ILMA of the Week: I. M. PeiPosted: June 26, 2013
Ieoh Ming Pei (born April 26, 1917), commonly known as I. M. Pei, is a Chinese American architect often called a master of modern architecture. Born in Canton (Guangzhou) and raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Pei drew inspiration at an early age from the gardens at Suzhou. In 1935, he moved to the United States and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture school, but quickly transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was unhappy with the focus at both schools on Beaux-Arts architecture, and spent his free time researching emerging architects, especially Le Corbusier. After graduating, he joined the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and became friends with the Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. In 1939, he married Eileen Loo, who had introduced him to the GSD community. They have been married for over seventy years, and have four children, including architects Chien Chung “Didi” Pei and Li Chung “Sandi” Pei.
MIT’s architecture faculty was also focused on the Beaux-Arts school, and Pei found himself uninspired by the work. In the library he found three books by the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier. Pei was inspired by the innovative designs of the new International style, characterized by simplified form and the use of glass and steel materials. Le Corbusier visited MIT in November 1935, an occasion which powerfully affected Pei: “The two days with Le Corbusier, or ‘Corbu’ as we used to call him, were probably the most important days in my architectural education.” Pei was also influenced by the work of US architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1938 he drove to Spring Green, Wisconsin, to visit Wright’s famous Taliesin building. After waiting for two hours, however, he left without meeting Wright.
Le Grand Louvre
When François Mitterrand was elected President of France in 1981, he laid out an ambitious plan for a variety of construction projects. One of these was the renovation of the Louvre Museum. Mitterrand appointed a civil servant named Emile Biasini to oversee it. After visiting museums in Europe and the United States, including the US National Gallery, he asked Pei to join the team. The architect made three secretive trips to Paris, to determine the feasibility of the project; only one museum employee knew why he was there. Pei finally agreed that a reconstruction project was not only possible, but necessary for the future of the museum. He thus became the first foreign architect to work on the Louvre.
The heart of the new design included not only a renovation of the Cour Napoléon in the midst of the buildings, but also a transformation of the interiors. Pei proposed a central entrance, not unlike the lobby of the National Gallery East Building, which would link the three major buildings. Below would be a complex of additional floors for research, storage, and maintenance purposes. At the center of the courtyard he designed a glass and steel pyramid, first proposed with the Kennedy Library, to serve as entrance and anteroom skylight. It was mirrored by another inverted pyramid underneath, to reflect sunlight into the room. These designs were partly an homage to the fastidious geometry of the famous French landscape architect André Le Nôtre (1613–1700). Pei also found the pyramid shape best suited for stable transparency, and considered it “most compatible with the architecture of the Louvre, especially with the faceted planes of its roofs”.
Biasini and Mitterrand liked the plans, but the scope of the renovation displeased Louvre director André Chabaud. He resigned from his post, complaining that the project was “unfeasible” and posed “architectural risks”. The public also reacted harshly to the design, mostly because of the proposed pyramid. One critic called it a “gigantic, ruinous gadget”; another charged Mitterrand with “despotism” for inflicting Paris with the “atrocity”. Pei estimated that 90 percent of Parisians opposed his design. “I received many angry glances in the streets of Paris,” he said. Some condemnations carried nationalistic overtones. One opponent wrote: “I am surprised that one would go looking for a Chinese architect in America to deal with the historic heart of the capital of France.”
Soon, however, Pei and his team won the support of several key cultural icons, including the conductor Pierre Boulez and Claude Pompidou, widow of former French President Georges Pompidou, after whom another controversial museum was named. In an attempt to soothe public ire, Pei took a suggestion from then-mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac and placed a full-sized cable model of the pyramid in the courtyard. During the four days of its exhibition, an estimated 60,000 people visited the site. Some critics eased their opposition after witnessing the proposed scale of the pyramid.
To minimize the impact of the structure, Pei demanded a method of glass production that resulted in clear panes. The pyramid was constructed at the same time as the subterranean levels below, which caused difficulties during the building stages. As they worked, construction teams came upon an abandoned set of rooms containing 25,000 historical items; these were incorporated into the rest of the structure to add a new exhibition zone.
The new Louvre courtyard was opened to the public on October 14, 1988, and the Pyramid entrance was opened the following March. By this time, public opinion had softened on the new installation; a poll found a fifty-six percent approval rating for the pyramid, with twenty-three percent still opposed. The newspaper Le Figaro had vehemently criticized Pei’s design, but later celebrated the tenth anniversary of its magazine supplement at the pyramid. Prince Charles of Britain surveyed the new site with curiosity, and declared it “marvelous, very exciting”. A writer in Le Quotidien de Paris wrote: “The much-feared pyramid has become adorable.”. The experience was exhausting for Pei, but also rewarding. “After the Louvre,” he said later, “I thought no project would be too difficult.”. The Louvre Pyramid has become Pei’s most famous structure.
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