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Beyond IM Pei’s pyramid

There’s more to IM Pei than his iconic structure at the Louvre — here are five of the star architect’s best buildings

May 24, 2019 06:24 pm | Updated May 25, 2019 03:05 pm IST

In the past week, plenty has been said and written about Ieoh Ming Pei’s 70-year-long career. I’d say two aspects of his personality were integral to understanding the architect. First, how his migrant identity informed his work. The post-war era was a different time, and America, a different country. Today, the migrant is unduly vilified for taking over. But Pei’s work was very giving — he made the kind of buildings that are important for nations and their identity. Like the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, or the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. In the inital phase of his career, he also created lower-income housing, bringing modernism to the masses. Secondly, he was not averse to educating himself, even in his latter years. It’s a rare trait in star architects. He freely admitted that he learned from other people’s work — he credited Le Corbusier’s Secretariat Building in Chandigarh as the inspiration for the Dallas City Hall. For these reasons, his was arguably one of the most prolific, productive and empathetic practices classical modernism has produced. Architect and urbanist Madhav Raman is the co-founder of Delhi-based Anagram Architects. As told to Susanna Myrtle Lazarus.

Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, USA, 1973: I’ve spent a lot of time here when I was at Ithaca. There’s a lot of history behind the location; it is the hill where Ezra Cornell stood and decided to establish his eponymous university. We expect a museum to be a sprawl, but he didn’t disrupt the campus or spill over. Instead, he stretched it upwards. He also put in massive voids and terraces, that did not intrude into the historical view of Cayuga Lake. This is similar to what he did with the pyramid at Louvre Museum in Paris. He gave it something functional, without competing with the tradition (which is very important to French culture).

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ohio, USA, 1990-95: You might not expect a man born in 1917 to be associated with the rock and roll culture of the late 80s. When he started this project, he asked his kids for the latest in the genre, since the last band he had listened to was The Beatles. He didn’t pretend to know, nor did he say he wouldn’t do it just because it was unfamiliar territory. Seeing this building from the outside, I was struck by how much movement he had given it using platonic geometry. And despite its bulk, he made it seem light on its feet.

Luce Memorial Chapel, Taichung, Taiwan 1963: Pei designed this while simultaneously working on Kips Bay Towers (a housing project) in Manhattan. He stepped away from the rigidity of his modernist forms to give the steeple a curved plane, while the lattice on the ceiling was incredibly innovative for its time. Only now are people trying something similar using computers.

Oare Tea House Pavilion, Wiltshire, UK 2003: In the English countryside, Pei designed the Oare Tea House Pavilion inspired by Chinese architecture, including pagodas. Suzhou Museum (2006) also has a similar structure, but in a heritage setting. Both are incredibly modern in the way they have been built. They have no references to traditional architecture: it is all modern, completely industrial material. There’s also the play of light. His intention was always to sculpt light, which is also seen in earlier projects like the Roosevelt Field Mall in New York (1951), where the central atrium ceiling is all glass. This is why he makes such great museums.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar 2008: One of his last big buildings. Pei admitted that he knew nothing about Islamic architecture when he was comissioned to design it. He spent time travelling through Turkey, Iran and Egypt teaching himself the essentials. He translated this understanding into a modernist structure. There are no caricatures of arches, and no one can accuse it of being ill-informed or a Western opinion of what Islamic architecture is. He did not compromise on his inherent style, but stuck to the solid, polygonal shapes, straight lines and edges, with an incredibly sleek finish.

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In the past week, plenty has been said and written about Ieoh Ming Pei’s 70-year-long career. I’d say two aspects of his personality were integral to understanding the architect. First, how his migrant identity informed his work. The post-war era was a different time, and America, a different country. Today, the migrant is unduly vilified for taking over. But Pei’s work was very giving — he made the kind of buildings that are important for nations and their identity. Like the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, or the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. In the inital phase of his career, he also created lower-income housing, bringing modernism to the masses. Secondly, he was not averse to educating himself, even in his latter years. It’s a rare trait in star architects. He freely admitted that he learned from other people’s work — he credited Le Corbusier’s Secretariat Building in Chandigarh as the inspiration for the Dallas City Hall. For these reasons, his was arguably one of the most prolific, productive and empathetic practices classical modernism has produced. Architect and urbanist Madhav Raman is the co-founder of Delhi-based Anagram Architects. As told to Susanna Myrtle Lazarus.

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