I. M. Pei is sitting in his living room and is talking about architecture or the designing of buildings. "It is not just an idea, but the way in which that idea is done, that is important. This is what I mean by the 'architecture of ideas'. I worry that ideas and the practice of architecture as a profession, as a business, do not come together often enough." He stops, then adds: "Maybe my early training set me back. Maybe it made me too practical."
That is an unexpected comment from a man like Pei, who runs a business that employs many people and has important customers all over the world. I. M. Pei questioning the value of being practical might seem like a bank doubting the value of money. Yet his company, I. M. Pei & Partners, is more than just a business that designs buildings. It has always tried to bring together beauty and art with business sense, and today it is probably the leader among American architectural companies that do very well both artistically and commercially. It is hard enough to become well known either as an artistic or as a business success in architecture: to do so as both is unusual and surprising.
I. M. Pei, a leader in his field for more than thirty years, seems to get better and busier as the years go by. One reason for his success is that he is well known as a kind and thoughtful person. But it is also because of the seriousness of his work. He believes in improving on and developing from styles and designs that have been used before, not in newness for its own sake. Companies hire him because they believe that his designs are strong and modern without being shocking.
Pei's style is based on geometric forms, like most of the architecture of modern times. But he has continued to use these forms while other important architects have begun to change their styles, making use of the forms of architecture from other countries and other periods in history.
Ieoh Ming Pei was born in China in 1917, but he calls himself "an American architect -- absolutely". He went to the United States in 1935 to study architecture, and remained there because of the war. In the late 1940s he got a very good job and decided to become an American citizen. He has lived in New York since then, but he has never forgotten the land of his childhood.
In 1978 Pei was invited to design a hotel in China. It was a very difficult thing for him to do because "there seem to be only two choices --either to copy the old Chinese style with red columns and golden roofs or to build modern Western buildings. I do not think either of these is right. There has to be a third way."
Pei's "third way" is very much like traditional Chinese architecture. It uses the same kinds of materials and forms, and is only different in one important aspect: it will have a flat roof instead of a curved one because that kind is safer and less expensive.
In New York City, I. M. Pei & Partners will build a convention center, that is, a large building for meetings and shows that will be much bigger than the hotel in Beijing, and in some ways much simpler. In fact, the biggest problem is that the center may look too much like a large box. Therefore they are working to create a number of public areas within the one huge space. These will be used for other things even when there are no special meetings or shows, and will make the building itself into a tourist attraction.
It is possible that Pei's way of working may soon change, becoming more like one or the other of the two major modern directions. He might decide to make more use of the styles and ideas of the architecture of older cultures (as he did with his hotel in China) or he might decide to treat his buildings even more artistically (as he did the Kennedy Library in Boston). But it does not seem likely that Pei's work will move strongly in either direction. He believes his work gives his customers what they want and he tries to make his buildings fit the jobs they are supposed to do.