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This article highlights a
unique collaboration between Pritzker Prize Laureate, I.M. Pei, and real estate
developer, William Zeckendorf. The interaction between the two fostered a
distinct unity of real estate development, architecture, landscape and city
planning. A seldom-studied period in Pei’s career from 1951-1968, which transformed
his identity and advanced the discipline of urban design.

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From the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in
Washington, DC to the Grand Pyramid of the Louvre in Paris, I.M. Pei has left
an architectural legacy over his long spanning career. This investigation, however,
moves beyond individual buildings to focus on a seldom studied period in Pei’s
career from 1951-1968 which transformed his identity and advanced the
discipline of urban design.  Pei never
imagined working for a land developer,1
but the lessons in collaboration with William Zeckendorf broadened Pei’s
understanding of architecture and urban design.

 From his
ancestral origins in rock gardening,
Pei developed an interest in the landscape, which became carefully woven into
the designs in buildings, plazas and gardens. Pei’s Mandarin heritage and
academic studies at MIT and Harvard provided him with a reservoir of design
strategies. Both his undergraduate and graduate thesis projects were proposals
for projects in China. Pei’s final thesis project at MIT in 1940 was a mobile
theatre for the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda.2
It is a moving pavilion in which the Chinese Ministry could show films and
stage plays. The compact unit combined issues of mobility, economy and
functionality to engage audiences at diverse venues. 3
His Professor Walter Gropius, the former Bauhaus Director, taught him to look for
the logic in things, rather than detached whimsical solutions. Pei’s friend and
teacher, Marcel Breuer, directed his focus towards people and life. He
humanized architecture and Pei appreciated that.4
From Alvar Aalto, Pei learned the importance of serving individuals through
design and how to ask questions about the rituals, needs, desires and fears of
the inhabitants.5 Through
a combination of these approaches, Pei sought to enhance the architectural
experience with a sensitivity to the natural elements, human rituals, internal
logic and humanizing spaces.

The real estate developer, William Zeckendorf met
Pei in 1948. He found the young designer intelligent, talented and socially
skilled. He invited him to work in New York at the development firm of Webb and
Knapp. When asked to work for him Pei did not
immediately accept. Pei had reservations and wanted to deal with art of
architecture rather than business and money. However, his interest in real
estate brought him to Zeckendorf. When Pei arrived at his office he
was surprised. “Zeckendorf was only interested in one thing: mechanical
parking. His walls were full of plans for garages that move cars on important
frontage. That was my first impression of him. I was taken by his enthusiasm
and imagination. I joined him.” 6
Zeckendorf’s charisma excited Pei and the two began working together. Distanced
from the halls of academia, Pei found himself in a world of real money, real
codes and real politicians, yet he made sense of the new territory. The young designer
put aside his fears of working for a developer. “Rather than hold them
developers in contempt, I thought there was great potential in trying to work
from within. One could learn something from them and I learned a great deal.

The way a real estate developer looks at a site is a wonderful lesson for an
architect.” 7

Pei’s first job with Webb and Knapp was to redesign
the office headquarters at 383 Madison Ave. 
Architectural Forum in July of
1952 featured an article called “Rooftop Showboat” about the penthouse
office.  It praised Pei saying,
“Zeckendorf has a modest associate who shares his glory: I.M. Pei. Director of
Webb and Knapp’s remarkable architectural division, keen Pei has already earned
fame.”8
This corporate project permitted Pei a certain amount of creative freedom and
an opportunity to reveal his talent and design sensitivities. The penthouse
office displayed a combination of rigor and buoyancy.  Pei floated modern art and sculpture through
the penthouse office and impressed critics with his artful integration of
planes, lines, color, furnishing, painting and planting.9
The open-air terraces with marble sidewalls and shrubbery carved out moments of
calm within the city and became an important meeting place for businessmen,
real estate agents, city planners, architects and engineers.10
Pei excelled in the office and embraced the integration of real estate
development, architecture and landscape.

The union of Pei and Zeckendorf heralded a golden
era of construction. They had a great partnership, each one teaching the other.

Zeckendorf took over the firm Webb and Knapp and named Pei the top designer. He
claims that one of the smartest things he ever did was to take Pei away from
the world of academia and into building.11
Zeckendorf  accepted academia as a
platform from which he could communicate his ideas and vision. In 1951,
Zeckendorf gave a speech at the Harvard School of Design in which he predicted
that modernism would allow the real-estate developer and architect to share the
same goals. Zeckendorf’s words aligned with those of Josep
Lluís Sert,12
the founder of
the discipline of urban design, who believed that it was essential to
bring together architects, landscape architects, and planners to engage in the
formation of the city. The Atlantic
Monthly published the speech and quoted Zeckendorf saying “the merger of
the real-estate builder-economist and the artist and designer can be so
skillfully integrated that we shall bring forth residential, industrial, and
commercial architecture which will stand the important tests of time: economic
soundness, and beauty and functionalism.”13 With Pei as lead designer, Webb and Knapp
upgraded the quality of development and opened a new door to architecture and
design.

Under Zeckendorf, Webb and Knapp, Pei learned about “land values, the city as an organism” as
well as the importance of circulation and transportation in design
consideration. 14
Together they found that exceptional architecture was not simply the
construction great buildings but the capacity to tie them effectively to the
city, to finances and economics.15
The design process of Zeckendorf and Pei was distinct. It began with an
extensive contextual analysis before preparing a detailed master plan for an
area. This master plan was the key to the whole process. To create the plan,
they would send in teams of planners, engineers and architects to analyze the
total context integrating site planning and preliminary building designs.16

The trailblazing Zeckendorf continually sought new
ideas, deals and cheap land for his projects. Following the penthouse suite,
Pei was asked to think about low cost housing. He hesitated initially, but drew
upon his teachings from Aalto, Gropius and Breuer about human rituals, internal
logic and humanizing spaces he became excited
about the possibility of doing low cost housing. The major architecture
magazines in 1954 raved about the Fabulous William Zeckendorf.  He was praised for turning slums into
cultural, shopping and residential areas. These publications and successes
overlooked the devastating clearance of small communities by these urban
projects. Zeckendorf’s real estate firm alongside the Redevelopment Land Agency
of Washington took the position of the high-handed land developers. The
standard approach to urban renewal was a strategy of total demolition and
complete reconstruction.

Urban Renewal was at the heart of the new housing
program set before Congress in the 1950s. Slum clearance projects were
federally funded and strongly encouraged. The Federal Government had authorized
funds totally $1 billion for land clearance loans and $500 million in cash
grants for city slum aid under Title I (slum clearance and urban redevelopment)
of the Housing Acts of 1949.17
However, it quickly became clear that it required more than the razing of slums
and substituting clean new apartments to revitalize an area suffering from
social and economic problems. The development firm agreed that changes
warranted a revitalization of the urban core. The best way to achieve this was
through a new or better land use. Pei encouraged Zeckendorf and partners to
consider housing as a single element of change to be allied with commercial and
aesthetic elements such as gardens and greenways to prevent the housing from
succumbing to the decay around it.

The Southwest Washington D.C. redevelopment project
was perhaps the most significant redevelopment plan initiated by Webb and Knapp
with I.M. Pei on board. For Pei, the Southwest DC redevelopment was an intense
course in real estate from which he emerged as a rare architect that could
speak with authority about real world factors such as land values, catchment
and politics. He learned from Zeckendorf how to identify interested parties, to
delve into the multiple strata of communities and to address the interests of
the diverse constituents. Pei was aware of the financial elements and the
broader scale of the city. Webb and Knapp developed a pragmatic and consistent
redevelopment philosophy, which their designs manifest.

Aware of the impact of
urban renewal, the firm
determined that any urban redevelopment program must meet a number of criteria.

First, a project must meet a certain critical mass in order to generate a
self-sustaining reaction. Second, the components of this mass must be properly balanced. For instance, mixed-use
developments integrated with housing and amenities were more viable. Third, the
development must be properly connected to the city of which it was a part. 18
The alliance with William Zekendorf set these principles into motion through
the low cost- housing project in Southwest Washington, DC.

Zeckendorf accepted the invitation to redevelop
Southwest DC and respected the intentions of the Redevelopment Land Agency to
tie the Southwest into the city proper. The National Capital Planning
Commission, felt that the Southwest a traditionally low-income area and should
remain so. Initially, the planning commission considered retaining the
historical facades in order to re-use the existing shells so that the buildings
and streets would be re-inhabited but their general appearance would remain
unchanged.

The development firm of Webb and Knapp was in favor
of neither the re-historicizing of the facades nor the separation from the
urban core. City planners often concentrated the high-risk communities and low-cost
housing projects among the most adverse conditions – in the worst part of the
city core lacking connections to viable adjacent areas. 19
Pei and Zeckendorf recognized the fatal flaw in this approach. The architect
and developer believed that without connection to the economic forces of the
city, the new housing developments were destined to failure. Their goal was to
create new, thriving communities rather than transplanted ghettos. If the
redevelopment was to serve its constituents, it must add to the existing or
potential flow of business and people through the area. Zeckendorf believed
that a stronger physical connection from Southwest to the center city was
critical for long term viability.

Pei drafted the initial plan for Southwest DC and
proposed a $500 million project that would include a residential area with
garden apartments, row houses and a monumental South mall to reintegrate the
segregated areas of the city. It called for a 20-acre L’Enfant Plaza with a
national opera house, symphony, theatre and conventional hall and outdoor ice
skating rink. The response to the
plan was not immediately well received, and as with most processes in
Washington it was delayed, modified and debated. 

The final design resulted in an integrated urban
space with residential areas, mall and plaza suited to their local, citywide
and national functions.20
The key to the plan was a three-hundred-foot-wide mall. It connected the
Southwest neighborhood with the city proper. By constructing an elevated
walkway over the railroad tracks with a new eight-lane expressway into the
heart of the Southwest, a link was formed to downtown Washington. The cultural
center, entertainment center and office buildings named L’Enfant Plaza were
planned alongside the mall, between the tracks and expressway. The
redevelopment of Southwest DC connected the new neighborhood with the
waterfront, added cultural amenities and government offices to ensure its
economic viability. The project addressed the issues of density, balance and
diversity of components and connection to the existing city and urban fabric. 21

Furthering the exploration of mixed-use
developments within an urban setting, Pei worked on a new project, the Mile-High Office Complex. It was project that integrated office, retail and exhibition with landscaped open
space in downtown Denver in 1956. The complex was among the
first in United States to create dynamic pedestrian areas in a center city
dominated by commercial development. Pei persuaded Zeckendorf to defy
real estate convention by banishing the decorative ground floor shops, with
their cluttered windows, to a basement concourse. Pei also broke from
convention by pulling the glass-and aluminum building back from the street so
that it occupied less than a quarter of the site, and by elevating it on
stilts, he allowed pedestrians to stroll through an open lobby and a courtyard
fresh with flowers, fountains and reflecting pool. The
Progressive Architecture credited Pei
and Zeckendorf for overcoming boundaries of codes, costs and
conservatism that restricted much of urban design. The ‘lost’ ground floor
revenue was recovered in the premium rents commanded by the building’s
distinction. Shops and restaurants were placed instead in the lower concourse
of the wide span exhibition pavilion. The project had
an acute attention to detail, where high quality architecture and public space
were conceived of in unison. Together Pei and
Zeckendorf approached buildings and communities as hybrid programs
strengthening the economics of the area through the vicinity of shops to
offices and dwelling units.

I.M. Pei took a risk as he entered into business
with William Zeckendorf. Yet, their unique interdisciplinary collaboration
broadened the scope of urban design, shifting the focus from the singular
melody to a harmony of parts giving rise to mixed-use, economically diverse and
thriving communities. Pei developed his belief in the important of that
architecture while recognizing that it is not an art, like painting or poetry,
to be practiced in isolation; it must engage the environment if it is ever to
become real. It was here that Pei advanced the potential to shape and
choreograph the city, developed the discipline of urban design and transformed
his identity.

1 I.M. Pei, “Architecture on 3 with I.M. Pei,” BBC Radio. Interview with John Tusa, December
8, 2002. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nc9w5

2 Michael Cannell,  I. M.

Pei: Mandarin of Modernism (New York, NY: Carol Southern Books, 1995), 67.

3 Cannell, I. M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism, 73

4 ibid

5 I.M. Pei, “Architecture on 3 with I.M. Pei,” BBC Radio. Interview with John Tusa, December
8, 2002. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nc9w5

6 Cannell,  I. M.

Pei: Mandarin of Modernism, 99.

7 Ibid

8 “Rooftop showboat produces
drama and income for realtor Zeckendorf: Webb & Knapp Offices, 338-385
Madison Ave. New York.” Architectural
forum, July, 1952. v. 97: 105

9 “Rooftop showboat produces
drama and income for realtor Zeckendorf,” 112.

10 William Zeckendorf,  Zeckendorf: An Autobiography (New
York, USA: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970), 99.

11 ibid, 99

12 Josep M. Rovira,  José
Luis Sert: 1901-1983. (Milan: Electa Architecture, 2003). Jose
Luis Sert later formulated his definition of Urban Design at the round table
organized by Sert at the GSD on 26-27 November 1956. Conclusions from the
meeting founded the basis of the educational discipline of urban design. The
group agreed that Urban Design should be primarily concerned with the visual
aspects of the contemporary city: the area most neglected today and have most concern
to the group. There was no better way to comprehend the ‘urban chaos’ than to
embrace it.

13 Zeckendorf, Zeckendorf:
An Autobiography, 238.

14 I.M. Pei interview with John Tusa on BBC Radio

15 Zeckendorf, Zeckendorf:
An Autobiography, 100.

16 Zeckendorf, Zeckendorf:
An Autobiography, 230.

17 “Cities not for Dying:
Redevelopment Boom,” Architectural Record
(May, 1954): 170.

18 Zeckendorf, Zeckendorf:
An Autobiography, 231.

19 Zeckendorf, Zeckendorf:
An Autobiography, 231.

20 Architectural Forum Jan 1956 p. 97

21 Rovira, José
Luis Sert: 1901-1983, 75.