February 13, 1978 12:00 PM

As an icy rain lashes bleak Columbia Point, jutting into Boston Harbor, a visitor arrives by taxi. He wades in mud to a construction trailer, puts on an orange slicker, white hard hat and galoshes.

He is Ieoh Ming Pei (pronounced Pay), who, says critic Ada Louise Huxtable, “may very likely be America’s best architect.” Like a schoolboy, the Chinese-born Pei laughs at the rain dripping down his face. He joins his chief supervisor at the site, and they slosh toward a pile driver towering over them.

Pei is inspecting foundations being sunk, at long last, for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, which he designed. The job had been stalled for 12 years in a welter of community conflicts that Pei calls “the worst I’ve ever seen in my business.”

Now a patch of fog lifts on the horizon, revealing another source of dismay to the architect and his firm. It is their glass-coated John Hancock Tower, which began to pop a few of its window panes (called “lites” by architects) in 1971. The glass continued to break intermittently for more than two years. Nobody was ever hurt, but the mysterious phenomenon unleashed a great deal of hurtful publicity and lawsuits that are still unsettled. Boston, all told, has been what Pei calls “a stormy place for me.”

In 1964 his reaction was prideful joy when he was chosen for the Kennedy memorial by an international jury of 18 architects and designers. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Kennedy were so pleased they invited the jurors to lunch at Hyannis Port. With a burst of enthusiasm, Pei designed a multipurpose building (museum, school, library, two theaters) dominated by a spectacular 85-foot-high glass pyramid.

President Kennedy before his death had picked a site for his archives adjacent to the Harvard campus in Cambridge, across the river from Boston. Later the Commonwealth purchased the land, and more money flowed in from four million Americans, including kids who shook out their piggy banks.

Then came a period of second-guessing and cold feet. The Cambridge community feared that Pei’s pyramid might lure tourists who would litter the neighborhood. Ecologists warned against air pollution. Area property owners worried over a drop in land values. Pei listened carefully, as he always does, like a good doctor hearing a patient tell of his pains. Then, to soothe his clients, Pei redesigned the memorial in polite red brick.

They were still uneasy. For one thing, JFK hero worship began to cool, and the luster of the family name dimmed somewhat after Chappaquiddick. Pei offered a dozen additional changes in his plan, then refused to lift a pencil again until all factions decided what, if anything, they really wanted. Some of the critics, looking for a scapegoat, advocated firing Pei.

The stalemate ended when the University of Massachusetts, whose new campus was being built on Columbia Point, invited Pei to join them. The site was once a garbage dump, with no hampering past and an exciting future. Obliged now to conform only to open air and surrounding salt water, Pei designed a boldly shaped new building—a geometric assemblage of circle, triangle and square. Commanding the bay like a lighthouse, it seemed perfect for the sea-loving John Kennedy.

A similar happy ending probably awaits Pei’s Hancock Tower. All its glass skin has been replaced by lites that powder into harmless particles if they do fracture. In any building a small percent of lites are subject to cracking from inherent weaknesses, a fact which is acknowledged by most building codes. No Hancock lites have misbehaved for six months. Still, guards on the outside scan the building with binoculars, and if they spot a lite that looks unstable (it changes color slightly), it is quickly replaced. As a further safeguard, various stabilizers have been embedded in the building to reduce the slight sway common to all skyscrapers. These precautions were taken partly to reassure the Hancock tenants, who by now are feeling both safe and proud to work in the dramatic building. Its mirrored surface reflects such a sky-show of clouds, sunsets and silvery moonlight that Bostonians can justifiably wonder, “What’s playing now at the Hancock?”

As a boy growing up in Shanghai, Pei had glimpses of big business. His father was an important banker, and Pei was entranced by the construction of the city’s tallest building (26 stories). He yearned to go to a U.S. college because he believed from movies that American campuses were filled with girls like Betty Grable and June Allyson. His father sent him at 18 to MIT and then Harvard, where he seldom heard The Varsity Drag but evinced great talent for engineering and architecture. At the age of 31, astonishingly, he was made director of architecture for the late real estate king, William Zeckendorf.

“In 12 years we built nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of work,” says Pei. “He taught me a lot about land development, something I could never learn in school.” In return, Zeckendorf called Pei “probably the greatest site planner alive…a perfectionist but practical…a pleasant guy to have around.”

A pleasant guy Pei still is. His politeness is both genuine and indelibly Oriental. It also has been a great asset in his career. In supervising urban renewal projects, Pei has had to deal with stubborn and often shortsighted city officials. His painter friend William Walton describes Pei in such circumstances. “He leads them, subtly and marvelously, to a high level of judgment, explaining why they don’t want what they just said they wanted.”

The architect calls his firm I. M. Pei & Partners. “We are not a production-line outfit,” he says. “We split into teams for every big job, which gives each man more chance to express his own ideas.” Pei keeps watch over everything, shares the bows and takes the raps. His teammates admire his idealism, which compels him to refuse any job he feels is poorly researched or not in the public interest. (He turned down a glamorous housing project on an island in a New York City river because he feared, at that time, the tenants would have inadequate transportation.) Practicing architecture as if he were a social engineer, Pei asserts, “I want to bring out the best in a community and contribute something of permanent value. Doctors can bury their mistakes, but architects have to live with theirs.”

If the world is shrinking to a global village, Pei is ready for it. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1954.) His work extends from Montreal (Place Ville Marie) to Dallas (City Hall) to Melbourne, Australia (Collins Place). A Georgia newspaper announces that Pei will “revamp downtown Augusta,” while a Far Eastern paper says he will do the same thing for Singapore.

As a traveler, Pei has always seemed indefatigable. In six weeks last fall he hit London, Paris, Amsterdam, Washington (twice), Boston (four times), Denver, Asheville, N.C., Singapore, Hong Kong and Tehran. His firm has built airport towers, colleges, a chapel in Taiwan in honor of the father of Time Inc.’s co-founder, Henry Luce, and a Christian Science Church Center in Boston. Last year Pei was flown to Rumania to advise on rebuilding the city of Bucharest after an earthquake. He also judges architectural competitions, bestows awards and has himself won more than 30 of them.

Though his boyish cordiality has never left him, a colleague says Pei can be “as tough as a Mandarin bandit.” And now, at 60, he is starting to suffer from jet lag. After one of his global gallops, his wife, Eileen, finds him “impossible” and threatens, with a laugh, to have him arrested. Instead, she makes him stay home from work for a day after a long flight.

Pei met Eileen when she was a Wellesley student. They have four children and two grandchildren. Friends say they are an unusually loving couple, which makes dining at the Pei home a delight. Mrs. Pei is also a wonderful cook, an eclectic who freely mixes Western and Chinese dishes—say, winter melon soup and crown roast of beef—at the same meal. Her husband feels his duty is to be a fine consumer. “Great artists,” he announces, “need great clients.”

At home in midtown New York, Pei raises azaleas, preferably white, which he is forever potting, pruning and toting from house to garden, country to city. When he retires, he has told his wife, he looks forward to a peaceful life raising azaleas.

In small homes or huge urban centers, Pei crusades for empty spaces. He quotes the Chinese philosopher Lao-tse: “The essence of the vessel is in its emptiness.” Likewise, Pei feels all buildings must be containers for handsome, useful emptiness where people can circulate, work or relax.

What is the future for this vision of architecture? In the last few months several critics have written books saying it is dying or already dead, a victim of being too cold, too inhuman, too bare and boxlike.

These obituaries might well have applied to some of Pei’s early skyscrapers. The buildings look as if they came as standardized as graph paper that could be cut at any length. Today he is breaking away from square corners, flirting with rhomboids, defying the tyranny of the 90° angle.

Pei mixes old and new styles in accordance with the yin-and-yang principle of Chinese philosophy, which unites opposite powers in harmonious balance. When he remodeled his narrow, old-fashioned New York town-house, he left its original facade intact to harmonize with the neighboring houses, while completely modernizing the inside to admit more sunlight and air. “Good architecture lets nature in,” he preaches. To his living room he added a bit of yin and yang with two chairs. One is modern, built and painted in penny-candy colors by his French friend, the artist Jean Dubuffet. The other, in contrast, is an early-American-style bentwood rocker. Pei sits happily in either. His adaptability is his guarantee of survival.

He is creating perhaps his most unlikely marriage in Washington. Next door to the stately neoclassic National Gallery of Art he has built an ultramodern annex, chiefly for American art (it opens in June). The two museums could hardly be stranger architectural bedfellows. While the older one spreads comfortably between Constitution Avenue and the Mall, Pei’s annex had to be jammed into a lopsided trapezoidal site, pointed like an arrowhead at the Capitol dome. The Mellon family gave $100 million for its construction.

“I was unnerved by it all,” says Pei. “But especially because the Mall is full of tradition and sacred to so many Americans.” Wisely, he put the new annex directly on axis with that of the older building, so that it looks like a logical extension, and finished it with the same Tennessee marble. Otherwise Pei went fearlessly modern and pulled off a dazzling feat of architectural diplomacy. His latest work is his best. What’s more, it stands so elegantly beside its older neighbor that, like a lesson for the future, each actually enhances the other. The odd couple of American architecture will be, says critic Huxtable, “a superb national showcase.”

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