Visual Culture

7 Pivotal Works by Legendary Architect I.M. Pei

Ilana Herzig
Nov 28, 2018 8:45PM

Courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Art & Pei Partnership Architects.

In April 2018, Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming “I.M.” Pei, mastermind of seven decades of iconic international projects, turned 101. His designs, including the Louvre’s ethereal courtyard pyramid, are recognizable for their intricate geometries, novel use of glass, and marriage of modernist style with various classical and traditional architectures. After moving from Shanghai in 1935, Pei studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, architectural engineering at MIT, and design at Harvard under Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. By 1955, Pei had opened his own New York firm, I.M. Pei & Associates (now Pei Cobb Freed & Partners). Though Pei retired in 1990, he went on to create and consult on a spate of projects post-retirement.

The architect’s very first museum—a monumental abstract work of chiseled granite and concrete that boasts a sculpture court, cantilevered galleries, and a circular concrete staircase—also celebrated a milestone this year. Completed 50 years ago, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, has housed the first solo exhibitions of Yoko Ono, Marilyn Minter, and Joan Mitchell.

Pei’s eclectic portfolio spans Boston’s JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Hong Kong’s Bank of China Tower, and the East Building of Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Below, we pay homage to some of his cardinal creations.

Luce Memorial Chapel, Taichung, Taiwan (1963)

Photo by Charles Tsao, via Flickr.


Collaborating with artist-architect Chen Chi-Kwan, Pei designed the Luce Memorial Chapel in line with the Tang dynasty–modeled architecture of Tunghai University’s Taichung City campus. The architects initially conceived of a chapel wrought from wood, but ultimately adopted reinforced concrete to account for Taiwan’s humid climate, as well its typhoon- and earthquake-prone nature.

The chapel’s hexagonal floor plan accommodates a 500-seat nave, a chancel, and robing rooms that lie beneath its rib-reinforced, sloping, brick-and-glass walls, which become thinner as they crescendo to the cross at the building’s summit. Structural connections and beams conjoin the walls, which appear to stand independently. Named after a 19th-century missionary, the chapel and its elaborate formwork—forged by local artisans—serve as a central landmark and place of worship for students and teachers.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio (1995)

Photo by Jason Pratt, via Flickr.

Perched on the harbor of Lake Erie, the white grid-like panels of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wind up into what has been compared to a stack of vinyls spinning on a turntable. It—along with the compound’s double pyramids, 162-foot-tall spire, and trapezoidal protrusion that the New York Times wrote “flares outward like a speaker or a frozen blast of sound”—rises above Cleveland’s shore.

The four-acre campus also houses gallery spaces; disc-jockey booths; a circular performance drum; a café, shop, and outdoor terrace; criss-crossing passageways; and a concert venue, all of which radiates out from a focal point. In Pei’s efforts to compose a scheme fitting of the most influential figures in the genre’s history, such as Nina Simone, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Billie Holiday (many of whom performed at the venue), he explained his “intention to echo the energy of rock and roll.” Despite his lack of familiarity with the music, he maintained: “I have consciously used an architectural vocabulary that is bold and new, and I hope the building will become a dramatic landmark for the city of Cleveland.” As the birthplace of rock and roll when local DJ Alan Freed coined the name in 1951, the city proudly claimed the hard-won monument and its mimetic design, rife with a musicality of its own.

Miho Museum, Kyoto, Japan (1997)

Courtesy of the Miho Museum.

Courtesy of the Miho Museum.

After voyaging along a cherry blossom–lined walk through a tubular tunnel and across a half-suspension bridge (which once hosted a Louis Vuitton catwalk), visitors can find the Miho Museum nestled in the lush greenery of Shigaraki mountains just outside of Kyoto. The sprawling museum encompasses everything from tea utensils, Buddhist art, and yamato-e paintings to the ancient art of Persia, Rome, Greece, and China. Following Pei’s arrival in Japan at the request of the museum’s founder, Mihoko Koyama—a textile heiress and the originator of the religious movement Shinji Shumeikai—the architect likened the majestic vista to a veritable Shangri-La, the fabled Tibetan utopia in which a fisherman, lost amid blooming peach trees, finds himself.

The tale inspired the museum’s interaction with its landscape. Pei played upon its enchanting surroundings, incorporating translucent triangles of glass that allow filtered light to diffuse into Magny Doré limestone galleries, and enables an appreciation of them through spaces such as the Pine View Tea Room. Pei also integrated his blueprint into nature, building over three-quarters of the museum underground or into the mountain. Engaging traditional Japanese architecture themes—such as harmony with nature and a folded, origami-like appearance—the layout meanders, along with its guests, through its rich forest scenery.

The Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum), Berlin, Germany (2003)

Photo by Hanlu Cao, via Flickr.

Replete with a massive, glass-encased spiral tower straight out of a futuristic sci-fi movie, Pei’s amendment to the German Historical Museum juxtaposes the three-centuries-old Baroque Zeughaus (an armory) situated in Berlin’s historic Mitte district. The Exhibition Hall, a four-story glass-and-steel extension completed in 2003, stands in stark yet harmonious contrast with the architectural feat of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (one of Pei’s role models).

Pei made use of the sunshine that pours in through the structure’s transparent exterior to create an interplay of light and shadow, in service of his goal to “seduce people to move through the whole building full of curiosity and pleasure.” The site’s new appendages also comprise Pei’s translucent covering for the interior courtyard, showcasing sculptor Andreas Schlüter’s “masks of giants,” as well as the first full retrospective of Pei’s oeuvre in drawing, photographs, and architecture models.

Suzhou Museum, Suzhou, China (2006)

Photo by Jonathan, via Flickr.

Influenced by ancient Chinese vernacular, the Suzhou Museum—previously a prince’s palace—takes an avant-garde twist on the traditional forms surrounding it in the city’s historic district, such as the Humble Administrator’s Garden and Lion Grove Garden. Pei’s signature geometric patterns—thick, ash-gray triangle, diamond, and hexagonal outlines—oppose smooth white stucco walls that climb up to angular windows folded under luminous glass rooftops.

While customary of Chinese gardens, the museum’s gardens, gazebo, bridges, and water court infuse the conventional with innovative quirks and contours that nod to their ancestral roots; Pei’s modernized garden rocks evoke abstract cliffs atop blanched backdrops typical of Chinese ink paintings. Such paintings—as well as calligraphy, porcelain, jade, Buddhist artworks, and dynasty relics—dot the museum alongside pieces by living artists like Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Zao Wou-Ki.

The museum carries particular significance for Pei as both a commemorative center of Chinese arts and the birthplace of his ancestors. He hoped that distinct, traditional Chinese and modernist approaches might be “synthesized into a new language and order, one that is contemporary and forward-looking.”

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar (2008)

Courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Art & Pei Partnership Architects.

Courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Art & Pei Partnership Architects.

At 91 years old, Pei conceived of the Museum of Islamic Art on an island built for the museum’s construction, just off the Doha harbor. Inspired by age-old Islamic architecture (particularly Cairo’s Ibn Tulun Mosque), traditional Islamic motifs, and the Arabian desert, the museum resembles a series of robust stacked cubes punctuated by geometric matrices and adornments. Reachable by boat, the creme limestone fortress consists of a five-story edifice, a central courtyard, a domed atrium, and an education wing—with its own library, classrooms, and workshops aimed at fostering an appreciation of Islamic art for the broader region.

Pei’s research drew upon a tour of diverse Islamic architecture, from Córdoba to Fatehpur Sikri to Damascus. His design honors the cultural style in the form of panoramic views of Doha’s skyline, the Arabian Gulf, and the West Bay from the glass curtain wall; intricate metal chandeliers; the boat dock’s 100-foot-tall lanterns; and an atrium flooded with patterned light from the coffered oculus at its apex.

Le Grand Louvre, Paris, France (1989)

Courtesy of the Musée du Louvre.

Likely Pei’s—and one of the world’s—most recognizable modern architectural feats, the addition of the 71-foot-tall, glass-and-steel-amalgamated pyramid to Paris’s Louvre stirred quite the controversy when it opened in 1989. Initially derided by critics as an eyesore in stark opposition to the 1190 fortress–cum–16th-century palace, the pyramidal rendering—encircled by three smaller-scale pyramids, pools, and fountains—has become a beloved icon. It’s also been the subject of sundry creative endeavors—like JR’s 2016 vanishing optical illusion—and the recipient of the 2017 AIA Twenty-five Year Award. But Pei’s design, which also included renovations to the museum itself, was owed to a swift political change that ushered in socialist president François Mitterand over his conservative predecessor. Mitterand’s choice of Pei over French firms for the overhaul further provoked opponents.

“I couldn’t walk the streets of Paris without people looking at me as if to say…What are you doing to our great Louvre?” Pei recalled. In a twist of cosmic irony, over 8 million yearly visitors now clamor for photographs with Pei’s infamous structure that enables entry to the museum’s 35,000 artworks, including the Venus de Milo (100 B.C.E.), the Great Sphinx of Tanis (ca. 2600–1900 B.C.E.), and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503–19). While some still naysay Pei’s contemporary design amid the museum’s medieval, Renaissance, and classical French elements, Pei has often been credited with making the historic bastion modern.

Ilana Herzig