In his youth, Ieoh Ming Pei dreamed of studying overseas, finally deciding to study in America based on two things: the architectural reputation of the University of Pennsylvania and the films of Bing Crosby.
American college comedies like Crosby’s appealed to Pei, who had endured a ridiculously stern education in the missionary-run schools of Shanghai (in middle school, he and his fellow students were only allowed one half-day out of the month for leisure time).
When the University of Pennsylvania proved to be stodgily committed to the old Beaux-Arts style, Pei jumped ship to MIT where he discovered the works of Switzerland’s Le Corbusier and America’s own Frank Lloyd Wright.
These and the works of Bahaus architects like Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer (later teachers and close friends of Pei) became the foundation of I.M. Pei’s distinctive style, with rectilinear forms, open spaces, and as much light and fresh air as possible.
Pei was one of the most famous architects of the Sixties and is still much sought-after today, but there’s one part of his long and storied career he’s rarely mentioned.
From 1942 to the autumn of 1945, he accepted an invitation to the Army’s National Defense Research Committee. As a committee member told him, “if you know how to build you should also know how to destroy,” and Pei’s architectural and engineering skills were set to work determining the best way to destroy Japanese buildings and cities.