Issue Four | I.M. Pei

Starting in the early 1950s until his retirement in 1990, I.M. Pei flourished on an international scale with a distinct, awe-inspiring modern style. Equipped with degrees from MIT and Harvard, he accomplished more by age 29 than other architects twice his age.

Issue Four | I.M. Pei
Architectural legend I.M. Pei. Image from Archinect.

Alright, so this post starts with a TV show pilot idea I have.

It's the year 2087. In the gritty sewers of New New York City, a new generation of legendary, reptilian heroes have completed their training under four masters of martial arts.

These new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, like their predecessors, are named after four masters of the arts:

Hadid

Eames

Wright

Pei

Okay, get to the point

Right. This was a roundabout way of saying those four names should be recognized as true arbiters of architecture throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Eames changed how we view something as simple as a chair and defined what we now recognize as mid-century modern furniture design.

Zaha Hadid took the impossible and made it possible, giving cities new skylines adorned with futuristic designs and materials.

Frank Lloyd-Wright was an eclectic man who continually searched for the singularity between man and nature, incorporating both into his work.

Then we have I.M. Pei.

Who's this guy?

I.M. Pei was born in Guangzhou, China in 1917 and moved to the United States in the mid 30s to study architecture. With a degree from MIT in one hand and a degree from Harvard in the other, Pei already accomplished an incredible understanding in architecture and design by the time he was 29 years old.

Starting in the early 1950s until his retirement in 1990, Pei flourished on an international scale with a distinct, awe-inspiring modern style. His works are simply to large to just type, so enjoy this brief gallery of his designs, provided by worldarchitecture.org.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar, 2008
Suzhou Museum, Suzhou, China, 2006
Miho Museum, Kyoto, Japan, 1997
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, USA, 1995
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, USA, 1979
Dallas City Hall, Dallas, USA, 1978

Oh wait, I forgot one...

The Fucking Louvre

That's right. I.M. Pei designed the main entrance to one of the (if not the only) most incredible and famed art museums known to this planet.

Musée du Louvre, à Paris. Image from Encyclopedia Britannica.

The famous glass pyramids that make up the facade of the museum, along with the central lobby, were designed by Pei in 1983 to bring back the sense of grandeur that the palace has been famed for centuries prior. In front of the project was the recently elected French president François Mitterand, who proposed a number of projects on the arts during his time in office. At the time, Palais du Louvre was in a chaotic state and in much need of TLC:

"Here was one of the finest collections of art in the world, yet the historic buildings that housed it were in disrepair, the galleries were disjointed, and more than one visitor got lost down the labyrinthine corridors in search of one of only two public restrooms. Galleries accounted for the bulk of the interior, leaving curators no behind-the-scene space to manage, store, and care for the artworks." – Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, Louvre Pyramid: The Folly that Became a Triumph

I.M. Pei was personally asked by Mitterand to take on the Louvre project. Of course, in typical French matter, an American citizen brought in to headline such a grand display of grandeur was met with a lot of disdain.

A Brief History of Palais du Louvre and Why The French Are Always Angry

I'm going to have to brush the digital dust off my old college notes for this:

15-second history lesson

The current French political system is referred to as La Cinquième République (The Fifth Republic) because the citizens literally overthrew four previous attempts at democracy. Sprinkled between these republics are instances of royal monarchies, empirical monarchies, dictatorships, and all out feudalism. TL;DR, the French get angry easily, and when they do, they tend to take La Marseillaise a little too literally.

Louvre history lesson

Erected in the late 12th Century, the Louvre was first made as a fortress to protect Paris from the oncoming onslaught of the English. It was initially simple in it's design, made only to protect against any nearby threats.

Fast forward to the 14th Century when King Charles V was the first to use the Louvre as more than just a fortress — he had it upgraded to the standards of royalty with the talents of architect Raymond du Temple (also known for being the mastermind behind Notre Dame).

Then the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War in the 15th Century happened (cue the angry French). The Civil War drove royalty out of Paris and into southern France, leaving the Louvre and several other palaces in disarray.  The Louvre would remain in a state of despair until the next century, when a handful of royals consecutively ordered the demolition and construction of wings to the palace.

This cycle tends to continue for a few more centuries and a LOT more angry French people. I highly recommend going through France's history on Wikipedia. It's a total rabbit hole.

Pei's Struggle

All this to say Pei had a challenge on two different fronts when it came to the Louvre. Not only did he have to delicately balance traditional French architecture with modernity in the form of Egyptian-inspired pyramids, but he also had to convince the French citizens that what he was doing would contribute to the ever-important grandeur France revolved around.

I.M. Pei's design for Le Palais du Louvre entrance. Image from Architect Magazine.

In a way, he was contributing to a direct part of the country's history — tied to royalty and culture and the art that was housed inside for centuries on end — and he was doing it as a foreigner. This is what upset so many French. It wasn't so much that the Louvre was seeing renovation, as that they were used to. It was that this precious gem ruled by kings and queens (yet never by their emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had his own interesting take on the palace) was now going to be in the hands of an outsider — something unimaginably insulting to the French peoples.

Beyond France

Pei was an architectual genius, even beyond his history-changing work at the Louvre. There is a universal language that can be seen in all the buildings he designed. All used simple, bold geometry and all use simple, bold materials. Sharp angles of concrete and glass created these monumental structures that seemed larger than life.

Personally, I'm reminded of wooden building blocks. Basic shapes stacked and combined together to make striking designs that almost defy the laws of gravity, all the while obeying the laws of physics.

As blog-worthy as the Louvre is, Pei's best work is actually the accumulation of all his works. His career — to make another comparison to 80s comic franchises — is like Voltron: all these different, powerful buildings come together to create an idea of modernism that permeates through architectual design today.

There's not very many architects in the world who have built a lasting legacy. Much like certain legendary painters through history, there are only a handful of architects who create an impact larger than any one given project. That is something I.M. Pei acheived.


Joe Staples is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. When he's not writing, he's binge-watching documentaries on design and donuts.

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