I. M. Pei, who created designs for some of the world’s most revered museums, including the iconic pyramid for the Louvre in Paris and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has died at 102. A spokesperson for his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, confirmed the news.
Pei was one of the world’s most celebrated architects. His designs frequently played on the ways in which viewers perceive built spaces, and placed less of an emphasis on a structure’s specific formal properties than on its overall effect. “An individual building, the style in which it is going to be designed and built, is not that important,” Pei once said. “The important thing, really, is the community. How does it affect life?”
In addition to his Louvre and National Gallery commissions, Pei worked on the designs for a number of arts institutions. He designed the Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean in Luxembourg and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. Among his less conventional clients was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, which came in 1995.
But in spite of a six-decade career filled with memorable works, Pei’s most famous design remains his pyramid for the Louvre. In 1981, when he began working with French president François Mitterand on the project, most Parisians agreed that the Louvre had grown stale and that its building was in need of revision. Pei designed a group of galleries centered around the museum’s Cour Napoléon area, and decided that the entrance needed to announce itself—visitors could not simply arrive via a subterranean passageway. “You need to be welcomed by some kind of great space,” Pei told the Times in 1985. “So, you’ve got to have something of our period. That space must have volume and it must have light and it must have a surface identification. You have to be able to look at it and say, ‘Ah, this is the entrance.’ ”
Like many architectural revamps in Paris, Pei’s pyramid was reviled by the public and experts alike. The French paper Le Figaro reported news of Pei’s design with a single-word headline: “Megalomania.” When the pyramid was unveiled before Paris’s Committee on Historical Monuments in 1984, the structure was treated so harshly, Pei once recalled, that his translator was apprehensive about explaining to him what was said.
Today, these reactions are almost unfathomable. Pei’s pyramid, which was completed in 1989, transformed an 18th-century structure, removing from it the sense of stodginess that had pervaded the museum for decades. One of the most Instagrammed sites in Paris, his intervention has become as essential to the Louvre’s identity as the Mona Lisa and other masterworks in its holdings.
“A visionary architect who enjoyed an exceptionally rich and long career, Pei followed in the footsteps of acclaimed architects who have shaped the palace since the 12th century, leaving an indelible mark on the museum with his work that boldly took the Louvre into the modern era,” the Louvre said in a statement.
The pyramid is an emblematic Pei work in the sense that it dramatically stands apart from its surroundings, emphasizing its distinctive angularity. Many of his buildings feature sharp edges and diagonal forms, and exude elegance. Their radical nature can be easy to forget when standing in front of them.
Another classic Pei project was his East Building for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. To design the structure, which was completed in 1978, he looked to the NGA’s history. The West Building, which is dedicated to historical displays, is balanced and symmetrical, with a Neoclassical facade. The East Building was meant to act as a showcase for modern art, and so Pei opted for an irregularly shaped building, which also helped deal with the awkward trapezoidal plot of land designated for the project.
He started by taking a sketch of a trapezoid and striking it through with diagonal lines to produce two triangles. The resulting building is oriented around isosceles triangles, and in front of the building are several glass pyramids. (These, unlike the one at the Louvre, are not equilateral.) In the airy atrium, Pei designed large planters for ficus trees, and he chose marble for the walls and floors, lending the structure an unforgettable heaviness.
“His death is a great loss to the nation, to the National Gallery of Art, and to each one of our visitors who has marveled at his timeless design of our East Building,” Kaywin Feldman, the NGA’s director, said in a statement.
Pei’s contributions to architecture extended beyond the museum world, and he was often praised for his engineering feats. In 1990 he debuted one of his largest projects—the 70-story Bank of China building in Hong Kong, which rises 1,209 feet. When it first opened, it was the tallest building in Asia. Because the tower was so tall, Pei had to come up with a way of resisting high-velocity winds. To do so, he created a system of concrete and steel—one reliant on far less of the latter material than other skyscrapers of its kind.
Pei, who was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1917, often designed structures in his home country, in the process alluding to forms and styles that had historically been associated with art-making there. His redesign of the Suzhou Museum, for example, refers to traditional architectural plans in the city, which often involve buildings with a series of gardens and courts. For Pei, it was essential that the museum not resemble a Western institution. “In China,” he once said, “architecture and the garden are one. A Western building is a building, and a garden is a garden. They’re related in spirit. But they are one in China.”
Throughout his career, Pei was favored by institutions that wanted their buildings to have a placid authority. Two of his greatest works are libraries—the Kennedy Library in Boston and the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library in Columbus, Indiana. (The latter was memorably featured in the 2017 film Columbus, a lo-fi romance set against the backdrop of the city’s modernist architecture.) Both enable their inhabitants airy, contemplative spaces that feel highly ordered. This sensibility can also be found in his design for Dallas’s City Hall, which resembles an upside-down triangle from one side and an inverted ziggurat from the other.
Pei went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was educated in Beaux-Arts-style architecture. It was not until he studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that he began to explore modernism. When the Bauhaus architect Le Corbusier visited MIT in 1935, Pei spent two days with him. Pei once called that period “the most important days in my architectural education.”
Around this time, as the threat posed by Nazi Germany grew, a wave of European modernists came to the United States. When Pei enrolled in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design during the 1940s, he was taught by leading émigré architects like Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. Following a brief stint working for the National Defense Research Committee during World War II, Pei graduated Harvard in 1946 with a renewed appreciation for both formalism and functionalism.
After graduating, Pei worked for the firm Webb and Knapp in New York. In 1955, he left and opened his own practice, I. M. Pei & Associates, now Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, which is based in New York.
Pei’s designs earned him a spread of accolades, including the world’s most important architecture award, the Pritzker Prize, in 1983. He received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize in 1993 and the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s lifetime achievement award in 2003.
With six decades of architecture under his belt, Pei embarked on some of his most experimental projects during the late years of his career. His Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, situated on a manmade island accessible via a bridge and inaugurated in 2008, is often recognized as one of his late-career achievements. It is prized for its pile-up of squarish shapes, and it references traditional Arab styles without seeming in any way conservative, thanks to its enormous windows and its imposing form.
“Contemporary architects tend to impose modernity on something,” he told the New York Times in 2008. “There is a certain concern for history but it’s not very deep. I understand that time has changed, we have evolved. But I don’t want to forget the beginning. A lasting architecture has to have roots.”