IM Pei: Building the Future of China

When China emerged from its 30 year isolation in the 1970s, their recent architectural history was marred by Soviet-style Communist buildings that eschewed the country's celebrated architectural legacy. Knowing that the eyes of the world were on them, the CCP invited a delegation of the American Institute of Architects to tour the country in 1974. Among them was Ieoh Ming Pei, a native son of China who had made a name for himself overseas with his abstract style and masterful attention to detail.

The 1974 visit marked the first time IM Pei had returned to his homeland in 40 years, and the sight of the concrete boxes that populated China’s landscape stunned him. It was a dramatic change from the courtyard homes and gardens of his youth and Pei lamented the destruction of the country's historic timber at the hands of China’s rapid urbanisation. Within four years, the standard-bearer of modernism headed back to China, ready to tackle the problem first-hand and lead the country into a new era of architecture.

In 1978 when the Chinese government invited Pei to return to his homeland to design a high-rise hotel, he had already won fame for his groundbreaking work on the John F Kennedy Library in Massachusetts and the Smithsonian's East Building of the National Gallery. But Pei didn’t want his debut work in China to reflect the style of his celebrated designs; he planned to change the landscape of China by bringing one of the country’s greatest traditions, courtyard architecture, into the modern era.

Pei selected a dilapidated hotel nestled in the foothills of Beijing’s Fragrant Hills for his first battleground against the swelling tide of skyscrapers and urban sprawl and settled in for a fight that would see him lose his trademark cool, banging his fists on a table during negotiations to demand the integrity of his design remain unscathed by modernist elements.

“The Fragrant Hills project was more closely watched by the architectural community both here and in China because he set out explicitly to explore a new path for architecture in China,” says Didi, Pei’s second eldest son who co-designed the Fragrant Hills project with his father. “His process there was what I would call a single-minded search for a new vocabulary for architecture in China.”

In the end, Pei won out, opting for a strategy that implemented advanced Western technology to recreate the essence of courtyard architecture. Pei replaced the hotel with a building that was a distinctly Chinese, pulling on the memories of his ancestral home in the gardens of Suzhou for inspiration. But the government was not interested in a reminder of China’s past and the design of the Fragrant Hills Hotel fell flat with party leaders.

“He was crushed. They didn't respect what he was doing,” Sandi Pei, the architect’s third son, told Asiaweek in 2001. “They were all looking to the West, but he wanted to emphasise what exists and is special in China.”

Accused of being a reactionary, Pei left China and the building fell into a state of disrepair. Today, the four-star hotel often hosts state visitors and is seen as one of China’s architectural feats, but the damage had been done. In 2006, he described the incident by saying, “It was an experience that discouraged me a lot about China. I didn’t think China had a future.” Pei had washed his hands of his homeland.

Turning to Europe, Pei found his next major work in the renovation of the Louvre in Paris, a controversial building that would define his career. “I think Pei was drawn to the project because of the parallels between French and Chinese culture. They share the same attitudes,” says Carter Wiseman, author of IM Pei: A Profile in American Architecture. “They think of themselves as a culture rather than a nation. Pei was able to create buildings for both that transcended the political discord and reached to the essence rather than the moment.”

From the beginning, Pei’s commission was contentious; the first foreign architect to work on the Louvre, he was at the mercy of a public who passionately voiced their disapproval of the Chinese-American selected to redesign their prized building. The director of the museum resigned in protest, but Pei stayed focused on finding a design worthy of the Louvre that wouldn’t detract from the celebrated building.

When the construction was complete, the unwavering Pei received the praise of a nation as the shocked public found the glass structure of 'Pharoah Pei’s Pyramid' to be a tribute to France’s rich history and a complement to the Louvre’s structure. “The much feared pyramid has become adorable,” a commentator for Le Quotidien de Paris raved.

Pei’s steadfast approach to the Louvre public relations nightmare cemented his reputation for having a “titanium spine” and an uncanny political savvy. Instead of taking a break after the stressful project, Pei dived right into work, this time his interest piqued by an unusual invitation to work on the Bank of China headquarters in Hong Kong, an institution his father had helped found in the early 20th century.

“The Chinese government first called Pei’s father and asked him for permission to approach Pei about designing the Bank of China Tower,” says Wiseman. “The irony of the situation is that Pei’s father had been run out of the country by the Communists, effectively sending the family into exile. Now the Chinese government wanted his son to return to build the headquarters of the bank he founded.”

Despite residual reluctance left over from the Fragrant Hills project, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect accepted the commission and started brainstorming ways to make the structure mirror “the aspirations of the Chinese people.”The cramped area allotted to the project forced Pei to venture into new territory with a sky-scraping design that he worried would be devoid of character, until he finally settled on a unique cascading sequence to set the building apart from the maze of Hong Kong’s busy skyline.

Controversy again plagued the architect as critics noted the Xs that laced up the building were bad feng shui. “Pei, rather skillfully I think, removed one of the horizontal lines to turn the Xs into diamonds, which were good feng shui,” says Wiseman.

During construction of the Bank of China Tower in 1989, China was thrown into turmoil and Pei was shocked to the point of activism, co-writing an op-ed condemning the army’s actions for The New York Times. Wiseman recalls asking Pei how he felt about working on a building for China after this. “He was quiet for a long time. Then he looked at me and said, ‘Regimes come and go, but China goes on forever.’”

After completing the Louvre and Bank of China projects, Pei retired from the firm he had created 35 years before. He later joined his two sons, Didi and Sandi, who had set up their own architectural firm, Pei Partnership Architects, and continued to work on projects that interested him, setting his sights globally. “[The Louvre] taught me that to know a country you have to work there on a project of consequence,” he told The New York Times. “So after that project I told myself, ‘Let’s learn about the world.’ ” With the international arena as his playground, Pei had his choice of projects.

It wasn’t until a decade later, after completing monumental works like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Miho Museum, that Pei returned to China for work. Pulled out of retirement again to work with his sons on a museum in his ancestral home of Suzhou, Pei felt this was his last chance to leave his mark on the country.

“Pei wanted in the Suzhou Museum to try to do something about the direction of architecture in China – even to the degree of attempting to define a new direction for Chinese architecture, one which does a better job of moving into the future without denigrating the past,” said Eugene Shirley, producer of the documentary I.M. Pei: Building China Modern.

The city, known for its gardens and classical structures from the Ming and Qing dynasties, set the stage for a design that celebrated the garden architecture of Pei’s youth. During the planning stages, Pei struggled with the question of how to make history come alive while still pointing to the future before eventually deciding to use a modern form that incorporated traditional building materials, like water-softened rocks and Suzhou’s traditional grey and white colour palette. Inspired by the summers he spent in the garden of his grandfather’s home in Suzhou, Pei has called the building “a biography for myself”.

The Suzhou Museum opened to great fanfare in 2006 when the architect had reached the age of 89, and many, including his wife, expected it would be his final project. Instead, he has continued designing, notably serving as the lead architect for the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. In typical fashion, Pei toured the Middle East for six months to better understand the culture before starting the project.

As the nonagenarian’s career winds down, he has proven more than equal to his title of “most important living modern architect”, but Pei still wishes he had a more significant impact on his home country.

"I could have done a lot more in China," he recently told CNN. "I left something there but not enough." Where Pei harbours regrets, his sons, Sandi and Didi, have picked up the mantle, designing buildings and working on projects in Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau, Nanjing, Qingdao, Wuxi and Zhengzhou, as well as in North America, the Middle East and other parts of Asia with Pei Partnership Architects.

Wiseman says that Pei is pleased with his sons’ decision to join his profession and brushes off any mention of nepotism. “He explains that, in China, recommending your sons to work on a project is the highest form of security,” Wiseman says.

And while their father’s name has certainly benefited their careers, Sandi and Didi have themselves designed impressive buildings, proving that they have the design chops to stand on their own feet.

“The family legacy is a great advantage to us because it opens doors both in China and elsewhere in the world,” says Sandi. “But after that it is a great challenge and responsibility because we cannot afford to do only a good job. Excellence is the legacy we carry and it is our minimum standard.”

Sandi’s intricate work on Macau’s City of Dreams complex, the largest water theatre in the world, has been acclaimed, and Didi led the design of the new chancery building of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington D.C. Consulting for both the Chinese and US governments, Didi told the Washington Times that the negotiation was an "incredible international tap dance”, but one he managed with aplomb.

More personally, the brothers also collaborated on Bank of China Head Office Building in Beijing, a project that held deeper meaning for the Pei family legacy. Pei’s father was one of the bank’s founders and Pei himself had already designed the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. “The Bank was very proud that commissioning Pei Partnership Architects meant that now three generations of the Pei family have been directly part of its history,” Didi says.

Although they have children of their own now, Sandi and Didi aren’t sure if a fourth generation of the Pei family will leave its mark on China. Didi insists that his progeny should do what makes them happy. “I think that just as my father did not try to affect my choice of career, I should not try to impose anything on my children,” he says. “Their choice should come from their own passions.”