He is one of the world's greatest architects, whose stunning buildings have sparked both wonder and controversy. IM Pei, now in his 90s, talks to Jonathan Glancey
Impeccably mannered and quietly spoken, Pei, now 92, has walked an architectural tightrope for half a century. Marrying ancient and modern, he has created buildings as influential as the trapezoid-shaped east wing of Washington's National Gallery of Art, as ambitious as the Bank of China's soaring HQ in Hong Kong, and as controversial as the Pyramide du Louvre in Paris. He has won pretty much every prize his profession has to offer; last month he was presented with the prestigious royal gold medal for architecture, a gift of the Queen, presented by the Royal Institute for British Architects. "A wonderful honour," he says, when we meet in London's Mandarin Oriental hotel, "for someone who hasn't really built here."
Born in Canton, south-east China, in 1917, Pei is the son of a banker and an artistic mother, who would take him to see dreamy Chinese gardens and mountainside shrines. "These have always been the most important inspiration to me as an architect," says Pei. "I have never forgotten those gardens: wonderful marriages of man-made and natural design. I've come back to them again and again; they are my guide as much as the work of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, who I admired as a young architect newly arrived in the US."
Despite being offered a place at Oxford, the lure of America proved too strong for the young Pei. "I liked the America of Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – it was all a dream, of course, but a very alluring dream for a young man from Canton." It drew him to San Francisco, and from there to a string of east coast universities, where he studied under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. His intention had been to return to China, but war broke out and he stayed on to become a US citizen, setting up his own practice in 1960.
A rose-red vision in the Rockies
Pei's reputation was made with the opening, in 1967, of his bold laboratories for the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. Clad in local stone that goes from pink to rose-red to ruddy brown with the passing sun, these geometric labs look and feel like an extension of the Rocky Mountains; yet they are defiantly man-made, right down to the slits and chutes cut into their walls. "When I first came to this awe-inspiring landscape," says Pei, "it was as if I was standing with my mother again, on a sacred mountainside in China." This being Colorado, though, he looked for inspiration locally. "I visited the nearby Indian pueblos," he says, referring to the 13th-century Native American cliff dwellings, "and absorbed their forms and structure."
Pei was 50 when the labs opened; architecture, as he says, shouldn't be hurried. "As a young man, of course I had been looking for something new, even revolutionary. I knew what Le Corbusier was doing. I wanted to go his way. But, after some years, I began to think differently. I became interested in a modern architecture that made connections to place, history and nature. Modern architecture needed to be part of an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, process."
The infamous Louvre pyramid
Pei went from strength to strength with commissions for Washington's National Gallery of Art and the John F Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. The former exhibits the powerful, elemental forms that characterise his mature work; the mere fact of being commissioned for the latter shows Pei's standing in his adopted country. His most charismatic work, though, was commissioned far from America. Twenty years ago, Pei unveiled two of his finest buildings: the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, and the underground lobbies of the Louvre in Paris capped with his famous (some might say infamous) pyramid.
The tower is one of the most exciting and elegant of all recent skyscrapers. Intended as a symbol of the new, ultra-capitalist People's Republic, the building was a special one for the architect. His father had worked for the Bank of China long before it was taken into state control, while Pei, educated by Christian missionaries at Shanghai's St John's Middle School, had long sided with Chinese nationalists rather than Mao's communists. Shortly before the opening of the tower, Pei wrote a powerful editorial for the New York Times condemning the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, which he saw as a sign that the image China wanted to project to the world – partly through his cool, modern tower – was drastically out of step with the reality of life for the country's people.
Yet the tower, with its beautifully expressed, zig-zagging steel frame, rises out of the density of Hong Kong with a confidence and elegance that places it above the brutal nature of politics. It was the island's tallest building when it opened in 1990, and it still ranks among the finest additions to the city, a majestic peak in an urban mountain range.
The Louvre pyramid stirred even deeper emotions, and huge controversy. Commissioned as one of President Mitterrand's grands projets in 1985, this ingenious structure – at once ethereal and crystalline, ancient and modern – has slowly won over most of its detractors. The tip of an architectural iceberg, it forms the entrance to the cavernous Pei-designed lobbies below. "I hoped the controversy would die down quickly," says Pei. "Perhaps I was a little optimistic. But, you know, the choice of the pyramid was not some personal idiosyncrasy. Paris is a city of pyramids, from the time when Napoleon [after whom the court the pyramid rises from is named] became fascinated by Egyptian architecture, after his military campaign along the Nile." What's more, the Cour Napoleon is the urban equivalent of a desert plain. Pei's pyramid rises from it as purposefully and fittingly as its massive stone predecessors do from the sands of Giza.
Today, steering well away from controversy, Pei is working quietly on a Shinto temple in Kyoto, close to the extraordinary Miho Museum, which sits half-buried in the rugged, misty landscape of the Shiga mountains. "It will be a fusion of ancient feeling and contemporary design," he says. "You know, the first decent building I did with my own practice was a chapel in Taiwan." This was the Luce Memorial Chapel. Designed in 1954 and completed nine years later, it's a stunning, tent-like concrete structure with overlapping roofs that look like stylised leaves falling from the canopy of some sacred grove.
"I think I must be coming full circle," says Pei. Perhaps he is. From a Christian chapel in Taiwan to a Shinto temple in Japan, via some of the most impressive and – albeit unintentionally – controversial buildings of the past 50 years, Pei, the most unpolemical of men, has met the challenges of architecture at all levels. Somehow, though, I think he would still like to design a garden studded with modern pavilions that would complement (he is not interested in rivalling or bettering) the place that has so inspired him, the Taoist Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou, with its poetically named buildings: the Standing-in-the-Snow Hall, Faint Fragrance Dim Shadow Tower and True Delight Pavilion. He acknowledges this by simply saying: "In another life, I might be a gardener. How wonderful it must be to design such gardens."
Pei says his toughest ever commission was the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, which opened in 2008. How could he distil centuries of Islamic design into one building? He found the answer when he visited the serene, ninth-century mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun in Cairo. Its ancient elemental forms, and its precise use of shadows thrown by the baking sun, found a new life in Pei's hard-edged, geometrically bold museum, set on an artificial island 60 metres off the Doha waterfront.
Pei, after all, is a great believer in continuity. Married for nearly 70 years, he has four children, two of them architects. As we talk, he displays a huge admiration for the longevity of his fellow royal gold medal winner, Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian designer of cities the world over. "Oscar is still a radical," he says. "He's still at work, every day, at the age of 102. Wow! Perhaps I'm not so ancient after all."