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Facades of the Mandarin : NONFICTION : I.M. PEI: Mandarin of Modernism, By Michael Cannell (Carol Southern Books/Crown Publishers: $35; 402 pp., 50 b&w photos)

February 18, 1996|Joseph Giovannini | Joseph Giovannini is an architect and critic living in New York

If the walls of his buildings could speak, they might well have dictated "I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism." Michael Cannell's biography of the New York architect is the textual equivalent of his polished and seamless buildings. Unfortunately, these very qualities work against the book. With many personal anecdotes and fly-on-the-wall stories about specific commissions, all recounted with poise and urbanity, the volume leaves the reader informed and even amused--but hardly edified about the character of the buildings, the architect and the man himself.

Cannell has written a very competent book about one of architecture's great successes, but in its very professionalism--in the overall flow of its highly readable but unprobing narrative--revealing moments and facts are smoothed over and assimilated. Repeatedly we learn that Pei lives behind a mask of Asian reticence, and though Cannell goes through the apparent motions of lifting it (and the corresponding mask covering his buildings), we never really see the face.

Pei's long and successful career is troubling because, as Cannell acknowledges, the architect has only offered refinements to an already known architectural idiom. Pei's forte is not originality. How is it, finally, that the architect of the East Wing of the National Gallery, the John F. Kennedy Memorial, the Bank of China in Hong Kong and many other blockbuster commissions can be "irrelevant,"--as Ralph Lerner, dean of architecture at Princeton, is quoted as saying in this book?

We are treated to many biographical sketches--the family garden at Suzhou, the years at MIT and Harvard--but the weak link is that Cannell, who is not an architecture critic, fails to analyze the buildings and convincingly argue their quality. Writing from outside the field, he never really establishes the fundamental reason a biography of Pei should interest us. The buildings are left under-evaluated, so we drift through a colorful life of social prominence populated by luminaries without the anchor of knowing why Pei's designs should compel us to the architect.

The central fact of the biography is that Pei, who was born in China into a wealthy and cultivated Mandarin banking family, was left stranded in America by the 1949 Communist revolution, unable to return to a country and culture in which he remained deeply rooted. Even as a thoroughly Americanized immigrant, Pei stays fundamentally Chinese--that is, reserved, closed and formal. The biographer makes much of whether Pei is finally Chinese or American: In America he seems tied to his distant country, while in China he emerges more American than he ever supposed.

Cannell quotes Lerner again saying that Pei's fabulously successful career has been irrelevant because he has never been a design force: He has simply learned his Modernist lessons well and applied the knowledge without contributing new ideas to the field. Rarely has he produced a breakthrough building (the Bank of China is the exception that proves the rule).

His contribution--and he is admired to the point of imitation--has been to elevate the quality of commercial and institutional work through elegant interpretations of Modernism. The language remains untransformed, however, by an architect who remains a connoisseur rather than innovator. The subtext is that Pei, after the kiss of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' commission for the JFK Library, deftly parlays his commissions and talent into a blue-chip practice characterized by social prominence. Pei uses good old American snobbism, reinforced by his underlying Mandarinism, as a professional tool and social credential.

Pei is unusual in the context of American practice precisely because he refines the given until it becomes his own. Even concrete emerged as a signature material at the National Gallery because of the smooth, pale perfection he achieved in its surfaces: Pei architects, we read, even banished cigarette butts and water cups from the construction site so that they would not become unwanted fossils caught in the pour.

By background and apparently by temperament, Pei is not predisposed to an originality predicated on invention: His signature is based instead on distillations of convention, particularly the conventions of universal geometry. The buildings lack the energy that can be found in raw, fresh architectural discovery.

The problem with architecture practiced as a form of connoisseurship--the best materials, perfect details--is stasis. Pei's career represents the kind that has not been affected by a half-century of tumultuous social, technological and cultural change. The shortcoming of architectural design reduced to judgments of a sophisticated eye is the inevitable smugness of aesthetic narcissism--buildings that are more beautiful and refined than thou, but soulless. His may be a career of triumphs, but it is not one of ideas. Sadly, the work does not really evolve even as the career succeeds.

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