Masters of Modernism: I.M. Pei

Okay, I’m no fan of modernism, which I associate most particularly to two adjectives: cheap and ugly. I know it isn’t always welcome to comment on another person’s creative endeavors, but there are cases where I feel compelled to do so. This is not meant as a personal attack, as I have never met I.M. Pei, and have no idea is he is a jolly nice fellow or not. It’s his work though that manifests at least some aspects of his being, and it is his work to which I do confess to having had a certain reaction.

Sometimes I come across works of architecture that truly take the breath away, though not in a good way. The Lamar Building in Augusta, Georgia. Taking the upcoming quote directly from the building’s website, we learn that the structure was originally completed in 1912, an example of the Beaux Arts style. Sometime in the 1970’s, though…

The projects that Holley convinced Pei to do in Augusta included the Augusta Coliseum, the Broad Street Streetscape, the Chamber of Commerce Building in the middle of Broad Street and a Penthouse for the Lamar Building.  It was on one summer evening over dinner in the Castleberry Room at the Pinnacle Club that Holley pointed out the window for Pei to look at the Lamar Building and told Pei that he wanted him to design a Penthouse for the top of the building.  Pei then took out his pad and sketched out what was to become the Lamar Building Penthouse.  During 1975 Pei’s firm completed the detailed design and the Penthouse was constructed in that year.  In many ways the Lamar Penthouse foreshadowed Pei’s work a decade later when he designed the pyramid for the Lourve.  The juxtaposition of a modern glass angular structure with a classic, elaborately-carved sandstone historic building is a theme that is central to both the Lamar Building and the Lourve.

The result of the celebrated international master’s work was truly, uh, well, you be the judge:

Such ‘breathtaking vision’ and ‘clear design intent’ manifests in an undoubtedly harmonious blending of styles. To be generous, this structure would look okay on a Star Trek set. Clearly, I’m not quite ready to understand the genius of this architect. What I like is how he paid homage to the existing style of the building as he took such bold steps into the world of glass, concrete and steel.

Doing some further research on Pei, I discovered his design talents seemingly knew no bounds, and his fame, like the some viruses, actually began spreading internationally. I’ll keep my stare fixed on the US though for the time being – take the notorious John Hancock building in Boston, the tallest building in New England:

Again, note how seamlessly the structure blends in with the built environment which surrounds it. Well, maybe it doesn’t look too much worse than other skyscrapers out there, but there is an entertaining bit of background story to this one. The budget of $75 million dollars was exceeded only slightly as the project came in at $175 million. Glass panes detached from the structure during construction, crashing to the street below and all the glass had to be replaced. That’s what they means by ‘cutting edge’ I guess. The building developed a “nauseating sway”, giving occupants motion sickness. A $3 million dampening device was installed, then it was discovered the structure was vulnerable to being felled by winds, and an additional $5 million was spent reinforcing the structure with bracing. What a success story! ‘Architect’ – from the Greek architekton, the ‘master builder.’ Hmm…

Not to be outdone, Cleveland decided to get in on the action, and Pei designed a new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Forbes Magazine lists it as one of the world’s ugliest. You be the judge:

Only $84M for this! What deal! I can see a future re-purposing as a skateboard park.

On a similar theme, we have the Macau Science Center:

You know, when I see such wonders, a certain song from the distant past (1977) comes to mind:

Hey, it was one of the albums my parent had on hand when I first figured out to throw a record on the turntable…

Okay, I’ve had my fun for one day. I hope my sarcasm wasn’t too much for readers. In the face of the evidence, of what modernism has accomplished so far- well, I guess it’s post modernism now (and what exactly is supposed to come after that?) – I really wonder why jail time isn’t being considered for some of these so-called designers. Where is the public outcry? Why do cites compete with one another to pay for what is really just poorly-built, short lived ugly crap? Is this ugliness really accruing status in some way? To whom? Is it about how much money they can waste? I have no answers, but I really do wonder.

Thanks for coming by on your travels today. Time to go and work some wood.

16 thoughts on “Masters of Modernism: I.M. Pei

  1. Sometime the role of art is to generate a response, a reaction. And Pei's does (clearly). We don't have to like it for it to be valid.

    And the lack of furniture, maintenance, cleanliness, etc. of the Boston City Hall is hardly the fault of the architect.

    Jim B

  2. Jim B,

    the primary function of a building is NOT art, in my opinion. It is true that some (few) buildings are imbued with artful beauty, but I think one of the ways in which professional architecture has lost its way in the last 100-odd years is its self-conception as a form of fine art, which it is not, in my view.

    The number of buildings admired by other architects for various reasons, like Villa Savoy and Fallingwater to name but two, both of which had roofs which leaked so much it forced the residents out, are not successful building designs or executions to my way of thinking.

    In terms of your description of art having a role of provocation: while I agree with that being an aspect of art to an extent, I think there is more to art than that. By that same token, torture would thereby be a form of art.

    Why are some architects concerned with using vast resources to make statements which are, frankly, lost on most observers? Surely they could write a paper instead, or make some sketches, models, or paintings. But that's not big enough, or grand enough, now is it?

    There's a problem with these provocative statements – they are in our faces for as long as they stand. It's not like a painting or billboard which was can easily avoid looking at. Meanwhile, the point that was being made when the structure was built has been swallowed up and lost in the vortex of an ever-changing cultural milieu. What's left often is an ugly structure that no one wants, or wants to care for, much less try to understand.

    Does $175 million need to be spent to make some sort of provocative statement? Was Pei trying to provoke revulsion? Anger? He certainly provoked a reaction of sarcasm from me – would that have made his day?

    I think that buildings which are beautiful and designed with people in mind, not architect's egos or some effort they are making to 'provoke' their audience, are buildings which people tend to like and want to keep in good order. The reason being simply that people have developed good feelings about the spaces they inhabit. I'm all for seeing more structures like that, structures which connect people to the natural world and give them a sense of their place in it.

    Most products of modernism seem to promote a feeling of alienation from the world, by their very artifice, and self-conscious attempts to make some sort of message, and personally I don't need any more of that, and I don't think society as a whole would benefit particularly from any more of that. And I don't think most people are drawn to modernism, despite the vast sales efforts over the past 50 years on its behalf.

    Thanks for your comment – while our tastes in art and architecture may not agree, I am interested in hearing other points of view.


  3. oh chris,

    you're killing me… some good old fashioned sarcasm is something i've missed here in japan. it just seems to cut much better in english. as you may know mr. pei's exceptional fingers have also touched the mountains near kyoto.

    made with limestone from france (but of course), steel, and glass. mr pei refers to this as “shangri-la.”

    and the crowning glory of this masterpiece is the very japanese bell tower:


  4. sorry chris,

    one comment about art… being an art major i have very strong opions here. my definition can be very clearly defined by ad reinhardt in his book “art as art.”

    “art is art, everything else is everything else.” art serves no purpose but as art. a building is a building and not art… if it serves a purpose it is not art.

    now, i do see artistic qualities in other types of work such as buildings or furniture, but they are not art.

    i present this very humbly as my own opinion on the subject.

    m. yanai

  5. Yanai-san,

    thanks for your comments, much appreciated. Yes that bell tower of Pei's is quite a 'statement', and left me hungering for a view of a real bell tower. Fortunately I have many pictures of traditional bell towers, and Pei's won't be making my collection anytime soon.

    As to defining art, well, that is a question which, like defining what is 'life', seems a bit hard to peg down and tends towards being an unresolvable issue. Not that it presents any difficulty for many people in terms of having strong opinions on the matter!

    I agree with the Reinhart's take on it, however I would say that for me, anything which is constructed that conveys beauty or transmits an emotional message to someone who encounters it might well qualify, to some degree at least, as art.

    Now whether 'art' must have hard boundaries in how it is defined is another question…


  6. “art is art, everything else is everything else.” art serves no purpose but as art. a building is a building and not art… if it serves a purpose it is not art. “

    Drivel – and I am trying to be charitable.

  7. Metod,

    thanks for your comment, and, like I said, it seems a bit difficult to forge a consensus upon what 'art' is, or means. Feel free to share your definition, if you have one.


  8. Chris,
    I appreciate your patience with my 'directness'.
    You pointed to a problem of 'functional illiteracy' (a central issue in my professional work).
    Let me illustrate with two examples:
    (1)Functional illiterate: What is art?
    Functional literate: What do I mean by (the term) art? (a definition of the term art)
    (2) Functional illiterate: What is the meaning of life?
    Functional literate: What do I mean by (the term) meaning of (my) life (a definition of the term meaning).
    A definition should not contain terms of the (same) definition, i.e., it should not be self-referential. It should contain the terms that were defined previously.
    Aside: God (as quoted) is a poor example: “I am who I am” (totally self-referential). Can't do logic with such material.
    In order to communicate ideas, we need to have a well-defined vocabulary (not always possible in the physical world). At least the best under given circumstances. All communicants should use the terms of agreed (defined) meaning). A communication becomes poor if the communicants use different interpretations.
    What is 'my' definition of 'art'? I do not have one as I do not (so far) need one. Were I, say, to teach a type of a course, then I would draw a collection of parameters (incorporating suggestions from the students/class participants, and we would label them with the term art. After that, for the duration of the course, no additional parameters (they would constitute interpretations) would be allowed to enter the term. For a given object, the task would be to determine (with respectful tolerance for the lack of ultimate precision…) to what extent it complies with the existing parameters.
    As a (working) principle, a definition is not right or wrong but accepted (if not, other terms have to be agreed upon).
    Maybe, for the purpose of this blog, all participants should be given a window of time to chose the parameters for the term 'art' and stick with it for the purpose of our communications. All I know it that I have an acute sense of aesthetics: I am aware of what I like or not. No claim to artistic merit of my tastes.
    I would like to have some accounting for the 'artist's intentions in the definition of 'art' term.
    I apologize for a long post. I wish that I could express my thoughts with fewer words.
    Best wishes,

  9. Regarding the definition of “art”; on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I took notice of how many displayed items were made to be functional vs. made for the sake of “art”. To find art for art's sake, you must go to the modern wing. Judging by their collection the definition of art must be “a functional item from a culture or era distant from your own.”

    I grew up in a small town 20 miles from Augusta, Ga. so I have marveled at that building many times. From my observation it has not endeared itself to the general public. Most people don't know anything about.

    Harlan Barnhart

    Provocative post as usual.

    Harlan Barnhart

  10. Hello Chris,

    I just have to comment that Boston City Hall is not the work of I M Pei. Don't know where you got your info from but it's pretty well known that Kallman McKinnell & Wood designed it. Wikipedia has a pretty good and short artcle under “Boston City Hall”; I didn't see Pei's name mentioned. The firm (KMW) still exists and you can read the current page on BCH in their projects folder;

    As too all the comments about what is art and what's not, we'll never get that settled. I've been interested in the difference in art and craft my entire career and I don't think I'm any closer to defining it in an absolute sense now than when I started.

    David Sewell

  11. David,

    thanks for catching that. I was repeating information which turns out to be incorrect. A more thorough investigation would have revealed that. I will amend the post to reflect this correction, by removing the reference. Fortunately, there is no shortage of I.M. Pei work to choose from…

    You quite right too on settling the question of what is art and what is not. A fruitless task.


  12. Chris your blog is so good its a challenge not to comment, however the bait is too tempting in your comment about FLW's Fallingwater being a “failure in design and execution”.. and while you have shared some of the coldest, harshest forms of modernism to make even Steve Jobs roll over, I think it's very apparent that FLW never sought to design an auxilary bridge to a star destroyer. In other words, I like modern architecture for the use of space and light, and in Fallingwaters case, it is just exemplary on near all things a house should be. Except for the structure. Which, lets face it, certainly would have benefitted from some AutoCad and better materials in places. But given the clients specific needs for entertainment (explaining the decks), the house is an extremely liveable and unique place to be inside. And while the iconic corner-window lacks on the structural side, it was less of an exterior cosmetic afterthought than it was a design to reduce the barrier between the dwellee and nature. After all, Wright's goal was “organic architecture” and I can assure you that the house has a very warm and natural feel throughout using wood and masterful stonework, wonderful lighting, many colors, and is most memorable for the unique way it leads you through the house with a dramatic array of light and proportion, and in that way, achieves the very goal of any artist painting on a piece of canvas. This is quite different than a vast open expanse of steel, glass, and mono-tone light. But, a structure certainly can be artistic and there has been artistic influence on virtually all structures since we left caves and lean-to's in the woods.

    So, while Pei might draw the shape of the building on a napkin and request that it's made of ivory and titanium-honeycomb composite, I would say FLW embodies much more of the Greene and Greene ideals you seem to enjoy. I also feel that even though the architects (especially in Fallingwater's case) pushed slightly past the limits on what they could feasibly create, modern engineering could produce a sustainable flat roof, or an alternative. And hell, I bet you could create a dynamic pseudo-sprawling modernist timberframe house on the side of a mountain. So the pictures form Pei yes, appaling, but the entirety of modern architecture including Fallingwater being a failure? I beg to differ.

    In Fallingwater, worse than the roof are the decks. FLW was not a structural engineer, but rarely did it bite him in the ass that badly. He submitted the design with JUST redwood reinforcement for the decks. The engineer had a fit and demanded steel, but in the end they settled bery unhappily for a mixture of both.. and this compromise entirely doomed the deck from day one. It sagged horribly and is now supported with steel cabling tensioned over pulleys and anchored in the bedrock.. and is still a bit off. Clearly Wright thought concrete was some kind of super ceramic with a structure all its own.


  13. Besides Chris, you have to have a warm spot for Wright, he designed shoji-like screens and windows, from memory fairly close to yours! Even the windows on Fallingwater are Shoji-like. Pei might have been inspired by an irritable triangle from the 5th dimension, though.


  14. Will,

    I really appreciate that you take the time to post such detailed comments. I know a lot of folks rave about Fallingwater. I don't think I lump it in with I.M. Pei – they are different in feel and approach.

    Fallingwater does not excite me, though, I have yet to visit it and see for myself. It's on the list, and I will keep an open mind. Only pictures and accounts to go on so far, and I'm not among the brainwashed at this point.

    The Architecture magazine article “Fixing Fallingwater's Flaws” was most illuminating.

    I find FLW rather annoying due to his excessive egotism and bravado, his disdain for builders, his suspect personal morals, and, all that said, I can put that to one side for the most part and just look at his works. They are the manifestation an execution of his beliefs about architecture. Many of the FLW 'pieces' are to my liking, especially the Prairie period homes.

    Fallingwater is an example of running with a bad idea – building a house on top of a waterfall's edge. How can such a building not have problems with moisture? It has had it's flat roof re-done something like 10 times now. And, as you note, FLW thought he knew better than his engineers and the cantilevered sections of the structure sag excessively.

    First and foremost what counts to my mind in terms of residential architecture, is that the inhabitants are housed comfortably and kept warm and dry. Fallingwater failed in that most basic criterion, so for me, regardless of what it looks like, how awesome the lines might be, how it leads you from one delightful scene to the next, etc, if it doesn't keep the rain out it fails.

    Here's a proposal.

    Job 1 for the architect should be: design a structure to keep the rain out.

    After that particular detail is looked after, we can proceed to 'prospect and vista', 'sight lines', 'rich materials sensitively rendered', and so on. Get the basics down then move forward from there.

    And, as for “I bet you could create a dynamic pseudo-sprawling modernist timber frame house on the side of a mountain” – funny you mention that. I was contacted a few months back by a fellow who wanted me to build him a modernist timber frame house with a flat roof and I refused to do it unless he would go with a pitched roof. I will not build a house with a flat roof, and so I didn't get that job.

    I also strongly believe a house can (should?) be artistically done, just like a piece of furniture or a bandsaw for that matter. But if the function isn't there, if it isn't well made, then it counts for little to my way of thinking. If it is to be art, above and beyond anything practical, that is another thing.


Anything to add?