No, this is not a France appreciation blog. I rather hate France, actually. Did you know they had the gall to auction off two of the bronze heads from the zodiac fountain in Yuanmingyuan — which they stole — and an imperial seal — which they also stole? And that they demanded we pay them money (and thus legitimise their claim to our artefacts) to get back what was ours in the first place? How lovely they are.
Plus, I mean, they stormed Yuanmingyuan and participated in the Opium Wars and the invasion of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance to begin with.
So no, this isn’t a France appreciation blog. This is, however, an Ieoh Ming Pei appreciation blog.
贝聿铭, known to the west more commonly as I.M. Pei is, of course, the Chinese-American (Chinese-Americans represent!) architect of the Pyramid for the Museé du Louvre. Born in Guangzhou in 1917, Pei was raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai and took much of his inspiration from the (admittedly very beautiful, though I prefer the Hangzhou ones) famous Suzhou gardens.
In 1935 he enrolled in UPenn’s architecture school, but then transferred to MIT’s. Though the focus in both universities was on Beaux-Arts (a neoclassical style), Pei was more interested in the styles of emerging architects, especially that of Le Corbusier (Charles Édouard Jeanneret).
He married in 1939, to beEileen Loo, and they have four kids, two of whom are architects (C.C. “弟弟” Pei and L.C. “三弟” Pei). He had a significant hand in designing the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in DC and the Green Building at MIT, but his first national recognition came from the design of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
In 1974, with the cultural exchange of the first American state visit to the People’s Republic of China, Pei joined the American Institute of Architects. He was well-received by the government and was himself well-pleased with the job the CPC did with reducing the poverty and corruption which had reached near-crisis levels under the Nationalists (presumably this is because he didn’t realise he’d walked smack dab into the rear end of the Cultural Revolution). He was, however, displeased with the way China had embraced Western architecture and urged people to search our own traditions to draw inspiration from in designing buildings.
In 1978 I.M. Pei was asked to design something for China. He became enamoured with one of the old imperial garden and hunting reserves, a valley known as Fragrant Hills, in Beijing. He was invited to tear the old hotel there down and build a new one. Considering modernist approaches inappropriate for the setting, he visited his ancestral home of Suzhou and came up with a building based on traditional design and techniques, among which included gardens (we love our gardens), the incorporation of nature, and the relationship between enclosure and open space. He worked with an expert to preserve the water maze of the original hotel, as it was one of only five in the nation, and had 210 tons of rocks transported from Southwest China. However, the hotel was a flop among the younger population, who’d hoped for a building that reflected the cubic theme he’d become known for, and unfortunately, the hotel fell to disrepair mere years after it opened in 1982, in part because of the government’s lack of knowledge on how to care for deluxe building and in part because it was ignored by the Chinese architectural community, which at this time was more interested in postmodern architects like Michael Graves.
His most famous project, however, is the Museé du Louvre in Paris and the iconic Pyramid (which was to be reflected by La Pyrimide Inversée), the entrance to the museum, which would also serve as an anteroom and a skylight. He designed it homage to French architect André Le Nôtre, but it was poorly received by many Parisians, including the director of the Louvre, who resigned after voicing his criticism of the pyramid.
By the time the courtyard opened to the public, however, public opinion turned towards the pyramid, with a 56% of the population approving and 23% disapproving of it.
In 1982 he was asked to design a tower for a Bank of China branch in Hong Kong. Though sore over his experience with the Fragrant Hills hotel, I.M. Pei accepted the commission. The small space offered made a tower necessarily, despite the fact that Pei didn’t usually design towers, and the building had to be structurally sound enough to pass HK’s strict standards for wind-resistance (practical, given HK’s population density and its very many towers). It also had to be modified according to criticisms brought up by the city’s fengshui advocates (and no, darlings, fengshui does not equal hanging up that random fake chinese-y shit you bought on your trip to Chinatown that one time).
As the tower was nearing completion, Pei was disillusioned by the government masacre of students in Beijing, after which he wrote a piece for the New York Times titled “China Will Never Be the Same.”
His last major project was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which opened in 1995, and though he has become much less involved in the seeing through of his designs, he has remained active in the last decade, designing such buildings as the Minho Museum, the Suzhou Museum, The Museum of Islamic Art, and the Macao Science Centre.
I.M. Pei is celebrated worldwide and has won multiple awards, including the Pritzker Prize.