Pei work speaks for him

March 05, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

In yesterday's Today section, an incorrect time and date were given for "First Person Singular: I. M. Pei" to air. Because of its pledge drive, Maryland Public Television is carrying the 90-minute PBS documentary on the highly regarded architect today at 11: 30 p.m.

The Sun regrets the error.

"I am not an architect who has a body of theories," I. M. Pei admits early in the PBS documentary about him that airs at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67). "I don't think that's the way my work should be looked at. If you have a signature, it will come out."

For the next 90 minutes, "First Person Singular: I. M. Pei" attempts to show why Ieoh Ming Pei (pronounced "pay") is one of the most highly regarded architects of the 20th century.


Tracing his career from an in-house architect for a real estate developer to the designer of such prestigious commissions as the Grand Louvre in Paris and the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, it presents a body of work that is unrivaled in its breadth and quality.

What comes across most clearly is the extent to which Pei's buildings suit each circumstance and each setting, whether the site is in France or China or the United States. Not many architects have created masterpieces in so many different corners of the world.

Produced and directed by Emmy Award-winner Peter Rosen, the program is the first in a series designed to highlight "some of the most creative thinkers alive today." Others will feature economist John Kenneth Galbraith and historian John Hope Franklin.

Pei, 79, serves as the host of the film, taking viewers on tours of many of his best-known buildings, from the Bank of China to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum in Cleveland. Filled with beautiful photography, the program is at its best when it shows how well Pei's buildings work as "people places."

It is less successful at conveying exactly what Pei believes in and how he was able to create the buildings he did. Even though the format allows him to be quoted extensively, too much of the conversation is at the level of a lightweight chat, rather than a serious discussion of his design approach.

Pei is the kind of architect who is more comfortable defining himself by stating what he is not, rather than what he is. "I prefer not to use labels," he says at one point. "To me, it's just architecture. There's no such thing as modern architecture, postmodern architecture, deconstructivism. You can use all the 'isms' you want. I don't believe in any of them."

As a result, throughout the program he remains an enigmatic character who seems either unwilling or unable to articulate how he does what he does. For this reason, Pei may not have been the ideal candidate for a "First Person Singular" profile.

Still, the program is worth watching simply for the gorgeous overview it provides of Pei's masterworks. Ultimately, the star of the show is not the man at all, but the buildings he leaves behind.


Airs at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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