The World Congress that the International Union of Architects (UIA) recently held in the city of Durban centered on the role of architecture in the African continent, but was marked by this year’s recipient of the institution’s Gold Medal, the almost century-old Ieoh Ming Pei.
Born in Canton in 1917, the son of a Chinese banker, he traveled to the United States in 1935 in hopes of fulfilling his dream of being an architect. By the year 1940 he had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and soon he enrolled at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where he became a disciple of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. After earning his master’s degree in 1946, Pei began his career as director of architecture in a real estate firm, and shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen in 1954, he set up I. M. Pei & Associates, the seed of the international firm Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners.
Although this may sound like a commonplace, I. M. Pei’s work is a bona fide crucible of his Asian origins, European modernity, and American corporate spirit; a mix which, combined with his characteristic expressive purity and geometric precision, serves to explain his work, which presents numerous buildings that could be described as simply functional, but also a good handful of projects – including the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado (1967), the Pyramid of the Louvre Museum in Paris (1989), and the extraordinary Bank of China tower in Hong Kong (1989) – that give him a sure place among the great architects of the 20th century.