In 1917, the year that revered Chinese American architect I.M. Pei was born, the Bank of China established a presence in Hong Kong. Seven decades later, he designed and oversaw the construction of the bank’s headquarters in the city, arguably the most outstanding feature of our famous skyline. The 72-floor tower and dozens of other structures around the world, many of them equally eye-catching, are a testament to his flair and creativity. He turned 100 last week, an achievement by any standard.
Pei is the last living father of modern architecture. Born in Guangzhou and raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai before moving to the United States for university and an illustrious career in 1935, he has won almost every award his profession has to offer. Two of his works – the sleek and elegant bank tower and the famous pyramid at the Louvre museum in Paris – are iconic. Their innovative use of glass and steel makes them futuristic, yet the architect has been mindful of their surroundings and associated history.
The Bank of China Tower was designed with the country’s rise and Hong Kong’s approaching return to Chinese sovereignty in mind. Pei’s architecture is grounded in a belief that design should be organic, making connections to place, nature and time. The triangular structure architecturally represents bamboo shoots, which symbolise prosperity and the sustenance of life. But it was also a special project for Pei, whose father was a banker with the company.
Pei has created a formidable legacy in the US, the east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington among his acclaimed projects. But he is equally celebrated in his country of birth, with, apart from Hong Kong, a museum in Suzhou, a hotel and the Bank of China head office in Beijing, the science centre in Macau and a Christian chapel in Taichung in Taiwan.
His ideas marry ancient and modern, the inspiration coming from traditional Chinese gardens and mountain shrines he visited as a child. On his centenary, we can be thankful for those trips on Chinese soil that planted the seeds of one of the finest ever architectural careers.