’s global network would open many doors for his architect son. His long association with the Bank of China began a multi-generational Pei legacy forged 3-dimensionally by I.M. Pei with the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, and continued by his sons at PEI Architects with several new buildings for BOC around the world (pei-architects.com).
Early Years in the United States (1935 – 1948)
Early Years in the United States (1935 – 1948)
On August 13, 1935, 17-year-old Ieoh Ming Pei left Shanghai aboard the SS President Coolidge, the largest and finest luxury ocean liner then built in America. He and J.D. Woo, a classmate from St. John’s, were among some two dozen Chinese students bound for college in the United States. The following day, when the ship docked at Nagasaki, Japan, Pei took a 600-mile train ride to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (1923). He likely knew the building, Wright’s self-proclaimed masterpiece, from architectural magazines given to him in Shanghai by Wai Szeto, Pei’s surveying instructor and later, an important architect and engineer. Wright was to be a significant influence on Pei’s career.
Ieoh Ming returned to the ship in nearby Yokohama for the 14-day Pacific crossing to San Francisco. He arrived at Angel Island on August 28th “with an unbelievable sense of joy.” Equipped with a student visa, signed by the American Consulate General in Shanghai (which specified in writing that he had the full financial support of his wealthy father), he bypassed the difficulties experienced by many other Asians, who were barred entry into the U.S. by the Immigration Act of 1924. Indeed, Pei’s privileged station in life shielded him from the hardships of the Great Depression, then in full force across the country – it was not the happy, worry-free portrait painted by Hollywood movies.
University of Pennsylvania
A banking associate of Pei’s father greeted him and J.D. Woo in San Francisco and showed them the city before the teenagers boarded a cross-country train to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Pei arrived with a personal introduction to the dean of the Department of Architecture, from an extended family friend. After a half-day’s tour of the school, the dean unwittingly turned Pei away from its Beaux-Arts curriculum on a stair landing featuring a student’s beautiful rendering of a Tibetan temple. It was a world that Pei, coming from China, thought he should more rightly know, but didn’t, and in a style of painting so masterful that he felt intimidated. Pei transferred two weeks later to study engineering at MIT, explaining to his father that Penn was more interested in what he called “the art of architecture,” i.e., lavish depiction, and felt he could not compete.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge and neighboring Boston were a better fit, more cosmopolitan and less prejudiced in their mix of students and teachers from around the world. Pei was introduced to high society by his father’s friend William Barnard, the young man’s guardian in the United States. Barnard’s inner circle of Boston brahmins included William Emerson, a descendant of the great poet/ philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and fortuitously, dean of the School of Architecture at MIT.
Emerson took a personal interest in Ieoh Ming (who soon became known as I.M. by students struggling to pronounce his name). It was Emerson who convinced Pei to switch from engineering to architecture after his first year. He was hesitant, still discouraged by his perceived inability to draw, to which Emerson stammered: “Nonsense! I never met a Chinese who can’t draw!” The dean was proved right: in all five years at MIT, Pei passed his drawing and design classes with honors, as indeed, he did most others. He won at least nine significant awards in architecture and design, including the Freehand Drawing Prize in 1939 and in the following year, MIT’s Travel Fellowship “for having the best scholastic record in his graduating class.
Pei’s father had a banker friend at Irving Trust who knew the celebrated architect Ralph Walker, and through him I.M. Pei secured a summer job in 1937 at the prestigious firm of Vorhees Gmelin & Walker in New York. His first assignment was to measure and upgrade toilets in Harlem – part of a larger effort by the mortgage-owning banks to bring living conditions up to legal minimum requirements. To be sure, it was not a glamorous beginning but, in the depths of the Depression, Pei was happy to have a job. He returned the next summer when the firm was designing the Petroleum Industry Exhibition pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was an early exposure to the triangular geometries that Pei would later use with greater purity in his own designs and an exciting alternative to the traditional Beaux-Arts architecture still taught at MIT (and at virtually every other architecture school in the U.S.)
In search of inspiration, Pei drove to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, Wisconsin in the summer of 1939. Wright was then the most famous architect in America and Pei was drawn naturally to his blend of East and West in harmony with nature. Having already visited Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, he wanted to know more. Pei arrived after the 1,000-mile trip only to learn that Wright was away and was greeted instead by a pack of dogs that surrounded and scratched his car as others stood by laughing. Wright’s son-in-law (among the onlookers) subsequently showed Pei around, but their exchange was unpleasant and turned Pei away. He was alienated by the school’s cult-like atmosphere and its treatment of Wright as a god. “Had I liked [Taliesin],” he said, “I would have stayed. That would have changed everything.” With summer still ahead, Pei continued on to Los Angeles, where he found temporary employment in the office of Walker & Eisen…designing a prison. “It was awful.”
In November 1935, shortly after he arrived at MIT, Pei had attended two lectures by Le Corbusier in Boston. Insolent and arrogant, and speaking through a translator, few understood the Swiss architect, but he captivated the audience with his dynamic drawings and revolutionary architecture without ornament. He “shocked us out of complacency,” Pei recalled. Those two days were “the two most important of my early career.” As there were no teachers to teach the new architecture, Pei taught himself in the library, devouring monthly architecture magazines that published the Bauhaus, new developments in Europe, and especially Le Corbusier’s books, which became Pei’s “Bible.” He bought his own copies, as his funds allowed.
What Le Corbusier offered was freedom. The influence of his Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau was evident in Pei’s undergraduate thesis for “Standardized Propaganda Units for China.” But the true driving force was Pei’s despair over the situation at home. His thesis called for lightweight mobile shelters equipped with changeable lacquer panels that would signal news with different colors, like semaphore, and educate the masses, who migrated to the countryside when war broke out. Pei was committed to helping. With his travel fellowship (originally intended for Europe, but prevented by World War II), he drove 8,000 miles criss-crossing the United States to visit manufacturers of prefabricated building materials, all of which he planned to use in China’s reconstruction. He was eager to begin right after graduation, but his father cautioned him to wait. Had Pei returned to China, he would never have enjoyed the same opportunities offered by post-war prosperity in the United States, particularly in New York City.
Pei’s connection to China was buoyed by Eileen (Anglicized Ai-ling) Loo, a well to do student at Wellesley College, whose grandfather had been China’s Ambassador to the United States and whose father was an early Chinese graduate of MIT (1916). They met at Grand Central Terminal in 1938 when, after sailing from China, Miss Loo took the train from San Francisco to New York, before heading north to Boston. Pei had arranged to meet a fellow member of F.F., a Chinese fraternity fostering student support; the frat brother happened to be Eileen’s friend. Pei offered her a ride, but she had already bought her ticket. When he later learned that a storm delayed Eileen’s train, he used the mishap as an excuse to call…and ask for a date. They married four years later, just days after Eileen graduated. For the next 72 years, until her death in 2014, Eileen was I.M.’s unfailing support.
While waiting to return home, Pei worked in the Boston architectural offices of John M. Gray and Samuel Glaser. He then spent 18 months at Stone and Webster, an engineering firm where he advanced the investigation of concrete that he had begun at MIT, and which would later play such an important role in his architecture.
With Eileen enrolled in the landscape architecture program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) and with his student immigration status about to expire, Pei determined to continue his research into building materials at Harvard and was awarded a Wheelwright Fellowship to do so. (He was not required to register for a degree.) As the Nazis had condemned and closed the Bauhaus, its founder Walter Gropius accepted a position at Harvard and, with other Bauhaus refugees, championed the new architecture that Pei had longed to know.
But, with the growing war effort, I.M. Pei soon suspended his studies to work at the National Defense Research Committee in Princeton, New Jersey. As a member of an Operations Analysis Group, his mission was to study the behavior of buildings in terms of both air blast and earth shock. The thinking was that, as an architect, he knew how to build buildings and thus he would also know how best to destroy them. Moral qualms were mollified by Japan’s invasion of China and attack on Pearl Harbor. While Pei later lamented his role as a fusing expert, the experience had a collateral benefit in advancing his knowledge of vibration and wind stresses on structural loading.
Pei returned to Harvard two years later, in 1945, to study with Walter Gropius, the pedagogue, and personally more important, Marcel Breuer, who became Pei’s close friend and taught him about space and light and the essential human dimension of architecture. Although still a student, 29-year-old Pei was hired as an instructor and then assistant professor (Harvard’s youngest) in 1946. He was popular and considered one of the best teachers in the school.
Gropius instilled multidisciplinary collaboration in the creation of a total work of art and the standardization of industrialized parts in what was to be a truly international style of architecture; it was an impassioned crusade to remake the world through a common built language. Coming from a different culture with its own history, traditions, and regional climate, Pei questioned whether such considerations shouldn’t be expressed. Gropius challenged him to prove it.
Several months later, Pei presented a scheme for a museum of Chinese art in Shanghai intimately scaled for traditionally small precious objects – jade, ivory, embroidery, ancient scrolls – rather than the large paintings and sculpture housed in monumental western museums. Enclosed by the blank street walls that typically defined inward-facing Chinese residences, the whole was organized around a series of small gardens because, as Pei explained, “all forms of Chinese art are directly or indirectly [the] results of a sensitive observation of nature.” The design incorporates a modernist skeletal frame (and indeed, shows the influence of the unbuilt 1943 scheme for “A Museum for a Small City” by Bauhaus master Mies van der Rohe).
Gropius declared the project the best he’d ever seen. For Pei, it was an early statement of what would be an ongoing quest to develop a specifically Chinese form of modern architecture without resort to historical motifs. As he explained in a letter to his friend Frederick Roth in 1946, it was his “Impossible Dream.”
After receiving his Master’s Degree in Architecture in 1946, Pei continued to teach at Harvard for the next two years, still waiting to return to China. Along the way, he took on temporary jobs to earn a little extra money, working for three summers with Hugh Stubbins and then assisting Walter Gropius on his design for Hua Tung University in Shanghai.
In 1948, Pei was visited by Dick Abbott from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Abbott had been recommended as a talent scout by Nelson Rockefeller to help his friend, real estate developer William Zeckendorf, find a talented architect to implement the grand building plan he envisioned. As Zeckendorf explained, he was a modern Medici in search of a modern Leonardo da Vinci. After interviewing a dozen or so architects, Dick Abbott recommended I.M. Pei.
Webb & Knapp Real Estate Corp. (1948 – 1960)
Webb & Knapp Real Estate Corp. (1948 – 1960)
I.M. Pei & Associates (1958 – 1965)
I.M. Pei & Associates (1958 – 1965)
I.M. Pei & Partners (1966 – 1989)
I.M. Pei & Partners (1966 – 1989)
Retirement and Independent Practice (1990 – 2008)
Retirement and Independent Practice (1990 – 2008)