I. M. Pei on the past and future

I. M. Pei rarely pauses long enough in his travels to make public remarks about his past and future architecture, which ranges from Washington to Paris to Peking -- and to our own Boston area, where next fall the new Art and Media Building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will join Pei designs such as the John Hancock tower, the Christian Science Center, and the West Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Pei did pause recently at MIT, discussing an exhibition of his works (through April 27 at the Compton Gallery, reopening at the MIT Museum in June). In the following passages, he talks about change and continuity in the West and in his native China.

I have been looking at some of the projects done by me when I was a student. I hadn't seen them for almost 50 years -- 47 years. I was embarrassed, truly embarrassed. But in a way I'm glad that I was embarrassed. The interesting thing is that they show how long it took before modernism, or the modern movement, actually, came to America. Because I was here in 1935. That's already 20 years after all the activities that started in Europe. And it was only then that America began to experience the need for change.

The change came in 1937, as far as I'm concerned, when Le Corbusier came to give a speech at MIT. I think he stayed for two days, and those were the two most important days in my professional life. He was insolent, he was abusive, but he did everything right as far as I was concerned. We had to be shocked out of our complacency.

Today we're too impatient. We think the modern movement has been played out and we can do one better over all of them. Well, I think it's a worthy objective. And we all should have that kind of pride and believe in ourselves. But I don't believe that one can progress by cutting off one's past. I think that the past is very strong, it has a lot of life in it. No one today has yet designed a building as perfect as the Barcelona Pavilion [Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's building at the Barcelona exposition in 1929]. No school has devised -- in my opinion -- a teaching method, methodology, that is like the Bauhaus.

There was very little for a young architect to do in America after World War II. So there was a massive program -- a government program -- that I am very thankful for and that was called the Title I National Housing Act. For 10 years I was involved in that effort. Low-cost housing -- unbelievable -- $7, $8 a square foot. True.

That period made me very appreciative of what the modern movement taught me. Because, among the many achievements of the modern movement, the application of technology in the service of economy of construction was one of its very strong points.

Looking back at it, I frequently wonder whether that period of my life isn't equally as important as many that follow. I think so. I think that that was a discipline, that those of us who were fortunate enough to be put into it, or put to the test, were able to gain from it -- which later on served us very well indeed.

Technology is also a means to achieve aesthetic expression. Because the art of architecture must not be forgotten; it has to be in the forefront.

One example is the New York City Convention Center. We can now make structural members so fine that they actually look as if they're transparent. And these things are available in the market and they're mass-produced. And this project utilizes that industrial production to the utmost.

In fact, if you go to New York now, you will see the space already under construction. It's almost finished. The space-frame structure utilizes steel tubing that is less than three inches in diameter. The entire structure spans 90 feet by 90 feet everywhere and goes up and down inside to form spatial volumes that are quite exciting when you're in it.

Again, the utilization of technological means is not only to reduce costs, which this does, but also to create a certain space, which would be unimaginable in the days of the Crystal Palace.

Volumes enclose space. What we have frequently avoided thinking about is that the spaces between the buildings are infinitely more important than the solids themselves. One cannot avoid thinking in terms of the empty spaces between volumes, if one is to create exciting volumetrics.

The Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y.,consists of six solids floating on a base. But, because of the space enclosed between these volumes, these volumes develop a life and excitement which would not be found if they were all joined together to form one mass.

I remember when I studied under Gropius, who, by the way, was one of the greatest teachers who ever lived. Gropius was absolutely convinced that the international style would sweep the world. And he was right. He was right then, and look at it today. I was amazed to find when I went back to China that the international style has arrived. In fact, not only has it arrived, it has taken over. Gropius's prediction was correct, but the result was disastrous.

I wonder, at this rate, what China is going to look like 10 years hence, or 20 years hence. It's just something that's impossible for me to imagine, because it would depress me.

So therefore when I had an opportunity to do some thing in China I wanted to see if it's possible to find a language, an architectural language, that is still valid, that is still felt by the people, that's still part of their life. If one can find a language, then perhaps the Chinese architects, the young ones, I hope, will say the modern international style is not the way for us,maybe we should have our own.

One of the Chinese officials came to see the building, the Fragrant Hill Hotel, after it was finished. He said, ``Gee, I've seen this before. This looks Chinese.'' I was delighted. But he wasn't. Because at that time it was the beginning of the ``four modernizations,'' you see, and because of that they wanted things to be just like United States, just like Western Europe, and so on and so forth. So it wasn't considered a compliment, but nevertheless I took it as such.

An interesting idea that I have remembered from when I was a little boy was confirmed after my many trips to China, and that is that windows mean something very different in China than in other parts of the world, including Japan.

In the West we're a very pragmatic and practical race. A window is a place to bring in light and air and sun or whatever. And consequently it's designed to fit that particular occasion and it's utilitarian largely. Fenestration is exactly the word for it.

But in China the window is a painting. A window frames a view, and the view is made by the owner. And the shape of the window becomes the frame. And because they frame their paintings in a variety of shapes -- fan shape, plum shape, circular, triangular, all kinds of shapes, including the shape of a vase, which is also frequently used -- it shows that the Chinese have a different sensibility about windows, and also a very different sensibility about gardens.

The garden to them is the opposite of the gardens of England, where a house stands in the middle of a green lawn. To them a garden is for the room. Each room, ideally, should have a garden. But the garden is very small. And the plant materials you put into the garden are not that realistic. They choose rocks to simulate mountains. They choose plants that give you the impression of huge pines. It's sort of the world of nature in a microcosm, which in turn is seen through these windows.

And this is their way of life. This is how they are brought up. Inside that kind of a room they paint, they cook, they eat, and they write poetry. And they haven't changed. Consequently a generous use of these shapes was applied in this hotel.

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