On the Radar

Salute to IM Pei

Book cover of I.M. Pei A Profile in American Architecture | Where My Heart Leads

“To have something that lasts, means that you’ve really gotten hold of the essence of things. The only thing that can last is really the essence. Otherwise, it’s transitory, it’s fashion.” – IM Pei

My intrigue with IM Pei began with his short two-minute appearance in Louis Kahn’s documentary “My Architect” a documentary where Kahn’s son catalogue the life of his father. It was the first ‘video’ I saw of Pei. It surprised me by how frank and honest he was, how funny he seems and most of all – for someone with Pei’s renown and level of success, he had much praise and respect for Kahn.

In the documentary, IM Pei recounts sitting next to Louis Kahn at some event. The two chit-chatted and Pei praised Kahn for the Richards laboratory, which he thought “was really a marvellous group of buildings. “Those building are really one of your best.” To which Kahn responds, “Ah, the best is yet to come! From that little exchange, it seemed the two hit it off.

Later in the interview, Kahn’s son suggested that Pei had much more success than his father. Pei shakes his head saying, “Three or four masterpieces is more important that 50-60 buildings.” “Quality not quantity.” he adds. Pei seemed to have a quiet respect for Kahn’s work and saw the talent in his contemporary.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha designed by IM Pei.

Taking only half the credit

My second encounter with IM Pei was at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha during a 24-hour layover.

The Museum grounds had this stillness and beauty, which makes you want to spend time there. Inside, the space flowed and was harmonious. I just couldn’t then quite fathom how IM Pei, as Chinese-American could translate the Islamic spirit into such a beautiful space.

Reading up on Pei’s obituaries today, it was no wonder that Pei managed – he did thorough due diligence. At age 91, he was hoaxed out to retirement to do this project. He read the biography of the Prophet Muhammad and toured the world’s great sites of Islamic architecture for six months before beginning his work on the museum.

Flipping through a large picture book in the museum’s shop, I found an interview with Pei. In it, Pei takes just half the credit for the museum he designed.

He says the other half of the credit is because of his client, the ruling family of Qatar. Pei said that without the client, who not only commissioned the work, but also gave him the freedom and opportunity to express the vision, the project would not have become what it came to be.

I find it very humble for him to say so and it is true – great designs come not only from the designer, it also comes from a client with good tastes and good sense.

Daring to be extraordinary

Growing up in Hong Kong, we know of IM Pei because he designed the most iconic building in the Hong Kong skyline – the Bank of China Tower.

When visitors come, we love to tell the story of how the building design is informed by Feng Shui. The story is that the many triangles designed act as ‘swords’ to cut out bad energies that comes its way. (Interestingly, in the Kahn documentary, a model of double structure of something that resembles the BoC Tower is right behind Pei).

And then of course, the next reference most people would refer to is IM Pei’s glass pyramids at the Louvre. I didn’t think about it much until reading in Carter Wiseman’s, “I.M. Pei, A Profile in American Architecture” of how Pei managed to get such a controversial design off the ground, and for a culturally snobby country too!

“To have something that lasts, means that you’ve really gotten hold of the essence of things. The only thing that can last is really the essence. Otherwise, it’s transitory, it’s fashion.”

Bank of China Tower by IM Pei | Where My Heart Leads
Bank of China Tower. View from Hong Kong Park.

RIP, Mr Pei. Thank you for all your works, your charm, and your inspiration.