The Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei (I.M) is known as one of the greatest architects of the Twentieth Century. His long, brilliant career was highlighted by several internationally famous structures. While many of Pei’s buildings were generally accepted by the public, some of them precipitated fair amounts of controversy.
The most notable of these controversial structures is his Glass Pyramid at the entrance of the Louvre in Paris. For these reasons, I.M. Pei seems to be an architect who exhibits interest in the avant-garde through both the creative design and aestheticism of his architecture.Pei was born in China in 1917 and immigrated to the United States in 1935. He originally attended the University of Pennsylvania but grew unconfident in his drawing skills so he dropped out and pursued engineering at MIT.
After Pei decided to return to architecture, he earned degrees from both MIT and Harvard. In 1956, after he had taught at Harvard for three years, he established I.M. Pei ; Partners, an architectural firm that has been known as Pei Cobb Freed ; Partners since 1989. This firm is famous for its successful and rational solutions to a variety of design problems.
They are responsible for many of the largest pubic and private construction projects in the second half of this century. Some of these projects include the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.When French President Francois Mitterand “personally selected Mr.
Pei in 1983 to design the Grand Louvre to give air, space, and light to one of the world’s most congested museums,” (Markham, 1989) there were many critics. The press “lambasted the idea of shattering the harmony of the Louvre’s courtyard with a glass iceberg” (Markham, 1989). But Pei proceeded as planned, taking a major risk in creating a glass pyramid structure at the entrance. He did not focus on what the critics would say about his plans, but hoped that the world would see, upon completion, that his vision of a contemporary, functional entrance would not clash with the Baroque style of the Louvre itself.When the pyramid was completed in 1989, Pei’s expression of avant-garde art was not entirely accepted. Many critics praised the aspiration with which the architect designed it, but ridiculed many aspects of its functionality: “The practical problem is that the Pyramid, once you get inside, is noisy, hot, and disorienting” (Campbell, 1989). Fortunately, most critics consider it to be “architecture made with passion, architecture as sculpture and as three-dimensional geometry less then user-friendly, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless” (Campbell, 1989).
Many critics, along with the majority of the Parisian public, had much more positive opinions of the pyramid after its completion. For tourists, “the days of searching for the Louvre’s entrance are over. It’s hard to miss the 70-foot transparent pyramid rising gracefully between the museum’s two main wings.” Also, its functionality is appreciated for “reducing the distance that visitors once had to walk from one end of the U-shaped Louvre to the other” (Associated Press, 1989).Looking at the example of Pei’s glass pyramid it is evident that his work was influenced by Walter Gropius, one of his teachers at Harvard.
In particular, Pei’s mastery of geometrical shapes and talent in working with steel and glass bears resemblance to Gropius’s vision of “total architecture” that he set forth in the Bauhaus: “We want to create . . . an architecture whose function is clearly recognizable in the relation of its form. .
. . At the same time the symmetrical relationship of parts of the building . . . is being replaced by a new conception of equilibrium which transmutes this dead symmetry of similar parts into an asymmetrical but rhythmical balance” (Gardner 1996, p.
1029). The “new conception of equilibrium” can be considered as the fusion of the Louvre’s old Baroque style and Pei’s new renovations. At first glance, this fusion may seem “asymmetrical,” but from Pei’s artistic point of view, a “rhythmical balance” is ultimately achieved.
Another of Pei’s buildings that stirred up local controversy is the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong. While the geometrically beautiful building stands out as the tallest in the area at 70 stories, its design has been criticized by many citizens of Hong Kong: “The building’s four right-angled triangular prisms, placed together to form a long, thin square column topped by twin antennas, have been condemned by many of the territory’s superstitious residents” (United Press International, 1990). Though the citizens of Hong Kong may inhabit one of the highest-tech corners of the planet, they “set great store by feng shui, the ancient art, part mysticism, part architecture, of arranging buildings and other objects so that they are in harmony with nature and dictate luck” (Bremner, 1990). Local residents fear that many spirits have been offended by the skyscraper’s notoriously bad feng shui.
It is ironic that I.M. Pei is of Chinese origin yet chose as his motif the triangle, which transforms the building as a whole into the very form that brings bad feng shui. This shows that Pei is an artist who is not willing to sacrifice his innovative vision in order to conform to society’s or a culture’s traditions. This is one of the main characteristics that make him an avant-garde artist.What is of great interest in I.M. Pei’s work is the fact that his firm “has been a temple of modernism, an architectural office in which ornament has been scarce, sleekness has remained sacrosanct, and buildings have been seen as isolated, abstract objects” (Goldberger, 1989).
Because of their cutting-edge uniqueness, the firm’s projects exhibit qualities of the avant-garde: “I.M. Pei ; Partners’ distance from the architectural trends of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s made the firm . .
. something of a rallying point for critics who disliked post-modernism” (Goldberger, 1989).Pei’s masterful implementation of basic geometric form into the design of his buildings is another point of interest that contributes to his originality.
Some critics think that the design of many of Pei’s buildings are impractical because they either do not seem to meet or even may exceed the spatial needs of the people who visit and work in them. In particular, critics have noticed incredible “wasted” space in lobbies that grossly exceed human proportion in addition to inflexible arrangement of rooms. I personally think that when one scrutinizes Pei’s creations, one should not consider them as merely buildings, but as aesthetically beautiful works of art.Another point of debate among critics, which can be essentially pared down to individual taste, is Pei’s prolific use of geometric shapes. Some feel that he has “an inhumane devotion to geometry.
Others have felt that he has diluted his art through service to the rich and powerful. . .
. but there is no question that Pei has emerged as the most durably creative of American architects working at the grand scale” (Wiseman 1990, p. 12). Since creativity is one of the main components of the avant-garde, it is evident that Pei’s work questions what architecture truly is.Upon examining Pei’s pyramidal entrance to the Louvre and design for the Bank of China building, some may argue that his work can be interpreted as fodder for controversy.
Perhaps this was Pei’s intention. Many artists throughout the ages have shown that one of the greatest ways to achieve recognition is to stir up a controversy. However, it seems unlikely that Pei’s plans for his future designs were greatly affected by public reaction to his completed structures. As one of the foremost and successful architectural geniuses of the Twentieth Century, I.
M. Pei has pushed the envelope of what architecture is: a uniquely personal vision of art physically manifested in a building.