How I. M. Pei Shaped the Modern City

I. M. Pei died Thursday at the age of 102 after a long career as an architect of great renown. Most known for his glass pyramid addition to the Louvre Museum in Paris and the East Building addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the China-born, M.I.T.-educated, and Harvard-molded architect took on commissions both big and small and helped reshape cities around the world through the second half of the 20th century.

After studying under former Bauhaus master Walter Gropius, Pei worked for New York City real estate developer William Zeckendorf from 1948 to 1960, where he designed various gridded concrete towers. In the following decades he helped define the ambitions of modern cities through various cultural, academic, and civic commissions on high profile sites. While his straightforward geometric forms aren’t for everyone, so many of his buildings are used by seemingly everyone. Here are some that have delighted and confounded CityLab staff over the years:

The Louvre Pyramid, Paris

Instead of competing with the surrounding buildings, Pei’s diaphanous pyramid accentuated their age and beauty. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

“The first year and a half was really hell. I couldn’t walk the streets of Paris without people looking at me as if to say … ‘What are you doing to our great Louvre?’” ) and general swagger. Since then, the museum has welcomed 12 million visitors and many entertainingly shambolic induction ceremonies. (That annual event is now shared with New York City.) For tourist-hungry Cleveland, the Rock HOF remains a major draw: A 2018 study found that visitors to the attraction spent $127 million in 2017; the Hall claims a total economic impact of almost $200 million annually. Johnny Rotten might not be a fan, but Pei’s unlikeliest gig has won over plenty of fans.

—David Dudley

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca

Robert Barker/Cornell University

If you live in Ithaca, New York, and you are hosting out-of-town guests who’ve never visited the bucolic Upstate New York college town, you’re going to face this question, very quickly: “What’s going on with that?”

That is the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, which looms over the town from the hill that holds the Cornell University campus. It’s inevitably and not inaccurately described as “the sewing machine,” but in truth the structure can assume any number of forms in the viewer’s imagination. From the front three-quarters angle it’s more like a giant Brutalist piano; stand right below it and it’s a big beige Transformer, frozen somewhere in between robot guy and kitchen stove.

What it basically never looks like is a building: It’s got that novelty-architecture roadside attraction vibe. Pei’s curious design was shaped by the challenges of its setting. Cornell wanted a signature structure on a fabled corner of its campus—the very spot, Big Red lore had it, where Ezra Cornell stood in 1865 to choose where to build his university. That location enjoyed sweeping views of Cayuga Lake and the town of Ithaca below, but university officials didn’t want to block views from the adjoining Arts Quad, and the amount of buildable land on the rugged site was limited. So Pei came up with a compact package: a 107-foot tower with a cantilevered fifth floor held up by two piers. You enter through a brick-shaped lobby in the space sheltered by that gallery floor. In the many gaps, the lake views remain.

The museum, which was just the third museum commission for Pei’s firm, was built using poured-in-place architectural concrete, a buff-colored mix of local materials designed to complement the Finger Lakes geography. When it opened in 1973, critics were largely enthusiastic—former Washington Post architecture writer Wolf von Eckardt told Museum News that it was “a perfect museum. You don’t suffer museum fatigue, because the gallery spaces vary in size and height.”

But students, profs, and locals found it somewhat more divisive. They still do. The Johnson Museum looms large in Ithaca—perhaps too large. You see that big concrete piano standing over the trees from most points in town, like some kind of powerful but benevolent machine. Its structural concrete façade has been sorely tested by the climate over the decades. Cornell’s relationship to its most iconic building remains somewhat fraught as well. A few years after an elegant 2011 addition was completed, university officials sued Pei Cobb Freed & Partners for “architectural malpractice” because of a host of problems with the new wing, including cracks and difficulties maintaining the correct temperature and humidity.

But, love it or hate it, the museum’s unmistakable shape dominates its host community (and the university’s branding) like few buildings can. And even if you despise looking at it, you’ll probably like the view from inside: Head up the fifth floor to get the full effect from the wide swath of Pei’s horizontal windows—a panoramic view of the lake, the gorge, and the little city nestled up beneath it.

—David Dudley

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