Modern Chinese Culture, Tradition

Buildings that bridge time

I .M Pei (1917 – 2019)

Summer vacation is around the corner – where would you visit this year? Chances are, you have probably seen, or heard, have been, or will be inside one of buildings designed by the architect we will talk about in this blog post. These are landmarks of top tourist destinations around the world: the Lourve in Paris, the Historical Museum in Berlin, Bank of China in Hong Kong, the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, just to name a few. We are talking about I. M. Pei, the Chinese architect who has made history and changed cities’ landscape with his designs in the past century. He has just passed away last month at the old age of 102.

Mesa Laboratory, the National Atmospheric Research, Colorado, US.

Pei’s story started in Canton in a privileged and well-known family. His father was one of the founders of Bank of China. Pei grew up in the financial centre of Hong Kong, but did not follow his father’s path to become a banker. Instead, he went on to study architecture at MIT in the US. The first building that caught spotlight on Pei was the Mesa Laboratory at the National Atmospheric Research in Colorado, built in 1967. Taking inspiration from native American dwellings in the Mesa Verda National Park, he designed the laboratory to resemble a village setting. This mark the start of one of the famous signatures of Pei: concept of continuity, the connection of the old to and new, of the traditional and the modern.

Continuity from old to the new

As Pei’s reputation thrive, he received commissions to more high-profile projects. At the peak of his career, he had accomplish a commission  that he was most proud of: the extension to the national treasure of France, the Louvre. Visitors may see the glass pyramid as a separate structure from the outside, but the humble pyramid – made to be almost transparent – was designed such that visitors can always see the old Louvre palace building from within the new extension. Not only does it show modernity; it is also a symbol of humility, and a gesture of respect and connection to the old. It was a controversial project, but now it is widely praised as one of the most iconic buildings in Europe. Pei continued to use the same concept for the extension of the Germany Historical Museum, which is a spiral glass structure attached to the end of the old one. Another important work of Pei is the Islamic Art Museum in Qatar, which he designed after spending months to learn about Islamic Art spanning more than a millenium in history

The Louvre, Paris, France
Extension of German Historical Museum, Berlin, Germany
Islamic Art Museum, Qatar

 A famous motto of Pei is “form follows intension”. In his most famous works are the clear intension to connect the old to the new. Such continuity, 承传 (cheng chuan)  is a deeply rooted value in Chinese culture. Pei has utilized this value and expressed it in the most aesthetic way in his timeless works, such that people do not only learn about it, but has a chance to experience it by being totally submerged in his buildings.