May marks a year since the passing of celebrated Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who put his own stamp on the modernist tradition with these cultural landmarks.
Museum of Islamic Art
At the request of Qatar’s ruling family, Pei emerged from semi-retirement to design one of his last major projects, located on a small man-made island off the Doha Corniche. Its austere, angular forms were directly inspired by the 13th-century ablutions fountain at Cairo’s Ibn Tulun Mosque, creating a play of light and shadow that changes with the movement of the desert sun. Artifacts representing 1,400 years of Islamic art are housed in galleries around a soaring five-story atrium capped by a stainless steel dome.
2. United States
East Building, National Gallery of Art
This sleek, sculptural addition to a popular museum on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall was widely hailed as a modernist masterpiece when it opened in 1978. Pei overcame the constraints of an awkward trapezoidal site by dividing the building into interlocking triangular volumes, cladding them in the same Tennessee marble used on the facade of the National Gallery of Art’s neoclassical West Building. Its sky-lit central atrium is as much of a draw as the changing roster of exhibitions shown within.
Pei’s most controversial creation—and arguably his most recognizable one at that—forever changed the face of the world’s largest art museum when it took shape as the centerpiece of a much-needed expansion project. Completed in time for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the glass icon serves as an elegant main entrance on the Louvre’s central courtyard, whose updated design was influenced by the geometric work of 17th-century landscape architect André Le Nôtre.
Hidden in forested hills an hour’s drive from Kyoto, the Miho Museum holds an extensive collection of Asian and Western antiques owned by one of Japan’s richest women. Pei took his cues from an ancient Chinese fable, the Peach Blossom Spring, to create a dramatic approach: visitors arrive on foot (or by electric buggy) via a cherry tree–lined walkway, a curving tunnel, and a cable-stayed bridge to reach the main structure. The Miho’s humble outward appearance belies its actual size, with three-quarters of the 17,400-square-meter institution built underground.
This article originally appeared in the April/July 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Monuments Man”).