By Ananth Robert Sampathkumar, Partner–NDNY Architecture + Design
Ieoh Ming Pei, the famed New York based Chinese-American Modernist Architect, died last month, at the young age of 102. During his illustrious architectural career, he designed a vast array of iconic buildings around the world including the Grand Louvre Modernization in Paris and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. His legacy of built work in New York is not as famous as his international portfolio but it is definitely worth exploring.
My first real experience of I.M Pei’s work happened by accident. I was visiting my aunt at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, Guggenheim Pavilion on the Upper East Side and was struck by the triangular courtyards, the landscaped interiors and abundance of light that filtered into the patient rooms. It was a simple but effective design that immediately lifted the mood of patients and staff in an otherwise gloomy environment. Being the son of a cardiac surgeon, I had toured many hospitals in my lifetime but none as thoughtfully designed as this one.
My second tryst with Pei’s work came during my tenure as project architect at FX Fowle, on the renovation of the Javits Center. A five city-block behemoth, the original design challenge was a gargantuan logistic and functional nightmare. Here too, simple planning and a pioneering space frame and glass enclosure gave the building a bespoke aesthetic while solving practical issues of large spans and minimizing solar heat gain. Poor construction resulted in a leaky structure from the get-go but the design was still ahead of its time.
Pei’s University Plaza Towers for New York University is another hard to miss project in Greenwich Village. The 750,000 square foot development, consisting of three 30-storey structures, arranged in a pinwheel configuration around a central courtyard, looms large above its lower profile neighbors. At first glance the structures look out of place in the neighborhood where most of the buildings average between four to six floors. The project was undertaken by NYU to solve the school’s housing shortage, as it converted from a commuter college to a residential University. Loved and loathed in equal measure by Village residents, the complex that is sited at 100 and 110 Bleecker Street, undoubtedly adds an interesting layer to the Village fabric that has long relied on historical constructs for its legacy. The apartments are well lit and spacious, something of a rarity in the Village. The Landmark Preservation Commission designated the superblock as a Landmark Structure in 2008.
Above all, I. M. Pei was known to be a humble and respectful Architect. In the current political and environmental climate that we live in, there is something to be said about an individual whose aspirations went beyond his personal ambition. One of his famous quotes says it all—“At one level my goal is simply to give people pleasure in being in a space and walking around it. But I also think architecture can reach a level where it influences people to want to do something more with their lives. That is the challenge that I find most interesting.”