An old architect friend in New York has just sent me a book he knew I’d be very keen to read. Louise Slaicek’s biography of the legendary architect I.M. Pei is over a decade old now, but it came to me on the back of the sad news that Pei has passed away, aged 102.
A versatile, globe-trotting creative talent, Pei shot to international fame for reviving the Louvre in Paris with a giant glass pyramid and capturing the spirit of rebellion at the multi-shaped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. His other works ranged from the trapezoidal addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to the chiseled towers of the National Center of Atmospheric Research that blend in with the reddish mountains of Boulder, Colorado.
Over decades, Pei’s buildings have added elegance to landscapes worldwide with their powerful geometric shapes and grand spaces – one only has to think of the striking steel and glass Bank of China skyscraper in Hong Kong or the Fragrant Hill Hotel near Beijing.
His work starting in the late 1940s and continued through the new millennium. Two of his last major projects, the breathtaking Museum of Islamic Art, located on an artificial island just off the waterfront in Doha, Qatar, and the much-praised Macau Science Center, in China, opened in 2008 and 2009.
Pei painstakingly researched each project, studying its use and relating it to the environment. But he also was deeply interested in the theology of architecture — and the effect he could create.
“At one level my goal is simply to give people pleasure in being in a space and walking around it,” he once said.
“But I also think architecture can reach a level where it influences people to want to do something more with their lives. That is the challenge that I find most interesting.”
Born in Shanghai, Pei immigrated to the United States and studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He advanced from his early work of designing office buildings, low-income housing and mixed-used complexes to a worldwide collection of museums, municipal buildings and hotels.
He fell easily into a modernist style, blending elegance and technology, creating crisp, precise and visually attractive buildings.
His big break came in 1964, when he was chosen over far more prestigious architects to design the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. At the time, Jacqueline Kennedy said all the candidates were excellent: “But Pei! He loves things to be beautiful.”
A slight, unpretentious man, Pei developed a reputation as a skilled diplomat, persuading clients to spend the money for his grand-scale projects and working with a whole cast of engineers and developers.
But for me, Pei’s magnum opus was none of these famed masterpieces, but the simplistic and stunning Luce Memorial Chapel in Taichung, Taiwan. Luce is a unique and deeply inspiring spiritual space on the campus Tunghai University, designed as a collaboration between Pei and local artist and architect Chen Chi-kwan in 1954.
The project was delayed and eventually completed for a total cost of just $125,000 in 1963. The original specified material was wood but they reconsidered given the unforgiving humid conditions of Taiwan. They also adapted the design to adhere to typhoons and earthquakes inherent to the region.
Some 60 years later, the campus hasn’t developed densely around the chapel, but continues to give it the breathing space it deserves. The sweeping structure is abstracted and figurative but not too literal, and the way light penetrates the building is awe-inspiring.
The great American architect Ludwig Van der Rohe often said “God is in the detail”, and at Luce something very profound moved Pei.
His toil produced a sacred structure that is nothing short of perfect in its purpose. God is indeed “in the detail” when an architect draws on the Divine to inspire the building of such a sacred space.