At Large  May 21, 2019  Chandra Noyes

I.M. Pei’s Legacy: 7 Museum Structures that Changed Architecture

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The Pyramid at the Louvre

The worlds of art and architecture lost a superstar last week in I.M. Pei, who died at the age of 102. A prolific designer of major buildings and institutions since he began working in the late 1940s, his iconic works around the world continue to profoundly influence architects working today. Born in 1917 in China, Pei moved to the US for college, eventually starting a family and spending the rest of his life here.

A progressive architect who admired the International Style of Le Corbusier, Pei wasn’t afraid to adapt more traditional styles to be more modern. His progressive take on design was flexible, changing, and award-winning: Pei won every major award in architecture including the Pritzker Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President George H. W. Bush in 1992. Pei designed all types of buildings throughout his 70-year career, from a few homes to massive office buildings. Here are seven influential museum designs that have shaped how we see art and the buildings that house them.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio
wikimedia commons, Derek Jensen

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio

Opened in 1995, Pei was commissioned to design this building in order to bring prestige to a subject matter considered by some to be “low art.” Pei’s design mixes a glass facade reminiscent of the Louvre Pyramid with large geometric shapes in white metal, meant to echo the freedom and exuberance of rock and roll. Though he was reportedly unsatisfied with the finished building, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame remains a major tourist draw and the building is unmistakable.
 

Mudam,  Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
wikimedia commons, Denise Hastert

Mudam,  Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

In a remarkable and complex transformation, I.M. Pei designed the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art (or Mudam) to rise from the remains of the historic Fort Thüngen in Luxembourg. Though constrained by the original foundations of the building, Pei added a light, modern feel to the ancient structure.

Macau Science Center, Macau, China
wikimedia commons, Diego Delso

Macau Science Center, Macau, China

Though long retired, I.M. Pei began designing the Macau Science Center in 2001 working with his sons’ firm, Pei Partnership Architects. Opened in 2009, the building is a unique conical shape, with a large spiral walkway that winds up the interior. The distinctive building is now a landmark of the Macau skyline.
 

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar 
wikimedia commons, Francisco Anzola

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar 

A modern take on traditional Islamic architecture, the Museum of Islamic Art stands on its own island built in the Doha Bay. It’s rippling forms reflect both the waterfront and the repeating forms common in Islamic art. Opened in 2008, the museum features over 14 centuries of Islamic art, which Pei studied on a six-month trek through the region in preparation for his design.

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, France
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The Louvre Pyramid, Paris, France

Originally controversial for its radical modernism in the face of tradition, I.M. Pei’s Pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre is now an icon recognized around the world. Belying its dramatic look, the pyramid is largely functional, bringing natural light to subterranean offices, and providing a single entrance to unite the three buildings of the Louvre. Opening in 1988, the structure and it’s surrounding controversy made Pei a household name.

East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

An addition to the original, classical National Gallery of Art, I.M. Pei’s East Building married modernism with tradition, creating a welcoming entrance with its new facade. In an attempt to best use the trapezoidal space, Pei based his design on the triangle, creating a large, open lobby, as well as modern art galleries and offices. Like many of his works, when the East Building first opened in 1978, some critics found it garish, though they now recognize the genius of his groundbreaking design.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts
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John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts

A complex project many years in the making, I.M. Pei transformed a former landfill in Boston into a stunning tribute to John F. Kennedy. Encompassing archives, a museum, and memorial, Pei’s design had to serve many purposes, as well as honor a slain American icon. Though Pei was chosen as the lead architect in 1964, the building would not open until 1979, due to changes in the design and location resulting from public opposition. Jacqueline Kennedy chose Pei in part because he was the same age as her husband, and wanted to give the young architect a break, explaining, “I decided it would be fun to take a great leap with him.”

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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