I.M. Pei (1917-2019)
Another legend in architecture has passed. I.M. Pei died in New York on Thursday, May 16, 2019. He leaves a beautiful legacy of dignified modern architectural design that nonetheless acknowledged historic form. The monumentality of his distinctive crystalline pyramids at the Louvre in Paris could not be denied, nor could the dignity of the crisp edges of his East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Pei merged modernity with elegance. It’s hardly surprising that he won the commission to design the Kennedy Library in Boston when Pei got the nod from Jacqueline Kennedy, a project that Philip Johnson had also been eager to design.
Pei was 11 years younger than Johnson. However the two men crossed paths in graduate school, both studying at Harvard in the 1940s. Johnson completed his degree in 1943, while Pei entered Harvard in 1942, following his completion of an undergraduate degree from MIT in 1940. The two men would go on to succeed both as architects of signature cultural institutions, but also as designers for commercial developers at a time when it was rare for such artistic talent to engage in commercial work. Pei began his career working with the Zeckendorf family; Johnson would build tower after tower for Gerald D. Hines.
When Johnson turned 95 in 2001, he was feted at an event at the Guggenheim Museum where he spoke at a special program with Hines. The audience was filled with figures from The Museum of Modern Art as well as a who’s who of the architecture world, from Frank Gehry to Robert A.M. Stern. During the program, I.M. Pei sat right up front.
I also recall seeing Pei at an earlier event with Johnson, an extraordinary program sponsored by Harvard in New York that featured some of the Graduate School of Design’s most illustrious graduates. Sitting on a single dais were: Edward Larrabee Barnes, Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei and Paul Rudolph, respectively born in 1915, 1906, 1917 and 1918. All four of them had studied in the 1940s at the GSD when Walter Gropius, fresh from the Bauhaus, directed architecture at the school. Each of them developed truly extraordinary careers, but none lived as long as Pei. He was the last of that illustrious group — a generation of American giants of post-WWII architecture.
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