French newspaper Le Parisien described I.M. Pei’s steel and glass structure for the Louvre as ‘the astonishing Chinese pyramid.’ The census at the time seemed to be that the heritage of Pei, an Asian-American architect born in 1917, wasn’t apposite for an undertaking so French. Last week, a picture of a social media ‘influencer’ appeared on my feed as she posed before the iconic glistening dome or — as the former chief architect of Paris’s Committee on Historical Monuments once called it ‘a gigantic, ruinous gadget.’ Yet, despite the initial naysaying, it is strange to imagine a Paris without it; strange to imagine scrolling through the #Paris tag on Instagram and not be inundated with tourist pics of Pei’s masterful pyramid alongside shots of the Arc de Triomphe.
What can confidently be said about Pei’s modernist legacy is that he wasn’t afraid to redefine, to invert. The geometric sharpness of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Boston, that transforms into a triangular lightbox by night, is a radiant example of Pei’s ability to create peerless architecture. Consider his spiral cylinder extension for Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum; Pei approached even the smallest of tasks with poetic sentiment, telling Die Zeit that ‘architecture should seduce people to move through the whole building.’
In the East building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, located in an oddly shaped trapezoidal site, roofing that favours glass shards emerge from the ground; this is a building which became a pivotal embodiment of Pei’s sculptural style and vigour. The Museum of Modern Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar is nothing short of a 376,740-square-foot pattern work. The Cubist-inspired building, complex in its symmetry and intricacy, boldly ascends from the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf.
By subverting the blueprint, Pei’s orthogonal and towering museum architecture challenges both the viewer and the environment around it. The potency and longevity of his distinct buildings are due in part to his ability to construct within the delicate space between beauty and trouble.