I.M. Pei, the Mastermind Architect Behind the Louvre Pyramid, Dies Aged 102

L: Architect I.M. Pei at the Ellis Island Museum in New York City on April 21, 2004. (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images) R: Louvre in Paris on April 9, 2009. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)
L: Architect I.M. Pei at the Ellis Island Museum in New York City on April 21, 2004. (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images) R: Louvre in Paris on April 9, 2009. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)
BY ISABEL VAN BRUGEN

I.M. Pei, the world-renowned modernist architect whose work includes the Louvre pyramid, died at his home in New York at the age of 102, his sons’ architecture firm has confirmed.

Chinese-born Pei, who worked mostly in the United States, was the mastermind behind the controversial redevelopment of the Louvre Museum in Paris in the 1980s. Pei designed the landmark glass and metal pyramid and three smaller pyramids in the museum’s main courtyard.

The award-winning architect, whose other notable projects include the Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong, passed away overnight, his son Chien Chung Pei told the New York Times, adding that the family had just had a celebratory dinner to mark his father’s 102nd birthday.

Pei became best known for his modern building designs emphasising natural light, plain surfaces, and sharp angles, such as his landmark East Building at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

“Contemporary architects tend to impose modernity on something. There is a certain concern for history but it is not very deep,” Pei told The New York Times in 2008.

“I understand that times have changed, we have evolved. But I don’t want to forget the beginning.

“A lasting architecture has to have roots.”

Pei sparked deep controversy with his modernist work on the Louvre pyramid, which was once seen by locals as sacrilege because it was at odds with the classic French Renaissance style of the palace. It was dubbed as an architectural “obscenity.”

At one point, up to 90 percent of Parisians opposed the project. Pei remembered “receiving many angry glances in the streets,” the Japan Times reported.

The Louvre had also been called a “gigantic, ruinous gadget” by a critic, Quartzy reported.

“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: ‘There you go again. What are you doing here? What are you doing to our great Louvre?’” Pei said in a 2010 PBS documentary.

However, years later, the pyramid is now considered a masterpiece and an icon of the French capital. The monument is also often used as a venue for events ranging from fashion shows to public gatherings and political rallies.

Last year, it broke its own record, welcoming 10.2 million visitors—up 25 per cent from the 8.1 million people that visited in 2017. Its previous highest attendance record was 9.7 million in 2012, France 24 reported.

Pei was also responsible for designing the accompanying “pyramid ininversée” (inverted pyramid)—an inverse of the original pyramid that is located in the Carrousel du Louvre in front of the Louvre Museum.

“I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art. To become art, it must be built on a foundation of necessity,” Pei once said.

Pei, who was born in China in 1917 to a banker father and artistic mother, arrived in the United States to study architecture at the age of 17. He completed his architecture undergraduate degree in 1940 with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He then undertook a master’s degree in architecture with Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, which he completed in 1946. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1954.

Pei won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983 and was cited as giving the 20th century “some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms … His versatility and skill in the use of materials approach the level of poetry.”

“Stylistic originality is not my purpose,” Pei once said. “I want to find the originality in the time, the place, and the problem.”

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