Today, April 26th 2017, marks I.M. Pei’s 100th birthday. The occasion offers a wonderful opportunity to take a retrospective look at one of the most significant and productive architects of the past 100 years, with many organizations hosting events, celebrations, and symposiums to talk about Master Pei and his notable projects. However at these events, just as throughout I.M. Pei’s career, there is unlikely to be much intellectual conversation about Pei’s architectural legacy. The main discussion around I.M. Pei is still focused on his design talent and intriguing narratives about the charisma he used to convince clients to continue through tough projects.
Though I.M. Pei himself has never talked at length about his design theory or the intellectual basis of his projects, these simple narratives leave certain questions unanswered: Where does I.M. Pei’s inspiration for architectural form come from? How did his architectural design affect his peer group of architects and artists, and contribute intellectually to the contemporary art world?
To discuss I.M.’s work, we start from two art projects. The first one is Walter de Maria’s famous installation of aluminum channels, “Triangle, Circle, Square” of 1972, and the second one is Sol LeWitt’s drawing, “All Double Combinations of Six Geometric Figures” from 1977.
Both of these two works are composed of primitive shapes, especially the most basic, the triangle, circle and square. These shapes are also the most powerful formal elements applied in the significant I.M. Pei buildings. Each classic Pei building has a clear gestalt which can be perceived whole, as a powerful icon, or easily disintegrated into a set of simple geometries.
If Walter de Maria’s Triangle, Circle, Square is the most straightforward example of Minimalist art’s obsession with the individual primitive shapes, the Sol LeWitt painting takes a further step, examining the basic rules of the visual world by exposing the power of these elemental shapes. In these two renowned minimalist artists, we see an artistic approach that echoes the architectural approach of I.M. Pei, one that explores the boundaries of spatial composition while still retaining the formal clarity of the primitive shapes and the legibility of their compositional rules.
Like other Sol LeWitt line drawings, All Double Combinations can be simply deconstructed into separate images according to each elemental figure. The superimpositions of these figures resemble I.M. Pei’s diagrams showing the basic spatial logic of his architectural plans or sections, and thus I.M. Pei’s buildings can similarly be disintegrated or decomposed into a group of primitive geometric figures.
The clearest example which demonstrates a bold combination of all of these three shapes is the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Massachusetts. Like the power we can feel from Walter de Maria’s aluminum installation, each of the most elemental geometries isolated from I.M. Pei’s masterpieces shows its spatial energy with a strong statement of the primitive and perfect form.
It is intriguing that Sol LeWitt, working as a graphic designer, spent a brief period at I.M. Pei and Associates in the 1950s, but it seems neither ever talked much about each other, and a comprehensive comparative study of these two artistic masters is still missing. Also, the obsession with primitive shapes of Walter de Maria and many other notable minimalist artists shows that the common language they share with I.M. Pei was formed in the same larger artistic context. In the past 100 years, the ascendance and apex of I.M. Pei’s career overlap significantly with the active period of minimalist art. Although Pei never associated himself to any specific school, as a successful architect who is interested in, and maintains a connection with, the contemporary art world, the influence of minimalist art upon him is obvious.
Geographically, this mutual influence is even more evident when we think about what happened in the past century to the capital city of the contemporary art world, New York, specifically the borough of Manhattan. As shown below, New York City made a huge contribution to the promotion of the most significant movements in the history of American contemporary art. Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, and Minimalism consecutively took NYC as their main stage. Most of these movements’ renowned artists had studios or major exhibitions in NYC. It is the city where I.M. Pei lived and worked for most of his life, and also the same place in which Sol LeWitt and Walter de Maria spent decades exerting their artistic talent. At the same time as American contemporary art was reaching its climax in NYC, simple but powerful formal languages relying on primitive shapes became one of the prominent styles for both architects and artists. The fact that the formal clarity of I.M. Pei’s buildings is also the defining characteristic of minimalist art is not just a coincidence, but a consequence of mutual inspiration created by both chronological and geographical overlaps.
The relationship between I.M. Pei and Minimalist Art doesn’t rest merely on a superficial resemblance; rather, a deeper similarity in the ideas behind their fascination with primitive shapes shows an intellectual common ground established by one of the mainstream philosophies active in the visual art world during the period from the 1950s to the 1980s. Distancing themselves from the era’s advancing technological development and complicated political reality, these simple, pure and prime geometries brought people back to a meditation on the basic rules of our material world.
However, the eventual result of I.M. Pei’s architectural work is nevertheless hugely different in nature compared to minimalist artwork. Minimalist art aims to abandon the specific description of objects and pursue a “de-objectified” abstraction, conception and perception of the visual world. Objects are gone in minimalist art. For I.M. Pei, though the basic elements of formal composition remain the same, the final result turns out to be clearly defined architectural objects. Without a doubt, each iconic Pei building gives a powerful and vocal statement as an independent object. This shows that I.M. Pei’s architectural practice, though sharing its conceptual beginnings with minimalist art, grows into a different result. It is probably due to the nature of architectural work that, after being realized through specific construction materials and details, the “objectification” of the prime geometries is strengthened by explicit characteristics, far from the abstraction and infinite logical thinking the minimalists wanted to explore.
Recent architectural exploration—on ambiguity, duality, and uncertainty—is in sharp contrast with the strong, non-hesitant formal clarity of I.M. Pei’s iconic buildings. Present-day geometries used by popular architectural practices often try to blur the line between the legibility of an independent architectural object and the surrounding context both physically and conceptually. In this sense, Pei’s masterpieces are more like unrepeatable and irreplaceable “monuments” such as classical Roman or Renaissance structures. They are wonderful buildings, but belong to a past age. Even though I.M. Pei always hesitates to talk about the ideas or theories behind his works, his productive work in his now-100-year lifespan, and his status as one of the most significant architects in modern history, leaves us an abundant legacy, in which we can still explore intellectual values not only in the architectural field, but in the wider context of the visual art world.
Tianci Han holds Master’s Degrees in Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design (2014) and Tsinghua School of Architecture (2012). He worked as an Architectural Designer at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners from 2014 until April 2017.