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How I.M. Pei mastered the big idea

Nowhere is Pei’s architectural legerdemain on greater display than in Boston, which he helped transform from a rundown city into an innovation center.

How I.M. Pei mastered the big idea
[Photo: Ted Dully/The Boston Globe/Getty Images]

I.M. Pei made a powerful impression on me long before we met. I first encountered him not in person but in a documentary film titled A Place To Be, which I saw in my final year in architecture school. The film chronicles his creation of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, and it reveals an architect at the peak of his powers, inventing new fabrication processes and collaborating with scores of others to realize his unique design. There’s a scene in which skilled cabinet makers and workers in hard hats work side by side, hand-sanding and oiling thousands of square feet of clear-grained fir. They are crafting pyramidal forms for architectural concrete. The resulting concrete waffle will span the top of the main gallery, virtually impossible to inspect close-up, but Pei knows his ceiling must have a finish as fine as the polished Tennessee marble of the walls.

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Architects around the world regard Pei, who died last week at the age of 102, as a master who used the symbolism of form to tell stories and communicate ideas. The Louvre Pyramid (1989) proves that bold geometric forms can live in perfect harmony with centuries-old civic architecture, and that subterranean design, which comprises most of the project, can also be an artistic statement. The Bank of China building in Hong Kong (1990) announces the financial prominence of China to the world.

Boston Government Center [Photo: Flickr user Eric James]

We are moved by the precision and faithfulness he shows to his work. There is never a line or curve wasted; it all contributes to the whole. And nowhere is that more evident than in the city of Boston.

I arrived in Boston in 1979, and over the next 40 years saw I.M. Pei’s ideas transform the city and neighboring Cambridge. Pei started his relationship to the cities when he was an architecture student at MIT, then a graduate student at Harvard, and later briefly teaching at Harvard. He returned again and again, ultimately creating six buildings and one master plan as principal designer, with several more iconic spaces completed by his firm.

Beginning with his 1961 master plan for Boston’s Government Center, Pei’s ideas helped transform Boston’s image of itself from a stodgy, conservative, and parochial East Coast enclave into a modern, tech-driven urban center of innovation and art, science, and creativity.

MIT Green Building [Photo: Flickr user Joe Pitha]

The master plan created a grand collection of civic buildings and spaces of a scale appropriate to an important city. Bostonians often mourn the loss of Scollay Square, a vibrant public square downtown, but at the time it epitomized the urban decline of Boston from the Great Depression into the 1960s. Even the publicly unloved City Hall (1968, designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles) is an important building in the development of Boston past its midcentury parochialism. Like Pei’s master plan, it sends a message that Boston would reassert its place in the world with an important civic gesture.

He was also unafraid to break the rules. His Green Building on the MIT campus (1964) is a muscular tower soaring amid traditional campus buildings, as if to announce the raw power of its concrete composition. (Students have taken a more playful view; in 2012 they created a vast game of Tetris on its gridded exterior in what was called “the holy grail of hacks.”) Pei designed three more modernist buildings at MIT.

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The National Gallery of Art’s East Building, Washington, D.C. [Photo: BrianPIrwin/iStock]
I admire Pei’s steadfast commitment to his principles, a personal modernism, which he never compromised by sliding into fashion. Throughout his long career, Pei never let whatever style was in vogue distract him from his own vision. He caught hell from the public and critics when the design for the Louvre pyramid was unveiled, but he persisted and today it’s universally regarded as an historic milestone in modern architecture.

Pei was probably our last direct connection to the original Bauhaus movement, which just saw its centennial. When he was a student and teacher in Cambridge in the 1940s, he worked with Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Like them, he was an unashamed modernist. Gropius was as much a political and social philosopher as an architect, and he encouraged and even insisted on collaboration among architects. In Pei’s case, the collaboration was with other artists, artisans, and craftsmen.

When my firm created a small installation in Pei’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, I met Pei and found him just as charming, friendly and unpretentious as the man I had seen years before in that documentary. I saw that his temperament was an integral part of his global success, and I was reminded of another moment in A Place To Be:

Three world-famous artists–Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, and Henry Moore–have been commissioned to create sculptures for the East Building at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Early in the project, Pei visits each to discuss the forthcoming work. Easily alternating French and English, he dives deep into discussion about how their nonexistent artwork must relate to his nonexistent building, carefully considering light, shadow, placement, and the correct conceptual relationships among art, building, and public. He meets with Calder’s foundry to solve the problem of making a vast mobile light enough to move in the light air of a gallery interior. He reassures Moore about the changing qualities of light where Moore’s bronze will stand. He models Dubuffet’s manic sculpture with crumpled paper as the chain-smoking artist frets and worries, but finally delights in Pei’s suggested placement.

Pei was more than charming; on a project he was also an artist talking shop with other artists. His singular combination of creativity, joy, and discipline won their confidence.

You can see that in Boston, at the Museum of Fine Arts West Wing (1981), which followed his triumph at the National Gallery. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable commented, “The Boston building offers a full measure of elegance, dignity, and delight . . . The intricate relationships are both real and implied.” She concluded, “[This] is where art and architecture are going–together.”

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The work of architects outlasts their lives, but only a handful are remembered as larger-than-life personalities. Because I.M. Pei made harmony within conflicting domains of artistic discipline, public narrative, and human empathy, he created the greatest portfolio of buildings of the late 20th century–in Boston and beyond.

David P. Manfredi is CEO and founding principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects.

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