When we think of Ieoh Ming Pei, the first thing that comes to mind is the glass pyramid in front of the Grand Louvre. After its completion in 1989, the magnificent structure was the subject of much controversy. Many doubted that it was in accord with the classical architecture of the Louvre. 30 years later, the glass pyramid has become the most prominent landmark in Paris alongside the Eiffel tower.
March 29th of this year marks the 30th anniversary of the glass pyramid’s construction, when visitors from around the world flooded into the square to take a peak. The combination of the modern form and the historical significance grants it an everlasting charm.
Born in 1917 in China’s southern city of Guangzhou, Pei’s ancestral roots trace back to distinguished families in Wu Zhong, the ancient name of Suzhou, which is one of the richest and most populous cities in Chinese history. Back in the Qing dynasty, his family was one of the four richest names in Wu Zhong, one of the “Suzhou four riches”. His grandfather worked as a renowned financier, and his father as a banker. His father took the whole family to migrate from Guangzhou, to Hong Kong and to Shanghai, all of which are important cities in the contemporary history of China.
His name “Yu Ming” in Mandarin means splendid carvings.
His exceptional family background endowed him with the privilege of being immersed in western culture at an early age. At the age of 18 in 1935, Pei went to America to study, first Pennsylvania, and then Massachusetts. In 1946, he got his master’s degree in architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“Though we (Pei and his brother) had a very western upbringing, in our family lives, our relations between family members remain very traditionally Chinese. We respect Confucius’ thoughts, very oriental. The whole family always has dinner together, even after we got married, my mother would still gather us all together for dinner on weekends, or something else.” Pei recalled in an interview.
While he himself spent most of his childhood and young adulthood straddling the divide between East and West, the two worlds buried inside him gradually became integrated, and even merged into one. One is the swaying homeland, tottering in the flames of the Japanese invasion, a homeland he can never come back to. Another is a promising land across the Pacific Ocean, where he started a family and achieved his fame in career.
Take his three essential works in China for instance, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the Suzhou Museum and the Luce Memorial Chapel in Taiwan. All three works embody the subtleness and ambiance of the east and the daring innovations of the west.
Bank of China Tower
Bank of China Tower stands as the most outstanding and eye-catching building among the skyline of Victoria Harbor, with its sharp triangular steel structure. Even visible from Victoria Peak, its glass cover has never been overshadowed by the shiny facade of newly built skyscrapers. According to Pei, the building stands for “the great ambitions of the Chinese people”. On August 8, 1988, the Bank of China Tower held a completion ceremony, and the date is seen by people in Hong Kong as especially auspicious. Nine years later, Hong Kong would be returned to the control of the mainland. The Bank of China Tower stands as a beacon for the bright future of this once-upon-a-time colonial land.
Suzhou, or the Venice of the Orient, complete with gardens, bridges, and flowing rivers, is Pei’s ancestral hometown. The Lion Grove Garden, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Suzhou, belongs to Pei’s family several generations ago. Not far from the Lion Grove Garden is Pei’s family’s ancestral temple.
Completed in 2006, the museum now stands as a landmark of this traditional city. Built with the perfect contrast of traditional culture and modern art, and boasting an irregular but well-proportioned layout of yin and yang, the museum is a modern incarnation of Suzhou, emblematic of the city itself. Having put so much emotion and care into the museum’s creation, the designer used to call it “my little daughter”.
Luce Memorial Chapel
The Chapel is located in a peaceful grassland on the campus of Tunghai University, which is crowned as the most beautiful university in Taiwan.
Made of wood-like reinforced concrete, the appearance of the Chapel resembles traditional Chinese religious architecture in terms of coloring and material. Inside, it can hold roughly 400 to 500 teachers and students for a Sunday sermon.
Pei’s design is based on the environment of Taiwan, which focuses on its stability and durability in times of drastic humidity, typhoons and earthquakes. Complicated and elaborate structural construction was done by local craftsmen.
In the evening, the Chapel emanates a peaceful and holy light.
Featured photo credit to artnet