I’m so sad to hear of IM Pei’s passing today, at 102. He was one of my favorite architects, and judging by the volume, fame, and international breadth of his work, I’m hardly alone. I still remember how much the East Wing of the National Gallery in DC blew my mind the first time I went there. Same for the pyramid at the Louvre.
The New York Times wrote a nice primer on his work here.
His style always kind of fascinated me, because on the surface he might have looked like another institutional modernist, with all those straight lines and concrete. At first glance some of his buildings appear to be cut from the same cloth as your elementary school or local post office. But then you look closer and you see his touch — there’s always a certain twist, a bit more playfulness and thoughtfulness and a certain perfectly-composed intricacy. Some of his buildings look like hulking concrete slabs from the outside, but once you step inside they turn into sunlight-filled greenhouses. The stuff he could do with water and glass was especially amazing. His buildings, despite their sharp, square lines, always perfectly suited their locations. He never seemed to solve a problem the same way twice.
I also love the way he would take on commissions in contexts he didn’t know much about, and then immerse himself in his clients’ culture. He used the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Museum of Islamic Art commissions this way, as opportunities to learn and connect. One of my favorite things about design is the opportunity (demand?) it creates for you to learn, as fast and as deeply as you can, about the communities and cultures that you serve. I feel like he exemplified that: design as a way of understanding, a way of building relationships between different perspectives.