Award-winning architect I.M. Pei turns 100

Award-winning architect Pei, who is one of the most important figures in modern architecture, celebrates his 100th birthday, April 2017.

Looking up at Dallas’ iconic Fountain Place building, it’s not immediately apparent that the rhomboid-shaped building is missing something most buildings have: a roof. The 63-story building, which was constructed using 26,000 windows, was specifically designed by master of modern architecture I.M. Pei without a roof so that the building would be a prism that looks different from all sides.

Award-winning architect Pei, who is one of the most important figures in modern architecture, celebrates his 100th birthday this week. Born Ieoh Ming Pei on April 26, 1917, in Guangzhou, China, skylines in cities around the world are enhanced by his designs, which include the Louvre Pyramid in Paris; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar; Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Gallery East Building in Washington, D.C.

Pei began studying architecture in 1935 when he immigrated at the age of 17 to the United States to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He later transferred to and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1940. Pei attended graduate school at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where he studied with Walter Gropius, one of the ground-breaking masters of modern architecture and the founder of the Bauhaus design movement. After earning his master’s degree, Harvard appointed him as an assistant professor, and he balanced teaching classes and working as an architect in Boston. Pei’s architectural career took him to New York in 1948 when businessman William Zeckendorf wooed him from Harvard to direct the architectural division of Webb and Knapp, a large real estate development firm owned by Zeckendorf. It was during this time in his life that he became an American citizen.

He left Webb and Knapp in 1955 to found his own firm, I.M. Pei & Associates, which later became I.M. Pei & Partners (1966) and then Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (1989). His major projects in the 1960s included the Mile High Center in Denver, Colorado, and the Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He was personally chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to design the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which was dedicated in 1979.

Pei has designed more than 50 projects around the world, including Miami Tower in Miami, Florida, and the above-referenced Fountain Place in Dallas, Texas, both of which were completed in the early 80s and are often referred to as landmarks in their respective cities.

Miami Tower

At 47 stories, Miami Tower is not the tallest building in Miami (it’s in the top 10), but it is the brightest, with its colorful lighting display dominating the night sky since it was completed in 1987. The LEED Silver-certified and Energy Star-rated building features a tiered glass facade that Pei designed with reflective light panels and light-absorbing glass to create a unique illumination effect. In 2012, the building underwent a $1.5 million dollar LED upgrade to allow the lighting to change to millions of potential color schemes via an app. 

Fountain Place

When the Pei-designed Fountain Place was completed in 1986, it was the largest silicon-glazed building in the world. The building’s windows feature mullions that have an internal gutter system to avoid a waterfall effect when it rains. Since the building doesn’t have a roof, gondolas come through the windows of 13 window-washing rooms to clean the facade. The building, which is LEED Gold certified and Energy Star rated, was the recipient of the 25-Year Award from both the Texas Society of Architects and the American Institute of Architects, Dallas Chapter, in 2011. Fountain Place is appropriately nicknamed since 217 jets propel water to dance at the building’s base at the plaza, which is a 5.5-acre public space.

Pei retired from his firm in 1990 but continued to work on projects well into his 90s. Over the course of his celebrated career, he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the AIA Gold Medal, the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Gold Medal of the French Académie d'Architecture and the Medal of Liberty from U.S. President Ronald Reagan.