Architect I. M. Pei's fame solidly built

January 30, 1994|By Niki Hayden | Niki Hayden,Knight-Ridder News Service

The recent ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Louvre in Paris marked the highlight of I. M. Pei's career in architecture, although in the original unveiling of his design, the overwhelming response was jeers from French critics.

His buildings attract controversy but, at 76, Mr. Pei can rest on his laurels. The Chinese-born, U.S.-educated architect has made his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, one of the most famous in the world.

With the clinking of glasses in the background during a holiday party at his Madison Avenue office, Mr. Pei talked about his retirement, the Louvre project in Paris and his memories of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., which he designed in the early 1960s.

The Louvre "was difficult but an important challenge. It was politically, historically and culturally very challenging," he says -- on a level he had never experienced before.

Mr. Pei recently returned from Paris, where he received France's Legion of Honor. His designs have reconstructed the Louvre interiors. Giant glass pyramids that lead to underground buildings contrast dramatically outside the Louvre in the Cour Napoleon.

The building of Boulder's National Center for Atmospheric Research in the foothills of the Rockies also was challenging -- from an entirely different viewpoint.

"The site is incredible," he says, with a trace of Chinese accent, "No one will know how difficult it was to build on that site. The backdrop, of course, is the Rocky Mountains -- no building could stand up to that. It taught me a valuable lesson -- how to relate a building to site."

It has been over 30 years since the building of NCAR, and Mr. Pei says he has not built in such a spectacular setting since. "Although I have very strong feelings about that building, it's hard to say it has had an impact [on later work]," Mr. Pei explains. Only one other project of his in China, a hotel, was con

structed in a wilderness area.

After NCAR, Mr. Pei designed a museum in Syracuse, N.Y. He used some of the native stone from New York, a brown rock that differs from NCAR. The process of coloring and texturing concrete to look like red rocks at NCAR influenced him to work in native materials.

The story of NCAR's beginnings remains important to its architect: "I went to the Air Force Academy. You know that is steel, aluminum and glass buildings that contrast with nature. But after two significant trips to the Indian Mesa Verde dwellings -- it was more in the direction of what I was looking for," he says.

Also, the Mesa Verde design was in keeping with the inspiration of NCAR director Walter Orr Roberts, who insisted that NCAR should not look like the Pentagon. Instead, "One should feel like getting lost" in the building, Mr. Pei says.

Roberts, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, remains firmly in Mr. Pei's memories. He says he grieved when Roberts died:

"Walter was such a great teacher. Science has not been a part of my family. [Mr. Pei is married and father to four grown children. His wife, Eileen, is schooled as a landscape architect.] We brought up our children to look at art, not science. Walter made science so alive when he came to our house. He opened my children's eyes to science, and for that I am grateful."

Mr. Pei and Roberts had to convince Janet Roberts that NCAR should be built at all, Mr. Pei says. She was on the city of Boulder planning board from 1956 to 1960 and "was more influential than Walter was in this regard," he says. "She was the conscience of the town." Also, Mr. Pei insists, she was highly critical and would do no favors -- even for her husband.

In 1959 Janet Roberts was elected to the Boulder City Council on a number of environmental issues, including protecting the mountains from real estate development. Voters had approved a measure to restrict water services in the mountain mesas.

was a conduit to the concerns of citizens," she says about the late '50s. "Walter also was sensitive because he loved the mountains. A committee [of concerned citizens] was formed to advise Walter and I. M."

Eventually, the notion of preserving the mesa through the National Science Foundation won converts. NCAR "was preferable to being developed by private ownership," Ms. Roberts says, because most of Boulder's surrounding mountains that time were privately owned and poised for development.

Since the NCAR building, which projects does Mr. Pei believe to be his best? His diplomatic manner hedges the question. Finally, he will admit that NCAR is a favorite, "also the National Gallery of Art [the East Building in Washington], my father's bank in Hong Kong [the Bank of China] and, of course, the Louvre."

But for all its grandiose presence, he says that NCAR never was meant to be a monument: "It's only a building" that was conceived by Walter Orr Roberts, "one man's work, one man's dream. I was only a helper."

Contrary to press reports, Mr. Pei has not retired, says his assistant, Janet Adams. "He's designing a museum in Athens and doing work in Luxembourg. And then, of course, the Louvre still takes up some time," says.

Mr. Pei's account differs: "I'm retiring slowly."

"It's best not to retire abruptly as long as one has health and can continue to work. You must know your limit. Each one of us is so different," he says.

But the Louvre has left Mr. Pei with a taste of glory.

Former Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand endured boos and howls when he first unveiled Mr. Pei's design for the Cour Napoleon courtyard and the redesign of the Louvre interiors.

Now, after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, even Mr. Mitterrand's opponents are calling it inspired -- a huge undertaking that has rejuvenated the dusty old Louvre setting.

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