Rethinking Pei: a centenary symposium at M+ Hong Kong

Rethinking Pei: a centenary symposium at M+ Hong Kong

A two-part symposium organised by M+, Hong Kong’s museum for visual culture, Harvard University and the University of Hong Kong, has marked the centenary of the Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei.

Its dual locations enabled an unusual perspective on Guangzhou-born MIT and Harvard-educated Pei’s oeuvre of the two worlds – the United States and Hong Kong/China – that he most shaped and was shaped by. There is a surprising paucity of analysis of Pei’s extraordinary six-decade career.

‘Pei didn’t cultivate or engage academia the way many of his peers do. As such, he sort of went missing within the scholarly debates of his time,’ says Aric Chen, M+ Lead Curator for Design and Architecture.

The symposium successfully redresses this by combining viewpoints from architects, historians and researchers with first hand accounts by Pei’s colleagues, collaborators, friends and family.

National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1967. Image courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

The result is an intriguing insight into the Pritzker Prize-winning architect’s earliest large-scale urban renewal projects created while he was in-house architect to the New York developer William Zeckendorf, as well as seminal works such as his once highly controversial renovation of the Louvre, in Paris, featuring four unapologetically modernist glass-and-steel pyramids planted in the historic museum’s main courtyard.

The symposium is notable for going beyond a well-deserved tribute, to explore elements such as Pei’s nuanced appreciation of cultural contexts with results often appreciated only decades later.

It also reveals interesting insights, including Pei’s first design after his ‘retirement’ in 1990; a simple bell tower. It was one of the smallest commissions he had ever undertaken, but by allowing him to indulge his passion for sculpture, it subsequently led to his design of the Miho Museum, where he sliced off the top of a forested mountaintop near Kyoto, then replanted soil and trees over the newly embedded temple-like building, redefining the relationship between nature and architecture.

‘Pei is known for his masterful rigour, but in exploring his work further, we can see that underlying it all is a finely-tuned intuition, something we perhaps all ought to trust more in ourselves,’ says Chen.