Chris Grimley is an architect and designer at OverUnder, an architecture and design firm in Boston, Massachusetts. He has taught at the University of British Columbia, Rhode Island School of Design, Northeastern University and Wentworth Institute of Technology. He is co-author of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (2015), Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance (2019) and the designer and editor of Henry N. Cobb: Words and Works, Scenes from a life in Architecture 1948–2018 (2018).
At a critical point in its evolution, Boston enjoyed a special relationship with I. M. Pei, who passed away last week at the age of 102. It was the locus of his architectural education, the place where he met his business partner, the sites which established him as a cultural icon, and produced both built and unbuilt work that would come to define both this city, and cement his reputation as one of the world’s most evocative architects.
The outlines of Pei’s early years in the Boston area are well known—an undergraduate transfer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, student and then colleague of Walter Gropius at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the publishing of his thesis in 1946 in the French journal l’architecture d’aujord’hui, which merged traditional Chinese garden typologies with a highly modernist parti, which would become a signature of Pei’s hand throughout his lengthy career.
Pei left Boston, in 1948, to become the architect for the New York developer William Zeckendorf, where he would refine, alongside his future business partner Harry Cobb, ideas in housing and corporate office space in buildings such as Kips Bay in New York, Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia, and Cobb’s Place Ville Marie in Montreal. This professional experience—primarily in the material concrete—that allowed Pei’s work upon his return to Boston to flourish.
But Boston beckoned. An invitation from his alma mater would launch his independence from Zeckendorf and form the basis of his and Cobb’s business practice. Pei was invited by MIT in 1959 to design a building for the Earth Sciences Center, which had recently been endowed by Cecil H. Green, an alumnus and co-founder of Texas Instruments. Pei himself was stretched thin with Zeckendorf responsibilities, and assigned Araldo Cossutta initial responsibility for the building’s design. As the initial scheme developed, however, Pei became increasingly unhappy with Cossutta’s solution, in which oval windows were the dominant feature. Pei preferred a more minimal solution, and to his relief, value-engineering necessitated a solution defined by a rigorous grid of concrete apertures set on a nine-foot module.
The building program—mostly laboratories and offices—was ideal for a tall and slender tower, which was a drastic departure from MIT’s then-horizontal campus organization. Having gained expertise in concrete in projects such as Syacuse’s Everson museum, Pei’s experiments in the material reach a sublime apogee. There are no superfluous materials, no hiding of the structure as it transitions between interior and exterior. The precision of detailing allowed for the complete elimination of window frames, an unnoticeable detail which endows the tower with an air of irreproachable modesty. The smooth surface of the concrete was the result of a poured-in-place system that used plastic forms reinforced with fiberglass, and a mix that closely matched the limestone of adjacent buildings.
The Green Center created a vertical punctuation among the low-rise, neoclassical buildings that then formed the majority of MIT’s stock. Whereas the Great Dome by William Welles Bosworth of 1916 once dominated the campus as a symbol of enlightened learning, Pei’s monolithic, 20-story tower became the prime indication of MIT’s vision for a distinctly modern, vertical, and technologically advanced campus.
Simultaneous with the commission of the Green Center, Pei was retained by the Institute to develop an existing master plan by Sasaki Walter & Associates for the area known as the East Campus. This would result in the design of two additional concrete buildings by Pei’s office, immediately adjacent to the tower—the Dreyfus and Landau Chemical engineering buildings. Pei’s master plan created two distinct courtyards, with a building set perpendicular to the prevailing axis of MIT’s original organizing device, known as the Infinite Corridor. This trio of the tower and two lower volumes formed a significant part of the growing MIT campus, establishing entrances, axes, and courts while setting the stage for an extension of the campus to the east. This expansion is celebrated by another iconic Pei intervention, the concrete frame adjacent to his Wiesner Building of 1985, which houses MIT’s Media Lab.
But Pei’s work for MIT was just the beginning of the firm’s influence in the reinvention of the city. The newly appointed Boston Redevelopment Authority director Edward J. Logue commissioned I. M. (with Cobb) to develop a master plan that would transform 60 acres of what was deemed a derelict neighborhood around Scollay Square, reducing 22 streets to six and designating a large area for a grand public space modeled on historical European piazzas. Completed in 1961, this large-scale vision located a series of buildings that were called on to express a civic character, particularly Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles’s Boston City Hall (the Pei plan specified its location, overall dimensions, and the plaza setting surrounding it), The Architects Collaborative’s JFK Federal Building, and Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center. Soon after its completion, Ada Louise Huxtable pointed to the success of this urban complex in combining “monumentality and humanity,” where “old and new Boston are joined through an act of urban design that relates directly to the quality of the city and its life.”
And of course, there is the Hancock Tower, whose trials and tribulations are notorious, and belie the powerful influence the building-as-object has on the city, giving form to Kevin Lynch’s concept of the high spine. It’s origins, however, are less known. Pei’s initial proposal for the tower was a truncated, cylindrical concrete object that was fortunately overtaken by events and consolidation of the program. Cobb became the partner in charge, bringing his own experiences as a Bostonian to his mute, minimalist masterpiece.
The upward trajectory of his career would be accelerated by his selection in 1964 by Jaqueline Kennedy as the architect of the library and monument to the Boston-born president. Prior to his death, Kennedy had chosen a site along the Charles river adjacent to the business school. Pei's first proposal for the site was a glass pyramid, truncated to represent the abrupt end to the president’s life. The location changes to a site overlooking Dorchester Bay, and Pei (along with Ted Musho) re-imagined the museum to complement the surroundings. This library-as-monument is a testament to Pei’s control of architecture as narrative, of the museum as an abstract expression of celebration and solemnity, and of the elegance of the various geometries Pei had become an expert of. Though it took until 1979 for the library to open, Pei’s status as a cultural architect was set. He would design the East Building at the National Gallery of Art in Washington before being commissioned to reimagine the Grand Louvre in Paris, where the pyramid would reappear, amid much controversy and acclaim.
For Pei, Boston was briefly his home, but the profound effect the city had on his career, and the effect he had on its environs reverberate. His widespread influence throughout Boston in buildings as well as urban plans led architecture critic Robert Campbell to refer to Pei in 1977 as “the most important Boston architect since Bulfinch, he has dominated the major public architecture of the city as no other recent architect has dominated an American city.” For the late historian Douglass Shand-Tucci, Pei “like Charles McKim, another New Yorker who spent his formative school years and did arguably his best work in the New England capital, Pei shaped 20th-century Boston after World War II as much as McKim shaped late 19th-century Boston in the post-Civil War era.” Indeed.