Architect I. M. Pei’s Vision Has Shaped the Look of Dallas

In the mid 1930’s, the love for popular American culture attracted a young man by the name of I. M. Pei from China to America to pursue his education in architecture. Years later his professional career would help establish the modern look of what has become the iconic Dallas cityscape.

Ieoh Ming Pei (I. M. Pei) was born in Kwangchou China in 1917 and raised in Shanghai and Hong Kong. He found inspiration for design from the gardens at Soochow where he visited as a child with his mother, a devout Buddhist, on her meditation retreats. Pei was the only one of the family’s five siblings that was uniquely close to his mother and maintained a respectful distance from his father who did not share a passion for the cultural arts.

Pei has won a wide variety of prizes and awards in the field of architecture, including the AIA Gold Medal in 1979, the first Praemium Imperiale for Architecture in 1989, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in 2003. In 1983, he won the Pritzker Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of architecture.His mother died from cancer when Pei was only 13 years old and the children found homes with various relatives as his father became even more distant. As Pei grieved his mother, he threw his energies into his academic work and learned rudimentary English skills by watching Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films and reading the Bible and novels by Charles Dickens. Along the way he discovered Bing Crosby films which seemed to glamorize the American college experience and that is what led him to choose the United States over England for his advanced education.

The young man set sail in 1935 from China and arrived stateside at the port of San Francisco; from there he traveled by train to the University of Pennsylvania to enroll in their architecture school and later transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At both schools he was weary of the Beaux-Arts architecture that was so heavily favored by the instructors and instead found inspiration in the works of Le Corbusier and the school of Bauhaus -- an attraction that would define his work for decades to come.

Pei’s love for the modern lines and aesthetics can be seen in key buildings that he designed that are now major components that make up the distinctive Dallas cityscape including Fountain Place, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and Dallas City Hall.

It was Dallas mayor J. Erik Jonsson that recruited Pei to Dallas to work on a distinctive design for the new city hall that would help change the community’s image to the world after President Kennedy’s assassination.  Pei invested countless hours in meeting residents from all walks of life and was impressed by the high level of civic pride that so many displayed. And, as he did with all his projects, he carefully evaluated the surrounding land to ensure there was a sense of belonging for the building he would design.

With the mighty skyscrapers of downtown in such close proximity, Pei felt strongly that City Hall would need a unique design that would allow it to face those tall buildings and show the importance of the public sector. What he came up with is a building whose top is wider than its bottom and features a facade that leans out 34 degrees toward downtown.  

Fun Fact: The three “support” columns on the front of City Hall are not needed structurally. They were added at the request of the Mayor because he was concerned the design would be regarded as too top heavy without them.

The building opened its doors to the public in 1978 to wild acclaim by the media and citizens. Pei was pleased by the response as he had harbored a few concerns. “It’s perhaps stronger than I would have liked; it’s got more strength than finesse,” said Pei at the time of its opening.

From this high profile beginning, Pei would go on to design an additional four buildings that would all visually impact the Dallas skyline:

- One Dallas Center, 350 North Saint Paul Street (1979)
- Energy Plaza, 1601 Bryan Street (1983)
- Fountain Place, 1445 Ross Avenue (1986)
- Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center (1989)

Fountain Place is 60-stories and is notable for its unique architecture;  it is designed as a large, multi-faceted prism and its various slanting sides causes the building to have a completely different profile from each direction.  The name is the result of the 172 dancing fountains in the plaza at its base with a fully automated water show as the centerpiece.

The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is considered one of the world’s greatest orchestra halls. It was named in honor of Meyerson due to his tireless decade-long work to create a permanent home for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; he was also president of Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and Perot Systems. It was Dallas-based billionaire H. Ross Perot that donated $10 million to the building campaign which secured him the naming rights. Several other Dallas-based music organizations make their home at the Meyerson including Dallas Wind Symphony

As of 2019, a sibling tower to Fountain Place is now being constructed to provide nine floors of parking and 367 residential units above and is named AMLI Fountain Place. Architectural firm Page Southerland Page designed the exterior to echo Pei’s original design.