Will your summer plans take you to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland? Or perhaps you’ll wander through the Indiana University Art Museum at Indiana University just up the road in Bloomington, Indiana. Maybe you’ll be spending the night at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, or you’re planning a grand adventure at the Louvre in Paris, France.
If you visit any of these places or dozens of others across the globe, you’ll experience the moxie of I.M. Pei.
Pei, who passed away in May at the age of 103, redefined architecture with bold, geometric designs that celebrated modernity while paying deep respect to context, culture, and history. It takes moxie to change the landscape – literally and figuratively – and Pei had it. Here’s how:
Moxie strikes out on bold new adventures.
Pei was born in 1917 into a well-to-do Mandarin Chinese family and raised in Shanghai and Hong Kong. He was as inspired by the lovely garden villas at Suzhou as he was by the “free and easy” American lifestyle he saw portrayed on the silver screen. In 1935, he came to the United States to study architecture. But while he was away, China underwent dramatic cultural and political changes, and it became clear that Pei’s future was in the United States. It would be 40 years before he returned to the land of his birth.
Pei’s adventures weren’t just geographic. His studies were a search for training and mentoring in styles that resonated with his own vision for what architecture could be. He didn’t find inspiration in the traditionally-rooted Beaux Arts style championed at the University of Pennsylvania or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he eventually found his way to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where he connected with Bauhaus powerhouses, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.
While he embraced the elegant, clean lines of modernity, he rejected Gropius’ vision of a single, world-wide style of architecture.
“What about the relationship between history and architecture; between culture and architecture; climate and architecture?” Pei asked. “It was at that moment that I said I would like to prove something to myself, that there is a limit to the internationalization of architecture.”
It takes moxie to explore new territory, and Pei had it.
Moxie runs ahead and waits for everyone else to catch up.
Pei’s redesign of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France is perhaps his most iconic work. While the tower pyramid that shelters and illuminates the entrance to the world’s most famous art museum is now as beloved as the Eiffel Tower, it was genuinely reviled at its debut.
A New York Times story quoted a critic calling the pyramid “an architectural joke, an eyesore, an anachronistic intrusion of Egyptian death symbolism in the middle of Paris, and a megalomaniacal folly…”
But the pyramid, and the infrastructure overhaul that it shelters solved significant problems for the cultural treasure. The Louvre was a sprawling, disjointed collection of buildings that was limited on space for crucial behind-the-scenes storage and preservation work. It didn’t lend itself to appreciation and contemplation of the works it housed, but instead was more of a cattle drive for harried tourists.
Pei reimagined how the museum could be entered and navigated. He sank the entry into the vast courtyard and covered it with the glittering pyramid. The result was a space that helped those entering the complex take a moment to prepare for a transcendent experience with profound works of art.
The pyramid is now a celebrated landmark, and perhaps the crown jewel of Pei’s extensive body of work.
It takes moxie to weather today’s critics and wait for tomorrow’s appreciation, and Pei had it.
Moxie proves that you can go home again.
Just as architecture took Pei away from China, it called him back, too. Pei designed several projects in his homeland, including the Fragrant Hill Hotel just outside Beijing.
The China to which Pei returned in the early 80s for the project was very different from the one he’d left behind in the mid-30s. And China wasn’t the only thing that had changed, so had Pei. He was undeniably Western in his outlook and design, even while seeking to honor culture and context.
He wanted the project to inspire Chinese architects, and encourage them to look within their own culture for inspiration, too. But to do so, he had to get to know this new China as an American architect.
”I had to learn a lot, not about Chinese architecture, but about Chinese history all over again, how people live and their cultural traditions, and try to see what’s still alive after the Cultural Revolution and find out what roots are still living and graft them on,” he said in an interview.
It takes moxie to fuse together past, present, and future into a singular, functional place, and I.M. Pei had it.
Have you been to a building designed by I.M. Pei? What did you think or feel when navigating the space?