Pei's position: 'Naturalizer' champions change

The United States has been kind to I.M. Pei. He has completed 40 buildings in no less than 23 American cities, where they often occupy the most prominent locations. Pei's contributions to the American skylineРhis firm has averaged one every two years in its various incarnations­ are a record of Modern architecture's fickle history in this country.

However, his talk on Monticello's West Lawn July 4 at the annual citizenship ceremony gave the impression that Pei is not a Modern man at all. His invocation of Jefferson's humanist legacy illustrated that transformation is an American value.

"I first became acquainted with Thomas Jefferson while I was in school, studying architecture," Pei said. "In 1930, I read Jefferson's account of his travels in France– especially the parts about food and wine," he added with a general chortle, "and I realized that this is a man of culture."

Pei's talk contained more than the compulsory TJ anecdote; it was a tribute to change as a fundamental American value. "Before Jefferson took office," Pei continued, "he was not entirely in favor of immigration. After he retired from the presidency, he inserted the rights of citizenship as a law of nature."

From the earliest days of the Republic, immigrant architects have seized this law of nature, often becoming the most insightful contributors to the architecture of this nation. Pei himself is one of a multitude of émigré Modernists who have interpreted an American architectural identity in ways that our indigenous architects could not.

It all started as he was docking at San Francisco's Angel Island in 1935. "It could have been called Devil's Island," Pei said, "but my reaction would have been the same: a sense of joy."

He would go on to design many works that have created joy for both visitor and viewer: the East Wing of the National Gallery, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, and the Kennedy Library in Boston. As he gave the keynote address last week before America's 79 newest citizens, Pei spoke about transformation in the country he pledged allegiance to 51 years ago, and the country that these new citizens are likely to find today.

At the time of his naturalization in 1954, Pei was on the cusp of what would become Corporate Modernism in the United States, a movement characterized by glass and steel flagship towers that often dominate their urban contexts. Corporate Modernism has remained, driven by conspicuous consumption and a desire among cities to be identified with a signature building. While simply another chapter in the story of the skyscraper, it nevertheless can be considered a genuinely American creation for its scale and function.

These kinds of buildings constitute the bulk of Pei's oeuvre here and abroad. But, like any architect whose career spans the better part of a century, Pei's work has been transformed by changing circumstances.

As the tide of Modernism and its malcontents washed through American architectural circles– which to some degree it's still doing today– Pei responded in kind while maintaining a steadfast geometry. Mostly notably, he landed a glass pyramid as the front door of the Louvre. With the East Wing, he split a trapezoid on Washington's Mall.

Such audacious forms– fractal masses and fastidious use of glass– have endured as methods of meeting new urban demands and a changing population. For better or worse, his buildings endure as uncompromisingly his and serve as an example to hopeful architects from abroad that they too can contribute to this nation's identity while fostering their own.

I.M. Pei applauds Jefferson's humanist legacy at Monticello's annual citizenship ceremony July 4.
PHOTO BY William Richards