Royal Gold Medal for I.M. Pei
Other major, memorable buildings by Pei include the monumental concrete Christian Science Center (1974) and slender glass Hancock Place office tower (1977) in Boston; the Javits Convention Center (1986) in New York City, with its multistory glass walls supported by a steel space frame; and art museums such as the Everson Museum of Art (1968) in Syracuse and the Johnson Museum of Art (1973) in Ithaca, New York.
Recently, Pei has also completed major museums in Luxembourg, China, and Qatar.
Ieoh Ming Pei was born in Canton, China, in 1917. He traveled to the United States in 1935, at age 17, to study architecture, graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He earned a master's degree from Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied under and was influenced by noted modernists Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.
Pei worked as an instructor and then an assistant professor at Harvard before noted planner and developer William Zeckendorf invited him, in 1948, to join the real estate development corporation Webb & Knapp, Inc. in New York as the head of the architecture division. In 1955 Pei founded his own architectural practice, I.M. Pei & Associates, in New York; it became I.M. Pei & Partners in 1966, and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in 1989.
Pei's first major project was the 1952 Mile High Center in Denver, Colorado — a 23-story high-rise office block adjacent to a lower, curved-roof building that housed a restaurant. The facade ordering was clearly influenced by the high-rise buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, such as the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York City. Still, the low-profile metal panels used to detail the facade of this structure seem to share more in common with the Equitable Building in Portland, Oregon, designed by Pietro Belluschi, than with typically high-relief Miesian detailing.
While the self-containment and sculptural unity of Pei's buildings, taken by themselves, can suggest the modernist conceit of the standalone object building, his most notable projects also make indelible, healing connections with their surroundings.
The results, ineffably stylish while transcending stylistic boxes and stereotypic limitations, can be rather sublime.
The East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., demonstrates Pei's skillful attention to materials and massing. Much of the building exists underground, beneath a redacted plaza, with triangular skylights.
The reflecting glass of Hancock Place tower makes it a respectful backdrop to H.H. Richardson's Trinity Church, McKim, Mead and White's Boston Public Library, and the rest of Copley Square in Boston.
The Louvre Pyramid, a simple shape inserted in rhythm with the French classic pattern, leaves plenty of open ground plane. The square pyramid makes a friendly reference to the Egyptian obelisks (originally war trophies of Napoleon's) that mark several public open spaces in Paris.
I.M. Pei was nominated for the 2010 Royal Gold Medal by U.K. architect David Adjaye. The award citation concludes with this personal tribute:
"When I began my studies in architecture, I.M. Pei was already a giant in the canon of greats. His work seemed effortlessly capable of creating extraordinary clarity out of complex and conflicting demands. His is an agile ability, working with Heads of State, Kings and Queens, 'hard nosed' developers and non profit institutions, in each case creating revealing, extraordinary works of precision with quality and detail.
"I remember as a young student first visiting the Louvre in Paris and marveling at its extraordinary ability to unify and modernize what was a much loved but disparate institution and behold its magnificent, gravity defying, glass pyramid. He became a role model for me as a young architect."
Pei has previously received the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Medal for Architecture (1976), American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal (1979), the Gold Medal for Architecture from the American Academy of Arts & Letters (1979), La Grande Médaille d'Or of l'Académie d'Architecture (1981), the Pritzker Architecture Prize (1983), the Praemium Imperiale architecture award from the Japan Art Association (1989), Officier de la Légion d'Honneur (1993), and the Thomas Jefferson Medal for distinguished achievement in the arts, humanities, or social sciences (2001), and his firm received the 1968 AIA Architecture Firm Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
The Royal Gold Medal was first established by Queen Victoria in 1848. Previous winners include Edwin Lutyens, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Oscar Niemeyer, Norman Foster, and Richard Rogers.
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Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek, and David Owen is Managing Production Editor.