Remembering I.M. Pei’s Most Iconic Buildings

On Thursday, it was announced that the famed architect I.M. Pei, who won the Pritzker Prize for architecture back in 1983, died at the age of 102. Born in Shanghai in 1917, Pei emigrated to the U.S. in 1937, and has gone one to build some of the world’s most iconic structures, from the Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland to the spectacular Bank of China tower in Hong Kong. His signature style was that he had none, other than an unerring sense of the place each building was meant for—his designs cut as handsomely across a skyline as they did into the side of a mountain. He was considered a semi-modernist, but he never left history behind for the future; often, he brought the old and creaky seamlessly into it, as he did with his iconic glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. Here, in honor of his long career and his longer life, a look back at his most spectacular buildings, and how they came to be.

Nadine Rupp/Getty Images.

The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, opened in 2008, when Pei was 91. He was coaxed out of retirement for this project, to much initial skepticism: What could this Chinese-American architect, then already an octogenarian, possibly understand about Islamic architecture? It turned out, quite a lot.

Image courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Completed in 1989, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, which was the tallest in Asia at the time of its opening, is designed to echo bamboo’s structure, and its breathtaking angle across the skyline has changed the geometry of the city up top.

Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Opened in 1978, the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. is considered one of Pei’s masterpieces, a high-wire act that traversed tricky politics and the museum’s original design while giving the public a showpiece glass ceiling and walls that came to a fine edge as sharp as a blade’s.

GE Kidder Smith

The Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, opened in Boulder, Colorado in 1966, is so timeless and imbued with a sense of place that it could have been carved out of the mountainside many centuries before.

Kwanchai/Getty Images

When it was announced that President Francois Mitterand had chosen Pei, a non-Frenchman—moreover, a man of Asian descent—to renovate and modernize the Louvre, the people of France were aghast. Pei won them over with an ancient, timeless structure (the pyramid) in a modern material (crystal) that cracked open the underground galleries. It was a portal to modernity for an old, tired museum—and now an international icon.

Nathaniel Lieberman. Courtesy Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

The Kennedy Library in Boston was commissioned by America’s most storied family to commemorate JFK after his assassination in 1963. Jackie Kennedy considered a who’s who of architects of the day (Louis Kahn and Mies van der Rohe among them) but settled on Pei. After many setbacks and changes of location, the shapely concrete block opened on the Boston waterfront 16 years later, in 1979.