When famed Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei, aka I. M. Pei, decided to go against the grain to add a modernist glass and steel pyramid to the Louvre’s Cour Napoléon, his unorthodox design of the museum’s main entrance was greeted with a volley of outcry; critics labelled the structure an affront to the Renaissance aesthetics that the Louvre represents.

Controversy resumed when the Bank of China entrusted him, during roughly the same period, to design a new headquarters building for its subsidiary in the then-British colony of Hong Kong. The Pritzker Prize-winning architect took inspiration from sprouting bamboo shoots for the edifice, but critics saw the 70-story, 368-meter landmark – the tallest in Asia at the time – as an odd ensemble of sharp, blade-like façades and asymmetrical geometric patterns that ran counter to Hong Kong’s feng shui, which emphasizes buildings’ harmony and cohesion with their surroundings.

That was then. Now, the once out-of-place pyramid is the Louvre’s indisputable new symbol, while the Bank of China Tower is one of the most recognizable skyscrapers on the planet.

A legacy set in stone and glass

When news came out that Pei had passed away in New York on Thursday at the age of 102, the Louvre tweeted, “For 30 years you have infused the Louvre with audacity and modernity. Your entrance to the Louvre has dazzled the world and evolved into an icon as famous as the Mona Lisa. Thank you.”

Many in the architectural industry in Hong Kong also say they are awed by the iconic and ultra modernist Bank of China tower and cannot think of the city’s glittering skyline without it.

The Louvre Pyramid. Photos: Sunny Sky for Asia Times

The Bank of China Tower, Asia’s tallest building when completed in 1990, looms over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor. Photos: Handout
Construction worker on the Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong site in 1989. Photo: Ron McMillan

Pei considered the Louvre commission the most difficult job of his career. When the new entrance opened in 1993, he told Reuters that he wanted to create a modern space that did not detract from the traditional part of the museum.

His equally contentious Bank of China Tower is composed of four triangular shafts rising up from a square base, supported by a visible truss structure that distributes stress to the four corners of the foundation. The ascent culminates in a roof at sloping angles that matches the rising aesthetic of the majestic tower. Prior to the completion of Pei’s project, most skyscrapers in the city had lacked any real architectural character.

Minimalism and modernity

Born in Guangzhou to a prominent banking family, raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai and educated at MIT and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the  now-legendary Pei was also the creator of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and the Chinese embassy complex in Washington. He also designed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio, Dallas City Hall, Place Ville-Marie in Montreal, Miho Museum in Kyoto and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.

Pei is particularly celebrated for his thoroughly modernist style, combining traditional architectural elements with minimalist designs of geometric patterns as simple as circles, squares, cubes and triangles. As per the Louvre, he often worked glass pyramids into his projects.

East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Photo: Handout
Pei designed the Suzhou Museum, in his ancestral home in eastern China. Photo: Xinhua

The centenarian, who lived in Manhattan, retired from commercial practice in early 2000s, after having overseen the design of the Suzhou Museum in his father’s hometown in eastern China’s Jiangsu province.

Looking back over his trailblazing career, Pei once said: “For me, the important distinction is between a stylistic approach to the design and an analytical approach giving the process of due consideration to time, place, and purpose … My analytical approach requires a full understanding of the essential elements … to arrive at an ideal balance among them.”