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05-18-2019 04:08 PM
(Judging from oznell's earlier thread, I thought this article might be of interest to some of you.)
I. M. Pei wasn’t famous because he was a good architect among Asian-American architects. He was famous because he was a great architect who happened to be Asian-American.
The first time I saw the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, I didn’t really see it at all. True, I have a photograph of my mother and me standing in front of the gleaming structure, smiling the dazed, uncertain smiles of fatigued tourists. But, in a sense, we couldn’t see it any more clearly than we could see the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower—the postcard images of edifices that belonged to a different world. I was twenty years old, and it was my first time in Paris, and the fact that the defining landmarks of the great European capital seemed to hold me at arm’s length didn’t surprise me. I was an outsider there, by virtue of my face, my race, and the strange syllables that constituted my name. What I didn’t know at that jet-lagged moment was that the pyramid had been built by a man who once must have found himself similarly estranged.
I. M. Pei, who died on Thursday, in Manhattan, at the age of a hundred and two, likely wouldn’t have divided the world along such parochial lines, even though he crossed many of them in his time. He was perhaps the most eminent architect in the world when, in 1984, President François Mitterrand selected him to redesign the entrance to the Louvre, the symbolic heart of France. But, when his plan for the steel-and-glass structure was revealed, he was accused of sacrilege. A headline in the newspaper Le Parisien derided it as “The Astonishing Chinese Pyramid,” and the suggestion that Pei was too un-French to be trusted with such an important assignment was implicit in his most spirited detractors’ complaints. A former chief architect of Paris’s Committee on Historical Monuments called the pyramid “a gigantic, ruinous gadget” that existed “outside our mental space.”
If Ieoh Ming Pei had possessed a less certain sense of himself, he might have felt more circumscribed by the borders that others drew around his identity. But, born in 1917, in the newly founded Republic of China, to a prominent banking family, he spent his childhood in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the two cities that most symbolized the fusion of East and West and the fluidity of identity. As a boy, Pei was enamored with the America of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but he spent most of his summers in his grandfather’s village, in Suzhou, learning the traditional rites of ancestral worship. After attending M.I.T. and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Pei taught briefly at Harvard, then moved with his wife and children to New York City. He worked for a commercial real-estate developer before setting out on his own with increasingly high-profile projects, such as the National Airlines terminal, at John F. Kennedy Airport; the Newhouse School of Communications, at Syracuse University; and, later, the John F. Kennedy Library, in Boston. Many of his buildings, in fact, were initially considered shocking. His most iconic designs—such as the East Building of the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C.—are monuments to a sleek, audacious modernism.
I actually knew the name I. M. Pei years before I saw the Louvre pyramid. I was not particularly interested in architecture, but, as an insecure immigrant teen-ager desperate for validation from an adopted country, I vowed to educate my way to self-assurance. In high school, this meant acquainting myself with the icons of America’s cultural élite. Few of them shared my background or ethnicity, though, and the few I knew who did, whether they were writers, actors, or poets, seemed to live inside an Asian-American box. I assumed that this was an immutable law of identity: that in America you could do more or less what you wanted, but the most salient factors of how you were perceived remained the way you looked and where your parents came from.
But Pei was different. His name—not to mention his unmistakable appearance, with the enormous round glasses he always wore—seemed to have little effect, in this country, at least, on how he was viewed. He wasn’t famous because he was a good architect among Asian-American architects. He was famous because he was a great architect who happened to be Asian-American. To a young immigrant from China, this decoupling of identity was exhilarating.
Of course, it was evident that Pei loved being both American and Chinese. He always referred to himself as a Western-trained architect, but he remained deeply connected to his birthplace. In an article for the People’s Daily, in 2004, he described the experience of returning to China for the first time to visit his family, nearly forty years after leaving the country. “I feel that China is in my blood no matter where I live,” he wrote. “China is my root.” According to Pei, lasting architecture has to have roots. For his master’s-thesis project at Harvard, in 1946, he designed an art museum in Shanghai that combined modernist Cubist design with elements of a traditional Chinese garden. In 1982, he designed the Bank of China Tower, in Hong Kong—a seventy-story bamboo shoot of triangular and diamond shapes, made of glass and steel—in homage to his father, who once ran the bank’s headquarters there.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the completion of Pei’s pyramid. In time, it won over the critics and became an integral part of both the Louvre and Paris. On Friday, the day after Pei’s death, dozens of the museum’s employees gathered underneath it, to applaud its creator. The mark that I. M. Pei made is an idea of the world distilled and refracted by the path that he struck through it. He is everywhere, his creations large and small etched into the landscape, as the identity of America.
Jiayang Fan became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 2016.Read more »
05-18-2019 05:29 PM
I'd look at it from a different angle, from the writer of the piece. For example, knowing the French, I believe their complaints about any structure in their beloved country emanate from their own very healthy self-regard, and love of all things French, as opposed to automatically being wary of anything specifically "Chinese". Anyone contributing to their culture who is not French, period, often comes in for some extra scrutiny! Happens across the board-- they complain bitterly about the encroachments of English into their language too... ( "le drugstore", anyone, ha). Merely to be "unFrench" is the offense.
I half-jest, but the writer's piece keeps circling back, curiously heavily on the ethnicity of her subject. Of course, he was born in the Republic of China, and of course, was in his early years associated with Shanghai and Hong Kong. That's part of a rich heritage he had, and brought, to his life and practice of his profession at the highest levels.
Despite her protestations of pleasure that he was regarded as a great architect-- who just happened to be an Asian-American-- she seemed to project her own complicated feelings and assumptions about her background to a degree, on him. I do agree that most architecture fans, in America and around the world, see him as a great architect, full stop, not even appending the "happened to be Asian" as she does.
Thanks, thoughtful @Goldie76, for posting a fascinating piece that got me thinking, and often disagreeing, with its author! As one who used to love "The New Yorker", I expect I'd have similar reactions to the "identity-preoccupied" world view (in my 'umble opinion) of some of its writers. Am sure I'd still love the cartoons, or most of them...
05-18-2019 06:28 PM
Because the title of the article primed me to view I.M. Pei's life and achievements through the writer's prism of self-identity, I was not annoyed by what some might view as a "me-centric" piece of journalism. I agree that many articles these days are spun from a personal viewpoint, but if they are done well, they lure the readers in and hold their attention. So often, such pieces are my favorite columns or articles.
The writer might have an ongoing lifelong battle with building a strong sense of self; this we do not know for certain, but some of her words might lead us to believe she has had some ego fragility. Still, I enjoyed reading about the way her discovery of Pei helped fortify her sense of self as an Asian in America.
As for the French and their initial, temporary outrage over Pei's entrance to the Louvre, I think most readers are familiar with Gallic pride and their easy irritation with anything that they deem unworthy of their vaunted identity. You gotta love their strong sense of national pride, though. So, I read the opening of this piece as the swelling pride that this young Asian American woman experienced when her ethnic brother ultimately won over some very discerning critics. One for her team!
Maybe I was open to this piece as an "ethno-American" myself who has always delighted in finding another of my heritage achieving notable success.
Does this make sense? Obviously, I enjoyed the piece.
05-18-2019 08:04 PM
Of course it makes sense, @Goldie76. You make your case characteristically well and with your usual thoughtfulness and persuasiveness. Plus civility, which I always appreciate so much in you.
I'm just not persuadable, at least in this instance. A meditation on her ethnicity as a distinct think piece is OK, in my mind. But it's the attaching of her own reactions and assumptions to that of a famous, dead individual--based solely on ethnic identity-- that is presumptious, in my view.
I think there's too much of that, and it leads to a kind of artificial division. I would say to her, allow people their individuality, and don't pin them to a preconceived stereotyped way of thinking, on such thin ground as ethnicity. I've always had far more in common with people of every ethnicity and color, who share certain key aspects of my world view, than I do with people of seemingly 'similar' ethnic make up, who adhere to radically different standards and ideals.
Similarly, in a smaller way, to me it is presumptuous when people make assumptions that because I am female, I hold certain "monolithic" ideas and positions that they think women do, or should do....
Whew, this was interesting to think out. Thanks for a good discussion, @Goldie76!
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