I received news of Ieoh Ming Pei’s passing yesterday with great sadness. For me, he was an inspiration and a true master of monumental modernism. He was deeply influenced by the great architects of the early 20th century – particularly Gropius and Breuer, with whom he worked closely as a student at Harvard – and went on to create a powerful body of work himself that has shaped contemporary practice in a major way.
He created uncompromisingly modern designs, such as the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, but was sensitive to tradition and the value of the vernacular. He drew on concepts developed by Chinese landscape architecture, reflecting a deep appreciation of the importance of the spaces between buildings. The integration of nature and landscape into his designs is a theme that runs through much of his work, from early projects like the Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, to his later work at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, literally built into the landscape.
Pei’s standing in the profession is assured – he won every major accolade there is – but in the public mind he will always be intimately associated with his sensitive yet bold extension to the Louvre in Paris. A startling and brilliantly simple and elegant intervention, its transparent entrance is respectful of existing structures yet eye catching. It has clearly stood the test of time to become one of Paris’s most cherished icons. Entrusting a building so bound to the national psyche to a foreign architect was a farsighted decision of the French government.
He is one of the ‘greats’ and will be missed by us all. Yet he leaves behind a formidable legacy that will continue to influence architects and designers for decades to come.