The Original Starchitect
Let IM Pei’s sons, LC and CC, tell you about their father, who, in his 100 years on this earth, has created some of the most iconic examples of modernist architecture (the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong; and the glass-pyramid renovation of Paris’s Louvre museum). He’s been able to do it all thanks in no small part to the way he dressed, a personal approach that is as timeless, modern, and pragmatic as his most renowned projects.
LC Pei: He always was dressed impeccably. He would wear suits very well—those were tailored in Hong Kong. He had a style of his own, but he also had a bearing. You can’t just put on a suit and expect everything to fall into place. The way he dressed and the way his buildings were designed were all of a piece. CC Pei: He never looked like a businessman; he always did sort of look like an architect. His suits, instead of being grey, they might be a little brown. They might have a windowpane instead of a pinstripe. And his ties were not just solids or just a simple dot; they would have a pattern that reflected somebody who had more of an artistic bent. LC Pei: Even when he was very young, he had wire-rim glasses that were circular. Eventually they turned into more pronounced tortoiseshell frames. But it was natural; it wasn’t an abrupt change. It fit him and it’s become his signature. CC Pei: The way that he lived, everything counted. I can still remember the cars that he bought were always very stylish. When we were really little, he was driving a big black Jaguar—a Mark IV, a convertible with what are called P100 headlights. LC Pei: Many of his clients were titans of industry and culture, politicians. He dressed in a way that everyone felt comfortable in each other’s presence. There’s a sense of language of dress. And it was something that gave him a platform to engage in conversation about design.
His ability to take criticism gracefully turned out to be very disarming to his critics, because they saw how well he handled it. He was very tenacious. He didn’t give up, but at the same time he was very gentle in the way he received criticism. That’s especially true in Paris. The criticism was relentless for a long period of time. And look at the outcome. He never gave up, and he got everything that he was looking for pretty much. CC Pei: When this thing was being built, we knew that it was going to become another one of those symbols of Paris. Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Sacré-Coeur, the Louvre. It’s right there on the list. It stands literally next to all of those.