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.