15 September 2019
I.M. Pei, the master of modern architecture, embarked on a quest for the essence of Islamic architecture. Photo: RTHK
I.M. Pei, the master of modern architecture, embarked on a quest for the essence of Islamic architecture. Photo: RTHK

I.M. Pei and his quest for the essence of Islamic architecture

The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, which opened in November 2008, houses a rich collection of masterpieces of Islamic art and culture.

The iconic museum building itself is a work of art, designed by I.M. Pei, the master of modern architecture. It was completed after eight years at a cost of US$300 million.

Pei, in one of the events inaugurating the museum, said the building was very special to him as it helped him to learn something about another world, another religion and another culture.

Pei has won numerous prestigious prizes and awards, including the AIA Gold Medal in 1979 and the Pritzker Prize — dubbed as the Nobel Prize of architecture — in 1983.

Pei was born into a Suzhou family in 1917. He went to Hong Kong and later moved to Shanghai with his family.

Shanghai was then China’s most modern city. The Park Hotel, once the tallest building in Asia, was still under construction at the time. 

The building fascinated the young Pei, who visited it every day. He said it might have inspired him to become an architect.

At 17, Pei pursued an architecture degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later obtained a master’s degree at Harvard. Thereafter he stayed in the United States.

Pei enjoys designing buildings in different corners of the world as it allows him to learn the history and culture of a particular place.

For instance, Pei’s works include Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library, New York’s Javits Convention Center, Paris’s Louvre Pyramid, Hong Kong’s Bank of China Tower, and Kyoto’s Miho Museum.

In 2000, Pei, at the age of 83, accepted the commission from the Emir of Qatar for the museum project.

Pei admitted that he, having been born in the East and educated in the West, did not know much about the middle part of the world, even though he had been to the Middle East many times as a tourist.

“I have never looked at the work of art or the work of architects as a religious expression of Islam,” Pei said.

Hence, for this project, Pei embarked on a quest for the essence of Islamic architecture.

He began his journey of discovery in Tunisia, where he was drawn to ancient fortresses glimmering in the sunlight of the desert.

In Monastir, a city on the central coast of Tunisia, Pei found that the cubic form is a major theme of Islamic architecture.

He also went to Spain, where he studied the Grand Mosque of Cordoba. For a while he regarded it as the high point of Islamic architecture, but later thought it was “too lush and too colorful” to be the essence of Islam.

He paid a visit to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, Egypt, which features a beautiful yet simple architecture rich in geometric forms. The sun brings it to life and transforms it into a magical form.

Pei is renowned of incorporating geometry in his designs. For instance, his masterpiece at the Louvre in Paris consists of numerous glass triangles forming a perfect pyramid.

After half a year of travel and observation, Pei came up with his first draft of the museum, featuring white cubes which produce shifting patterns of light and shade under the sun.

Transforming Pei’s design into an actual structure is not easy. At the peak of its construction, over 1,600 of engineers, designers and skilled workers participated in the project.

The honeycomb ceiling was one of the most difficult aspects of the building. It was made of pure concrete, with no paint or tiles, which meant it had to be done perfectly in one go.

Imam Dali, the project manager, admitted that it was extremely difficult to make, adding that he thought no one would attempt to do it elsewhere in the world.

Still, nothing was impossible for Pei and his team, in whom he has great confidence.

Perry Chin, a partner of Pei for many years, finds the master a very positive person. “Pei is always smiling no matter how bad things are. He is always very positive with lots of energy. In short, he is a very charming man.”

The Museum of Islamic Art is probably Pei’s final large-scale project for a cultural building.

“You have to somehow know the right time to do things and when not to do it any more, and somehow I have a feeling that I shouldn’t be doing too much any more. That is a sad part of it. Well, good feeling is that I have done enough. I’ve done a lot already,” Pei said, smiling.

Human Profile — Learning from Light with I.M. Pei will air on RTHK TV Channel 31 on July 2 at 8:30 p.m.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 29.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha features a five-storey-high domed atrium. Photo: RTHK

The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is built on a standalone island. Photo: RTHK

Before the project, Pei felt he knew very little about the Middle East, although he had frequently visited the region as a tourist. Photo: RTHK

Pei is also a perfectionist who is always searching for the best in architecture. Photo: RTHK

HKEJ Contributor