Sunday, August 02, 2009

UK Vogue: IM Pei, The High Priest of Modernism

By Julie Earle-Levine

Photograph by Sacha Waldman

UK Vogue, GQ, Tatler
August 2009

Ieoh Ming Pei, commonly known by his initials, IM, is dressed in an immaculate grey suit, signature tortoise shell glasses magnifying bright eyes. The renowned Chinese-born American architect, who is 92, extends a firm handshake and beams energetically. He is just back from Paris. “They put on a little party for me because it was the 20th year of the Louvre pyramid,” he explains.

Pei’s Grand Louvre glass pyramid project is regarded as one of his greatest achievements. ““It was a very emotional trip for me. Twenty years! “

Pei’s entire life has been a remarkable journey. At 17, he left China for the US where he would study at Harvard and then work as an architect, designing more than 50 buildings, all over the world. As a young architect, he was selected by Jackie Kennedy to design the JFK National Library in Boston. He would later design the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and earn the Pritzker Prize in 1983. The jury said he had given this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms.

When asked about his career, Pei cites the Louvre and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, that opened last year as among his most important work. But he admits this is a difficult question to ponder in a 70-year-architecture career. “It is like a man with many, many daughters. Which is the prettiest? Which is the one I like best? I can’t say, but these projects are of interest to me and also of great interest to the world.”

The Islamic museum was tipped to be his final project. “Did I say that?’ he laughs. “Well, it is a project I had not expected to do. Now I know more because I really entered into it out of curiosity. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn bout Islam, which is a great religion.” The Suzhou Museum, in his hometown in China is also important, he says, since it is where his family comes from.

Any regrets? “I would have liked to have done more houses. I am not known as a house architect but I would have liked to have done more.” In New York, he designed several highly regarded housing projects, including Kips Bay Plaza, and Silver Towers in Greenwich Village, which was recently landmarked.

Im Pei’s latest project, with his son Sandi Pei, is The Centurion, a modern, glass condo building in mid-town Manhattan. Sandi and his brother Didi are also architects and launched their own company, Pei Partnership Architects in 1992, after working in-house with Pei.

Pei’s eyes twinkle when he talks about New York. “I was educated in Massachusetts. I used to say Cambridge and Boston. No longer, it is New York, New York, New York!”

Pei may be a New Yorker, but he is a citizen of the world. Is there anything the last master of high modernist architecture has not yet done, that he’d like to? Pei pauses for a moment and sighs. “I would like to have been a painter. That is my secret.”