I.M. Pei, architect of Louvre Pyramid, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, dead at 102

I.M. Pei, whose modern designs and high-profile projects made him one of the best-known and most prolific architects of the 20th century, has died. He was 102.

Pei, whose portfolio included a controversial renovation of Paris’ Louvre Museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, died overnight. His death was confirmed Thursday by a spokesperson at his New York architecture firm.

Ieoh Ming Pei, the son of a prominent banker in China, left his homeland in 1935, moving to the United States and studying architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. After teaching and working for the U.S. government, he went to work for a New York developer in 1948 and started his own firm in 1955.

The museums, municipal buildings, hotels, schools and other structures that Pei built around the world showed precision geometry and an abstract quality with a reverence for light. They were composed of tone, steel and glass and, as with the Louvre, he often worked glass pyramids into his projects.

The Louvre, parts of which date to the 12th century, proved to be Pei’s most controversial work, starting with the fact that he was not French. After being chosen for the job by President François Mitterrand amid much secrecy, Pei began by making a four-month study of the museum and French history.

Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre was a striking contrast to the museum’s existing structures in classic French style and was reviled by many French. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

He created a futuristic 21-metre steel-framed, glass-walled pyramid as a grand entrance for the museum with three smaller pyramids nearby. It was a striking contrast to the existing Louvre structures in classic French style and was reviled by many French.

A French newspaper described Pei’s pyramids as “an annex to Disneyland” while an environmental group said they belonged in a desert.

Pei said the Louvre was undoubtedly the most difficult job of his career. When it opened in 1993 he said he had wanted to create a modern space that did not detract from the traditional part of the museum.

But he also was interested in architecture as art — and the effect he could create.

“At one level my goal is simply to give people pleasure in being in a space and walking around it,” he said. “But I also think architecture can reach a level where it influences people to want to do something more with their lives. That is the challenge that I find most interesting.”

The Bank of China Tower, centre, is pictured in Hong Kong on Aug. 23, 2012. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

His buildings added elegance to landscapes worldwide with their powerful geometric shapes and grand spaces, among them, the striking steel and glass Bank of China skyscraper in Hong Kong.

Other notable Pei projects include the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester, Mass., the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Dallas City Hall.

His Canadian designs include the CIBC Commerce Court West building in Toronto and Montreal’s Place Ville Marie. 

No challenge seemed to be too great for Pei, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which sits on the shore of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Pei, who admitted he was just catching up with the Beatles, researched the roots of rock ‘n’ roll and came up with an array of contrasting shapes for the museum. He topped it off with a transparent tent-like structure, which was “open — like the music,” he said.

Pei topped off Cleveland’s Rock and roll Hall of Fame with a transparent tent-like structure, which he said was open — ‘like the music.’ (Associated Press)

Pei won the international Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983. He used the $100,000 US award to start a program for aspiring Chinese architects to study in the United States.

Even though he formally retired from his firm in 1990, Pei was still taking on projects in his late 80s, such as museums in Luxembourg, Qatar and his ancestral home of Suzhou.

The Qatar museum, which opened in 2008, was inspired by Islamic architectural history, especially the ninth century mosque of Ahmed ibn Tulun in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. It was established by the tiny, oil-rich nation to compete with rival Persian Gulf countries for international attention and investment.

The Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. (Francois Nel/Getty Images for Qatar Tourism Authority)

Pei, a slight man who wore round, owl-ish glasses, became a U.S. citizen in 1955. He was married to Eileen Loo from 1942 until her death in 2014. They had four children, two of whom became architects.

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