Ieoh Ming Pei was born into a Chinese society whose best days seemed behind it. Wracked with revolution, hectored by European capitalists, China appeared to be on its last legs. But Pei’s family stayed ahead of the violence by moving among a succession of Buddhist monasteries, ancestral meditation gardens, and modern urban developments. These ancient and new influences provided Pei’s first education in making buildings both useful and uplifting.
Jill Rubalcaba has a substantial résumé publishing history and historical fiction for middle grade readers. Her publisher is pushing this new biography of IM Pei for readers age twelve and up, but with its lavish illustrations and sweeping human landscapes, adults will find plenty to like as well. You could press it into your kids’ hands if they’re looking for a purpose to drive their lives, or you can display it as art in pride of place in your living room.
Like many Chinese in the years between the world wars, Pei’s family sent their oldest son to study in America. Architecture initially put him off, with its emphasis on rococo design frippery, but Pei happened to hit the field just as Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus pioneers revolutionized the discipline. Suddenly, instead of being the exclusive domain of rich sybarites, artful design promised to allow ordinary people the chance to live in beautiful spaces.
Unable to return to China when the Communists took over, Pei instead joined forces with a Manhattan land tycoon, designing low-cost housing for the post-war economic boom. Though “high art” architects looked down on this kind of work, it proved a valuable learning experience for Pei. He learned, because he had to, how to perform feats of remarkable engineering with scarce materials and less money. This would pay off when he graduated to more ambitious projects.
More than once in this book, Rubalcaba quotes Pei insisting that he has no specific “signature” as an architect. And there’s something to that, inasmuch as he doesn’t incorporate the same ornamentation into every design, like Le Corbusier’s elevated pylons or Maxwell Fry’s picture windows. But with his fondness for radiant natural light, glass architecture, and geometric minimalism, Pei most certainly has his own distinct, and influential, style.
Rubalcaba focuses on just a few of Pei’s buildings (notably not including perhaps his most famous design, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum). These range from well-known and iconic, like his glass Louvre pyramids and Hong Kong’s landmark Bank of China building, to less famous buildings, like Kyoto’s Miho Museum and Beijing’s low-rise Fragrant Hill hotel. Her descriptions of Pei’s ambitious process emphasize architecture as art, not “mere” system.
And Pei proves important principles which current designers and artists could stand to emulate. He eschews pretentious ornamentation, keeping focus on simple geometric forms which enhance whatever work or leisure happens within their walls. His lack of ostentation breathed new life into the Louvre, which was decaying before his intervention. And his National Center for Atmospheric Research building, designed half a century ago, still looks innovative and new.
Rubalcaba fleshes out her fast-moving but detailed text with breathtaking illustrations. Pei’s preliminary pen sketches give way to detailed design drawings and models, photos of construction in process (Pei importantly appears on his sites, not just designing from some glass-enclosed Manhattan office), and comprehensive landscapes of his finished buildings. Rubalcaba emphasizes Pei’s architecture as doing and living, not art on paper.
She also does a remarkable job situating her subject in his life and times. As she states, Pei’s work is inseparable from the Buddhist gardens and minimalist Chinese design of his boyhood. Her photos document what remains of Pei’s ancestral China, and she incorporates numerous pictures from his life, including interactions with such luminaries as Paul Mellon, François Mitterrand, and Jackie Kennedy.
Rubalcaba dances along the border between children’s book and grown-up art folio, creating a product sure to please anyone who loves great design, fine photography, and contemporary history. She makes Pei come alive through his works, and his buildings come alive through him. This book is a pure pleasure to read, look at, or just to hold.