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I.M. Pei, famed architect who designed JFK Library, dies at 102

I.M. Pei stood outside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in 1979. It was the first time he’d seen the building, which he designed, in person.
I.M. Pei stood outside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in 1979. It was the first time he’d seen the building, which he designed, in person.(Globe Staff/File)

I.M. Pei, who was widely recognized as the most prominent American architect of his generation with such works as his transformation of the Louvre Museum in Paris, died Thursday. He was 102.

His death was confirmed by his son, Chien Chung Pei, according to news reports.

Mr. Pei’s notable buildings straddled the world. His glass pyramid entrance pavilion at the Louvre became a symbol of Paris almost as well-known as the Eiffel Tower. Other works included skyscrapers, research centers, and numerous other museums, including the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester.

In his heyday, from the 1960s through 1990, Mr. Pei ran a firm of as many as 300 people in New York.

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He charted his own course, remaining a canonical modernist and ignoring the fads and revolutions in taste that excited or perturbed other architects. Unlike such rivals as Frank Gehry, he never developed a personal signature style, although his love of concrete, a material of which he became a master, was a continuing theme. He insisted on quality, sometimes refusing to do buildings when he thought the potential client lacked the taste or the finances to accomplish something worthwhile.

Mr. Pei believed in order and discipline, as opposed to the free sculptural shapes of an architect like Gehry. His passion was for geometry. Increasingly, over time, the floor plans, and even the facades, of his buildings became exercises in interpenetrating geometric patterns, especially triangles and circles.

He was a man of enormous personal charm, but he also possessed, as an associate once put it, “a titanium spine.” His determination and patience were legendary. So were his marketing and political skills.

He was easy to know, but, as many testified, difficult or perhaps impossible to know well. It was hard to get past the charming, smiling, always elegantly tailored public persona.

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Comfortable with power, Mr. Pei hobnobbed with such celebrity clients as Jacqueline Onassis and French President Francois Mitterand. He and his family lived in a four-story townhouse in one of New York’s choice neighborhoods, Sutton Place, where a garden overlooked the East River and the walls were adorned with the modern art Mr. Pei loved — Franz Kline, Jean Dubuffet, Morris Louis, Jacques Lipshitz, Willem de Kooning, many others. He was a connoisseur of wines.

Among the architect’s most significant buildings are the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado; the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Myerson Symphony Hall in Dallas; the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong; and the Miho Museum in Japan.

Pei (center) spoke with Museum of Fine Arts president Lawrence Fouraker in the museum's West Wing on July 17, 1981.
Pei (center) spoke with Museum of Fine Arts president Lawrence Fouraker in the museum's West Wing on July 17, 1981. (Ulrike Welsch/Globe Staff)

In the Boston area, he also designed four buildings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including the Green high-rise and the Dreyfus and Landau buildings. For the Museum of Fine Arts, he designed its west wing.

Caroline Kennedy of John F. Kennedy Library Foundation said, “I.M. Pei’s vision and creative genius transformed the notion of what a presidential library could be – conceiving of the Kennedy Library as both a striking architectural landmark and center for public life.’’

Mr. Pei’s name is often attached to such Boston works as the Hancock Tower, the Christian Science Center, and Harbor Towers, but these were designed by partners in his firm. He and his major partners worked more or less independently.

Mr. Pei won every significant honor in architecture, including the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1979; the Pritzker Prize, regarded as the architectural equivalent of a Nobel, in 1983; and the Japanese Premium Imperiale, for lifetime achievement in the arts, in 1989. He was the subject of several books, most notably “I.M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture,’’ by Carter Wiseman.

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Mr. Pei was a giant of architecture who continued and refined the language of modernism, Mark Lee, chairman of the architecture department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, said Thursday night, adding that he decided he wanted to become an architect at age 8 after being inspired by Mr. Pei’s designs.

“His work always had this grace, this generosity about it; it never felt alienating,” Lee said.

Ieoh Ming Pei (pronounced “pay”) grew up in Shanghai and Hong Kong, where his father was a sufficiently high official of the Bank of China for his signature to be on the currency. At age 17, I.M., at his own desire, came to the United States. He wanted to see the world. He was also drawn by American films, and in later life sometimes singled out “College Humor” (1933), with Bing Crosby, as one that offered an appealing view of American life to a Chinese teenager.

He enrolled at Penn but disliked its old-fashioned approach to architecture and quit after two weeks. He switched to MIT, graduating in 1940. He intended to return to China, but World War II, and then the Communist revolution, stranded him in the United States. Mr. Pei did not see China again until he was 57.

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Instead he enrolled in the master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He became close friends with two of the school’s leading lights, Walter Gropius — Mr. Pei house-sat the Gropius house in Lincoln for the summer of 1945 — and especially Marcel Breuer. Both had taught at the Bauhaus in Germany, and both were major figures in the modernist movement in architecture. They were seen as pioneers of modernism in America, and they attracted a generation of gifted students.

In 1942, Mr. Pei married another Chinese expatriate, Eileen (Ay-Ling) Loo, who had come to study landscape architecture. They had a daughter, Liane, and three sons, T’ing Chung, Chien Chung (“Didi”), and Li Chung (“Sandi”). Didi and Sandi both became architects who worked for their father before establishing their own firm.

Pei explained the site plan and traffic patterns for the new Government Center and Scollay Square at a Boston Redevelopment Authority hearing in Boston on April 17, 1963.
Pei explained the site plan and traffic patterns for the new Government Center and Scollay Square at a Boston Redevelopment Authority hearing in Boston on April 17, 1963. (Ed Farrand/Globe Staff)

After getting his master’s in 1946, Mr. Pei was invited to become a faculty member at Harvard. A turning point in his career came in 1948. The flamboyant William Zeckendorf, the biggest real estate developer in New York, decided he needed a designer. A staffer at the Museum of Modern Art conducted a talent search for Zeckendorf to find “the greatest unknown architect in the country.”

Mr. Pei was the choice.

Mr. Pei worked for Zeckendorf for 12 years. He became skilled in dealing with business clients and complex projects. He led the design of large urban redevelopments and gradually built a strong staff of architects, some of whom would become partners in the future I.M. Pei and Partners. Among the better-known works of the Zeckendorf years were Place Ville Marie in Montreal, at the time the largest office complex in the world, and the Society Hill and Kips Bay apartments in Philadelphia and New York.

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Mr. Pei left Zeckendorf in 1960 to establish his own firm. His career achieved liftoff in 1964, when he was chosen as the architect of the Kennedy Presidential Library in Cambridge, winning out over better-known names. Mr. Pei told the Kennedys that he thought his best work was still ahead of him. Jacqueline Kennedy believed the same had been true of her husband. The two men were born about a month apart.

The saga of the Kennedy library is well known. Originally it was to be at Harvard, on a site that moved from the Cambridge side of the Charles River to the Boston side and back again. Cambridge opponents arose, deploring the tourist traffic that the library would draw. One activist warned of the arrival of “the gum-chewing, paper-throwing, sneaker-wearing crowd.”

One might suppose that a project backed by the Kennedy family, Harvard University, and the federal government would have a fair chance of success. But the opponents wore everyone down, until finally the library was moved to Columbia Point. By then, Mr. Pei was discouraged and busy with other projects, and the funds for the library had shrunk with inflation. The resulting building, although acceptable, is not one of Mr. Pei’s best.

An even more agonizing saga was that of the Hancock Tower, designed by Pei partner Henry Cobb. It was plagued from the beginning by construction problems, the most visible of which was the fact that some of the 10,344 windows, each weighing 500 pounds, were shattering in windstorms. Eventually, all were replaced. The Hancock’s problems hurt the firm badly. Says Cobb, “We were virtually blacklisted from corporate and development work for some years.”

Usually Mr. Pei persevered and won out in the end. Even the glass pyramid at the Louvre, today a national French treasure, was viciously attacked when the design was announced. Similarly the Hancock, having survived its crises, is today all but universally regarded as one of the most beautiful office towers in the world.

Another building for which Mr. Pei harbored enormously high ambitions, the Fragrant Hill Hotel near Beijing, was less fortunate. He had hoped this building, a modest low-rise structure that meandered among courtyards, would establish a standard of quality for a new generation of Chinese architecture. It would marry Chinese tradition and Western technology. The hotel was built, but construction and maintenance were poor. And it failed to have any influence in China, which proved to be more interested in imitating the grandiose towers of the West.

In January 1990, Mr. Pei retired from his firm, which by then was called Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, to develop a smaller practice of his own. He was tired of the management rat race, of working to feed the large firm with clients. He wished to concentrate on smaller projects, where he could be the principal designer.

The most remarkable product of this last period is the Miho Museum in Japan. It houses a collection of historic objects, some used in tea ceremonies and some collected from the ancient Silk Route trading cities in Asia and Eastern Europe. It occupies a beautiful mountain site.

For the art-loving, nature-loving, quality-loving Mr. Pei, it was the ideal job. For an estimated $350 million, he created a building as carefully put together as a fine watch. It opened in 1997, the year the architect turned 80.


Globe reporter Danny McDonald contributed to this obituary. Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.