I.M. Pei, architect of Louvre entryway, National Gallery building, has died

Architect I.M. Pei.
Architect I.M. Pei. Los Angeles Times

I.M. Pei, the Chinese-born American architect who began his long career working for a New York real-estate developer and ended it as one of the most revered architects in the world, has died. He was 102.

His son, Chien Chung Pei, said on Thursday that his father had died overnight.

Pei was probably best known for designing the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the glass pyramid that serves as an entry for the Louvre in Paris.

He was hired by William Zeckendorf in 1948, shortly after he received his graduate degree in architecture from Harvard, to oversee the design of buildings produced by Zeckendorf’s firm, Webb & Knapp.

At a time when most of his Harvard classmates considered themselves fortunate to get to design a single-family house or two, Pei quickly found himself engaged in the design of high-rise buildings, and he used that experience as a springboard to establish his own firm, I.M. Pei & Associates, which he set up in 1955 with Henry Cobb and Eason Leonard, the team he had assembled at Webb & Knapp.

In its early years, I.M. Pei & Associates mainly executed projects for Zeckendorf, including Kips Bay Plaza in New York, finished in 1963; Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia (1964); and Silver Towers in New York (1967). All were notable for their gridded concrete facades.

The firm became fully independent from Webb & Knapp in 1960, by which time Pei, a cultivated man whose quiet, understated manner and easy charm masked an intense, competitive ambition, was winning commissions for major projects that had nothing to do with Zeckendorf. Among these were the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, completed in 1967, and the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York and the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, both finished in 1968.

They were the first in a series of museums designed by Pei that would come to include the East Building (1978) and the Louvre pyramid (1989) as well as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, for which he designed what amounted to a huge glass tent in 1995. It was perhaps his most surprising commission.

Pei, not a rock ‘n’ roll fan, initially turned down that job. After he changed his mind, he prepared for the challenge of expressing the spirit of the music by traveling to rock concerts with Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone.

Pei and his firm were responsible for one of downtown Miami’s most cherished and photographed landmarks, the 47-story skyscraper originally known as the CenTrust Tower.

Now known as the Miami Tower, it put the city on the architectural map in 1987. Its rounded front is lit in a range of colors that vary by the day.

Pei’s museum oeuvre would culminate in the call to design the Museum of Islamic Art, in Doha, Qatar, of 2008, a challenge that Pei, a longtime collector of Western abstract expressionist art who admitted to knowing little about Islamic art, accepted with relish. As with the Rock & Roll museum, he saw it as an opportunity to learn about a part of culture he did not claim to understand. He began his research by reading a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, and then commenced a tour of great Islamic architecture around the world.

Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.