An Appreciation of an American Architect, I.M. Pei

05/30/2015 01:28 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

A recent review of the work of architect I.M. Pei repeated a common criticism of his work: That his career has been devoted to corporate clientele. I have always thought this disapproval to be misplaced. It seems likely that any design professional at that level of prestige would serve those who could afford such services. (Although I am not acquainted with Pei, I belong to a civic group he founded.)

The essay pointed out he was the first non-Western architect to achieve significant success in the West. It noted, however, that to Chinese observers, he is an American architect -- not a Chinese one. He was born in mainland China, but he was attracted to America as many were, by Hollywood depictions; he cites Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as the cultural influences that brought him to these shores.

Now approaching the centenary of his birth, and having been officially retired for 25 years, the 1983 Pritzker Prize winner has a portfolio of work around the world that few could surpass: the John Hancock Tower and the JFK Presidential Library, both in Boston; the National Gallery East Wing in Washington, D.C.; the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong; and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris. Even the Hancock, hardly admired for its falling window panes and potential instability, has come to be recognized for excellence.

His heritage is almost always implicated in assessment of his buildings. A biography, for example, is entitled, Mandarin of Modernism. Yet his return to mainland China in 1978, well before its economic boom, for the Fragrant Hill Hotel project, was not well received. The Chinese government characterized the vernacular style as "reactionary" and the local press described it as "strange." The Bank of China Tower, dazzling though it is, also is said to have bad feng shiu. The rival HSBC building, by Norman Foster, boasts protection against its neighbor's negative energy.

I admire how Pei was able to assimilate. I doubt an immigrant -- an Asian immigrant -- would have had many options during a time when racial discrimination was normal. Pei apparently came from a more privileged background, but even the well-to-do who were not white could find themselves reduced in status considerably when they arrived here.

If he were ambitious, and such determination is the fuel of the America Dream, any Asian American would have had to display not only extraordinary technical skill but also an ability to adapt to the culture of his patrons and overcome prejudices they might have held even if too polite to express it. There were other Asian Americans in the field, but they generally were relegated to supporting roles. Joseph Fujikawa, for example, inherited the firm of Bauhaus master Ludwig mies van der Rohe ("less is more"). After Pei, the most famous was Minoru Yamasaki, but his legacy may be reduced (rather unfairly) to two destroyed structures: the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects and the original World Trade Center twin towers.

Among Pei's contemporaries are others who are aligned with downtown developers. John Portman, only a few years younger, created fortress-like complexes such as the Peachtree in his hometown of Atlanta, the Renaissance Center in Detroit, and the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles; and Brutalist, such as the Embarcadero sequence in San Francisco. With mirrored glass and massing of concrete, these edifices are more generic than local.

The achievement of I.M. Pei shows that the creation of cultural icons turns out to be free of ethnic expectations. He has made his mark far from his origins. The National Gallery East Wing, with its sharp angles, and the Louvre Pyramid, in its transparency, are national (the former indicates as much in its name), but not of China.

Perhaps it has been the journey that has inspired creativity.