Friday, 17 May 2019

Tribute to IM Pei

The legendary architect IM Pei has died at the age of 102

This morning I woke up to the sad news that architect IM Pei had died at the age of 102. Tributes have been pouring in for the Chinese-American who is famous for his buildings scattered around the world, including the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and of course in Hong Kong, the Bank of China headquarters.

The Bank of China Building in Hong Kong
I pass by that building every time I go to the gym behind the bank, climbing up the stairs along the mini waterfalls. When the bank was first built, superstitious Hongkongers worried the building looked like a knife, cutting up the city, or that it looked like the devil with its two antennae at the top.

Pei's family has a long history with the bank -- in fact it just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, making it around the same age as him!

His father, Tsuyee Pei, was one of China's leading bankers, according to the New York Times, and when Ieoh Ming Pei was an infant, the family moved to Hong Kong so that Pei senior could run the Hong Kong branch of the Bank of China.

A century later and two generations later, IM Pei's son, Li Chung Pei or Sandi, would lead the renovations of the old Bank of China just down the street from his father's shiny triangular building.

It's a wonderful anecdote that clearly illustrates the Pei's family roots in Hong Kong and its contribution to banking and architecture in the city.

The Suzhou Museum is symmetrical and calming
My other story is in 2008 I spent Chinese New Year in Shanghai on my own. One of my days there I caught the train to Suzhou for the day, wandering around when I stumbled on a building that didn't look like the typical mainland Chinese architectural style of big, boxy and lacking style.

I was immediately drawn to this building that was very symmetrical and discovered it was the Suzhou Museum -- designed by IM Pei.

But of course.

This realization made my visit to Suzhou exponentially better as I was immediately soothed by its simple lines, sitting on the edge of a man-made pond that had a calming effect.

Dramatic pyramid down below the Louvre
How did I not know this was here? The building itself was much more interesting than the exhibits inside.

Sadly the Bank of China building is the only IM Pei building in Hong Kong -- in October 2013 it was announced Sunning Plaza, a 31-storey office building in Causeway Bay, whose main feature was that there was a large open space around the buildings, thus creating an "urban oasis". People liked being able to sit outside and dine al fresco amid a quartet of palm trees.

But alas Pei's first project in Hong Kong was torn down by landlord Hysan Development that replaced it with -- what else -- a mixed retail and office building that is a non-descript office block -- literally. It opened late last year.

Nevertheless, in front of the cameras Pei was always smiling, looking dapper in his suits and wearing his trademark black frame round glasses. He knew how to charm potential clients and explain to existing clients why things had to be done his way. There were compromises too, but probably his biggest battle -- the Pyramid at the Louvre -- shows Pei's skills not only in design but also patience and persuasion.

I haven't seen this entire video of his lecture at MIT about the project, but he explains in great detail (with jokes aside), the challenges he went through and how he solved several issues.

Pei is not only a legend in architecture, but also for Chinese immigrants and ethnic Chinese the world over, an inspiration of being proud of his roots and being successful for his designs that changed the urban landscapes around the world.

Pei fought the controversy of having a pyramid at the Louvre
He may have left us but may his buildings continue to live on.

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