On two occasions I was privileged to chat with I.M. Pei, the dean of American architects who died May 16 at the age of 102. The first, on March 12, 1988, occurred on the threshold of a Jewish meeting.
I had traveled to Washington, D.C., with a small group of Rhode Islanders for a young leadership conference sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America.
Before one session began, as I was strolling across the National Mall, I noticed somebody deeply studying the lay of the land. His distinctive eyeglasses were surely a clue, but then I suddenly recognized Pei, the distinguished designer of the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing.
I wanted to shake his hand and express my admiration for several of his magnificent structures, including many I knew in greater Boston. But my two Rhode Island friends, also aware of Pei’s intense concentration, thought that my idea was loony. They said, essentially, “If you want to bother him, go right ahead, but please don’t entangle us.” So, never having been a shy person, I walked over to pay my respects. I wasn’t intending to ask Pei for an autograph.
After apologizing for my interruption, I thanked him for his architectural beauty and brilliance, which had won him the Pritzker Architecture Prize (established by the Jewish hotel moguls) in 1983. Then it dawned on me that Pei was thinking about his plans for the underground expansion of The Louvre, which would debut more than five years later.
In order to prove that I was more than a celebrity hound, I began to compliment Pei on some of his lesser-known designs. So, for example, I mentioned his 1968 expansion of the Des Moines Art Center, which I had visited in 1985. I also noted that, on the same trip, I had much enjoyed his Atmospheric Research Center in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado. Perhaps even more obscure were my references to two of his Indiana structures: a public library in Columbus and the university art museum in Bloomington.
Then Pei perked up! I’d like to imagine that, in a quite understated but authentic fashion, he thanked me for my efforts.
Since 1975, I have conducted extensive oral history interviews, on a rich variety of topics, for numerous archives and libraries.
Some of my most ambitious and rewarding conversations, recorded between 1992 and 1994, were for the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives at Taliesin West, near Scottsdale, Arizona. Not only did I interview several of the master’s former apprentices and acolytes, but some of his youngest clients. Indeed, I tracked down two Rhode Islanders, Eleanor and William Slater, who in 1946 had commissioned a Wright home for their property in Warwick. Unfortunately, being too costly, it was never built. I also found Nancy Fain, a daughter of Rosalie and Gerald Tonkens, who in 1946 had built a Wright home in suburban Cincinnati. Nancy, it turned out, was a fellow congregant at Temple Beth-El.
Most of my interviewees for the Wright Archives were nationally and internationally famous architects. Although some had met Wright and many still admired his masterworks, most had become devotees of the younger and perhaps more radical International Style, which had been propagated by two former Bauhaus directors: Walter Gropius while at Harvard and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe while at the Illinois Institute of Technology. These interviewees included, for example: Edward Barnes, Arthur Erickson, Romaldo Giurgola, Helmut Jahn, Philip Johnson, Cesar Pelli, Paul Rudolph, and Kevin Roche; as well as rising stars of a younger generation, such as Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and Michael McKinnell. The older and younger celebrity architects included several Jews, such as Max Abramovitz, Bertrand Goldberg, Richard Meier, Moshe Safdie, Robert A. M. Stern, and Stanley Tigerman, only a few of whom had been presented with or chose to accept synagogue commissions.
Of course I had wanted to interview Pei. Yet, when I got to see him at his midtown Manhattan office on Feb. 2, 1993, I somehow neglected to mention our previous meeting on the Mall. This time, he was a far more engaging yet diplomatic conversationalist. While describing his profound admiration for Wright, he also explained his much deeper attraction to Gropius and his younger Harvard colleague, Marcel Breuer. Indeed, both had built their own homes in semi-rural Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Inevitably, our discussion led to Pei’s magnificent East Wing. (It had been built during the tenure of National Gallery director J. Carter Brown, a Rhode Island native whom I had also interviewed). Yet, this remarkable structure, both iconoclastic and iconic, was hardly an isolated example of how Pei had gained the confidence, trust and indulgence of a plutocratic client. Indeed, Paul Mellon also commissioned two Pei buildings for Choate School, his alma mater in Connecticut.
When I asked my interviewee to elaborate on his ability to charm, challenge and conquer clients, he said that a “New York” term was probably quite useful. After a long pause, he commented, “I think that it’s called chutzpah.”
As with many of the stellar architects I interviewed, I quite immodestly asked Pei for an autographed photo. He provided one right away. Then I asked him to autograph a poster of one of his major commissions that I could hang in my office. Perhaps by this time Pei simply wanted to get rid of me, but he did send me a wonderful night shot of The Louvre’s central pyramid, one adorned with his signature.
It should have been entirely unnecessary, but I was again convinced of Pei’s genius in 2016, when I was privileged to visit his extraordinary Miho Museum. It had been built both within and atop a mountain near Kyoto, Japan. Somehow on that visit, I also entertained the notion that, since 1988, we had been old friends.
GEORGE M. GOODWIN, who has edited Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes for 15 years, is currently working on the new issue.