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Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, designed by I.M. Pei.

Remembering I.M. Pei

Renowned architect I.M. Pei, who died May 16 at age 102, is remembered at Cornell for the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, the Bauhaus-inspired structure he designed to accommodate both its scenic location and the needs of an exhibition space.

Architect I.M. Pei is pictured in the museum lobby shortly before the Johnson Museum’s opening in May 1973.

“Pei knew when a building needed to be exuberant and when it needed to whisper,” said Andrea Simitch, professor and chair of architecture. “Many of his works appeared as monumental sculptural masses; yet, once occupied, were bathed in a cacophony of light and shadow.”

His design for the Johnson Museum, she added, “has always served an important didactic role in teaching our architecture students how to see, and draw, architectural space.”

Pei was commissioned to design the museum in 1968. His New York architectural firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners – including Cornell alumnus John L. Sullivan III, B.Arch. ’62 – worked in consultation with then-museum director Thomas W. Leavitt. (Sullivan and Pei Cobb Freed also designed the museum’s extension, The Wing, which opened in 2011.)

The building was dedicated May 23, 1973, two days before Commencement, and more than 4,000 visitors came to see it in its first few days.

“To build on this site was an obsession with me and others in my office,” Pei said in his opening-day remarks. “This piece of land is sacred. This is where the founding father, Ezra Cornell, stood when he told the board of trustees he wanted to build a university here.

“Before, when you looked north across Library Slope, all you could see was sky and trees, and you can’t beat that. To put a building there was a challenge we couldn’t resist. … These last five years, I was undecided, and was not sure … until today.”

Pei officially retired in 1990 but continued to work. His iconic designs include the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris (1989); the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio (1995); the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse (1968); the National Gallery of Art East Building in Washington, D.C. (1978); the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston (1979); and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar (2008).

Among his many honors, Pei was awarded the Pritzker Prize – known as the Pulitzer Prize of architecture – in 1983 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and was one of 12 Medal of Liberty recipients in 1986.

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Gillian Smith