I. M. Pei: Mandarin, Brahmin, Mover + Shaker

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by Trevor Boddy / The Architectural Review, London / Published in September, 2012

Following the life and impact of IM Pei: the first non-Western architect to rise to the peaks of the global profession

There is a world of difference between the two Chinese-born architects who have won the Pritzker Prize. 1983 winner Ieoh Ming Pei left China as a teenager for studies in the US, graduating directly into a dozen-year spell as in-house designer for prominent New York developer William Zeckendorf.

Accordingly, Pei’s work is corporate in character (leavened by loss-leading cultural complexes) and only rarely, and almost guiltily, Chinese. The 2011 Pritzker Prize went to Wang Shu − whose work is tactile, hand-shaped, at times surreally idiosyncratic, but also linked to Chinese traditions in ways the roots-seeking Pei never understood. Shu’s Pritzker win can only be read as a pointed rejoinder to Pei’s cohort of global corporate firms.

Pei should ultimately join his former teacher Walter Gropius near the front of the long line of most over-praised architects of the 20th century. But he is important for other reasons: crucially, as the first non-Western architect to rise to the peaks of the global profession. That ascent is worth examining, because it says much about both the profession, and this architect’s managerial acumen − his major legacy.

Pei’s father was manager of the Bank of China’s Canton branch when the Chinese civil war broke out (forcing him to bundle the two-year-old Ieoh Ming off to refuge in Hong Kong); … Read More