I. M. Pei’s agility with the Modern form has garnered him prestigious commissions for museums and cultural institutions throughout his career, from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (winner of this year’s AIA 25 Year Award) to an addition and renovation of the centuries-old Louvre to a new wing for temporary exhibitions at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Although he’s been “officially” retired for more than a decade, Pei still has projects on his plate and a twice-a-week-at-the-office habit. Shortly after the AIA Accent on Architecture dinner on March 3 in Washington, D.C., editor in chief Robert Ivy visited Pei at his office in Lower Manhattan, where they discussed the evolution of Pei’s design thinking, the importance of working abroad, and his current slate of projects.
Architectural Record: You say you have retired, but you continue to be involved in projects. What are you working on right now?
IMP: I haven’t taken any new projects in the past three years—I told myself, if I cannot live long enough to finish it, I don’t want it. So I have three projects now. The first one is the Musée d’Arte Moderne in Luxembourg, which is under construction right now. The museum will be located on top of an old, old fortress, Fort Tüngen, which the Austrians built in the 1800s. The client is the State of Luxembourg. I accepted the commission for the project in 1990 or 1991, after I retired, but it began only six months ago—it was stopped altogether five or six years for various reasons. The second project is a museum in my hometown of Suzhou, China. And I am also designing the Museum of Islamic Art in the Middle East, in Qatar.
So do these projects involve design work, or development work and decisions about construction?
It’s a little bit of each. I just completed the design for the museum in Qatar, which I accepted about two and a half years ago. It’s now under construction, but that’s an exceptional one, because usually it takes longer than that. I’m doing most of the work on the Suzhou Museum on my own.
That’s a very active, demanding schedule.
I’ve been active all my life. In 1990 I retired from my firm, I.M. Pei & Partners, and for two years I didn’t do much. Then I started to get kind of antsy, so I decided, I’m going to do some more work. And I chose to do work outside the U.S. because I’ve spent 45 years here and I wanted to learn more about what’s happening in the rest of the world. So I travel to the Middle East, I travel to China, I travel to Europe. It’s all very rewarding—the only problem is the travel is getting more and more difficult for me now. Ten years ago I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
And my projects have typically taken a long time to complete. Buildings might take on average about five to seven years to finish, but in my case it’s been longer, because the projects I have accepted within the past 15 years have been mostly government projects, and those involve some politics and funding issues, and approvals and so forth. So they’re slower.
Tell me about the museum you’re designing in your hometown in China.
When this commission came, it was very special. I was born in Suzhou, a city not very far from Shanghai. It’s a very interesting town—there is a long artist’s tradition there, especially during the Ming and Ching dynasties, which produced many, many scholars and painters and so forth. That’s where my family lived for 600, 700 years. When the mayor first came to me about designing a museum, I said no, it’s too far away. They invited me to go back six or seven years ago, and I always tried to say no. But finally, a couple of years ago I accepted it. The location could not be more exciting. It’s a very special site, surrounded by a wonderful garden. I thought the project would touch on my relationship with my past, my ancestors, my old home. The building is now under construction. It has two more years to go before it’s complete.
How about your other projects? Say, the museum in Luxembourg?
That project came to me after I had completed the Louvre. I was approached by the prime minister of Luxembourg and asked to design a museum for modern art, near the fortress [Fort Thüngen], which is being turned into a museum as well. It wasn’t as big of a challenge as the Louvre, but I was very interested in it. For instance, I wanted to know why the building would be located on top of a fortress. Luxembourg was and still is today a crossroads, the place where Germany meets the rest of Europe. The country lost part of its territory to Belgium in the 1800s, and during World Wars I and II the German military overran it. The fortress was the natural symbol, the physical symbol of the country. Very few people have visited Luxembourg—when I went there and looked at it, I said, my God, it’s built on a rock. And within the rock they had a castle, and within the city there’s a network of tunnels so the residents could move around and defend themselves. That was of great interest to me. I was curious to know how Luxembourg remained an independent country—that’s why I accepted the commission.
Let’s go back and talk about a few of your past projects. Your work at the Louvre represented one of the first instances of an architect being employed by a major government agency in a way that gave you a prominent role in the country’s self-image. Could you talk about that? Were you consciously aware of how important the Louvre was to them at that time?
It was a total surprise that they approached me to do the project. You know the French, not to mention the Parisians—they see the Louvre as their monument, so to come to an American for a project like that is something I never expected. I thought perhaps they were just trying to show interest in different architects to try out the idea. But when President Mitterand asked me to see him, I knew that it was serious. Mitterand was a student of architecture, he had done a lot of research before he called me. He said, “You did something special at the National Gallery of Art in Washington—you brought the new and the old together.” But John Russell Pope finished the West Building in 1941, so when the East Building opened it was only about 40 years old. But the Louvre is 800 years old! A much bigger design challenge.
I didn’t accept the project right away, excited though I was. Instead, I told Mitterand that I needed four months to explore the project before I could accept it. I wanted that time so I could study the history of France, because what is the Louvre? The first portions were built in the 12th century, and a succession of rulers came, added on, built something, demolished something else. For 800 years the Louvre has been a monument for the French—the building mirrors their history. I thought by asking him for this time it might make him say no, thank you very much, because he was in a hurry—he’d been elected in 1981 and his term would last only seven years, and this was 1983—so there was some pressure for him to accomplish something.
In those four months, I studied. I asked for four visits to the Louvre, one visit each month. And I asked the Louvre to keep things confidential at first, without revealing the fact that I was asked by the president to be involved, so that I could go to France unencumbered and visit the Louvre, assess what’s wrong with it, what’s right about it, what had to be destroyed or must be saved, that sort of thing. Mitterand agreed to all this. You cannot defend your design without knowing what you’re designing for. When I was being questioned by the press about the design later on, all this preparation was very useful.
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