Im Pei Biography Is Deep And Informative, Yet Pei Remains An Enigma

This book is not an homage. Neither is it a book written solely for architects or students of architecture. It is instead, a solidly-researched and very readable exploration of the life and works of one of the most famous, yet enigmatic figures occupying the rarefied space of internationally acclaimed architects. Michael Cannell, the author, has stitched together this informative biography through interviews with I.M. Pei's associates, friends and relatives; accounts and references in popular media, and via layman's-level analyses of his works. In this book Pei is revealed, not as a hero, rebel or visionary, but as a consolidator and commercializer of architectural principles, as well as an inspired artist, political sophisticate, and inveterate social climber.

Michael Cannel seems well equipped to perform the extensive investigative journalism that underpins this book, as well as to create the layman's explanations of various movements in architecture that the book contains. A graduate of Princeton and the Columbia School of Journalism in the 80s, Cannel has since filled editorial positions at Architecture, Dwell Magazine, Homefront L.A., and for six years the House and Home section of the New York Times. He has also contributed his architectural insights to popular magazines such as The New Yorker, Newsweek, Town & Country, and The Washington Post Magazine.

The main thrust of his book is an exposition of I.M. Pei's life from childhood to meritorious old age, organized around the architect's career and works. Along the way however, we are treated to a history of Shanghai in the colonial and post-colonial eras, China's mandarin culture, the development of Modernism, urban renewal in the United States, and other historical asides. While at times welcome, and at other times not-so-welcome, these extensive asides are usually woven back into the main story-line as vehicles that explain Pei's formative influences. This outside-in approach fails however, to reveal much of the man behind the persona, leaving Pei as a seamless, almost hermetic personality. He is described, even as a child, with the same powers of patience, self-possession, persuasion and cheerfulness (among many others) that will be used to describe him throughout the book. This is a weakness for those desiring a more intimate portrayal. I however, don't fault Cannell overly much for this. If many of Pei's closest associates profess not to really know him (and they do), it's hardly surprising that an outside journalist would fare no better.

A recurring theme of the book is the depiction of Pei as a modern day mandarin. Representing the 15th generation of a prosperous dynasty of bankers, poets and painters, Pei is heir to millennia-old traditions of conduct passed down by China's ruling class. As the book progressed, I was gradually educated as to the various nuances of meaning attached to this word. A mandarin has self-control, is well mannered, cultured, used to the ways of power, self-effacing yet inflexible. A mandarin believes that civility is not only worth pursuing for its own sake, but also as a means to power. Mandarin culture teaches that true leaders are given allegiance based upon their virtuous conduct. The mandarin is always calm, and expresses his ideas gently and clearly. The author ascribes these virtues to Pei's deportment and cites them as causative factors in his many successes.

Nowhere in this book is the face of the mandarin more evident than during Cannell's descriptions of how major and not-so-major landmarks, such as the Kennedy Library and the Denver Hilton, actually get built. Pei is represented as the master of "the mysterious job of turning talk into concrete" and his role in winning the commission, getting his designs accepted and often dealing with public opposition, is delineated through recollections of the players involved as well as the architect himself. Cannell paints fascinating pictures of the philanthropists, politicians, business people and government officials who, often in opposition, with each other, shape the external world we live in. Against this backdrop, we see Pei, the consummate diplomat and power player; well connected, genteel, sure-footedly maneuvering amongst warring factions and persuading them all that it's in their best interest to support his ideas. As noted by Philip Johnson, "All his jobs were feats of diplomacy. He performs incredible political footwork that none of the rest of us have any idea about".

Pei is not however, depicted altogether heroically in this book. He always found ways for example, to keep his reputation sparkling at other's expense. A work associate noted that "Pei accepted the accolades when they came in, but when the blame came in, he stepped aside." And his urban renewal designs were infamous for standing aloof and unrelated to their surroundings. Pei was perhaps the one architect associated with urban renewal who had the most to do with erecting towers and building plazas that "ruptured historic patterns and opened the way to further development", which then erased much of the local flavor of the towns in which they were placed. When asked about this in later years, Pei simply said "We would not do it the same way today". Throughout the book, Pei is portrayed as a tremendously likeable guy who somehow manages to never be called upon to account for the negative aspects of his actions. This ambiguity of character lends depth and dimensionality to Cannell's portrait and definitely provides something of substance for the reader to ponder, lending credence to the other elements of this narrative.

What I really admire about this book is the author's ability to explain with great clarity the space Pei occupies with respect to Modernism, Post-Modernism, and other architects. This is accomplished by excellent analyses of the fundamentals and philosophical underpinnings of those architectural movements and the roles that other architects play and have played in them. He positions Pei definitively as the foremost exponent of Modernism, yet still places him a step below the top tier of form-giving architects like Mies, Le Corbusier and Wright. This is presented, not so much as his own opinion, as that of "theory-bound architects, to whom his buildings represent no more than discreet refinements of what has gone before". He himself represents Pei as a technical innovator, an institutional image-maker, and the single most significant architectural purveyor of commercialism in modern times.

If Pei is not in the first tier of architects, as Cannell suggests, can his work still be said to represent design excellence? The author's description of Pei's creation of the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington helped me to answer this question. First of all, the creation of the building involved numerous innovations, as well as integrity of design. The innovations came in many forms, such as mixing marble dust with concrete to emulate marble; devising a sealed concrete "bathtub" for the basement foundation to counter site wetness; and creating a tubular aluminum sunscreen designed to reduce UV light in the atrium. Integrity of design is seen in Pei's determination to extend the triangular motif of the building all the way down into the smallest parts of the project. Triangular columns, ceiling panels, bathroom tiles and stairs were designed to pursue the imperatives of pure geometry to the most refined level possible. "Architecture must have integrity", Pei said, "like a friend". Mies van der Rohe, one of Pei's chief formative influences, counseled that "God is in the details", so Pei made the entire structure consistent and true to its triangular exterior.

A great balance (another abiding characteristic of excellent design) was struck for this project, between many opposites. The building, standing upon the Washington Mall, had to have monumentality, yet not upstage all the other historic buildings. It must relate to the main National Gallery building, yet be distinct from it. Also, it had to pay respect to the museum's serious national role while still engaging young people's attention and interest. "Otherwise, they will spend five minutes there and then go to the Air and Space Museum to look at the moon rocket" noted Pei. His solution of two nested triangular buildings balanced these apposite requirements with a pleasing economy of design. The height and massive geometries of his design provided the requisite monumentality without competing with the other Mall buildings; while the use of marble identical to that used for the older National Gallery provided a visual link to the main building. To keep the two distinct however, Pei separated them with an open cobblestone plaza; directly connecting them only by an underground causeway. To capture young peoples' interest, Pei placed a gigantic glass atrium over the main triangular public space, and filled the corners of the triangle with mini-museums so that patrons can view exhibits in a comfortable space, then re-enter the main space before moving to another intimate presentation. The main space features a "pulse-quickening bit of multilevel crown manipulation in which oversized abstract artworks stand among the viewers."

And finally, the book describes Pei's typical design approach, such as with the East Building, as an intuitive flash (the arrangement of nested triangular buildings), followed by "obsessive laboring towards a refined, logical result" (e.g. replacing the original claustrophobic solid ceiling design with a daringly huge glass atrium). I found this description of his design process quite interesting. It gives due deference to the notion that excellent design begins with a mysterious gasp of intuition, but then followed up with painstaking analysis, care and craftsmanship. A lovely melding of the intuitive and analytic processes, bestowing the advantages of each upon the final product.

This book is recommended for anyone interested in the history or practice of architecture, and anyone enthralled by great design.