I.M. Pei’s Wilson Commons Building: A Contemporary Mastery of Method

Photography by George Cassidy Payne

Designed by I.M.Pei in 1976, just after his John Hancock Tower, in Boston, and before his John F. Kennedy Library, also in Boston, the Wilson Common’s building is the campus’ Student Union for the University of Rochester.

As a central location for campus life, Wilson Commons provides space for gatherings, performances, lectures, exhibits, leisure, play, and eating throughout its five floors. Among its many stunning features, the six-story glass atrium, which is adorned with flags representative of that year’s student body country of origin, is one of the most impressive public spaces in Rochester. Less dramatic in scale, it still possess all of the hallmark characteristics of his most famous work the Louvre.

Transparent: the building’s windows exemplify the virtues of inquisitiveness and honesty. Rational: the building’s calculated layout is constructed of the most durable materials. International: the building invites all to gather as a common body of learners. Democratic: the building only functions when everyone does their part to make it work. Open and free: the building is, in the form of metal, brick, and glass, a glorious manifestation of the liberal arts.






The essence of architecture is form and space, and light is the essential element to the key to architectural design, probably more important than anything. Technology and materials are secondary. I. M. Pei




As one critic writes: “Pei has been aptly described as combining a classical sense of form with a contemporary mastery of method.”






A city, far from being a cluster of buildings, is actually a sequence of spaces enclosed and defined by buildings. I. M. Pei





“Pei refers to his own “analytical approach” when explaining the lack of a “Pei School”. “For me,” he said, “the important distinction is between a stylistic approach to the design; and an analytical approach giving the process of due consideration to time, place, and purpose … My analytical approach requires a full understanding of the three essential elements … to arrive at an ideal balance among them.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei)




Pei’s first major recognition came with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado (designed in 1961, and completed in 1967). His new stature led to his selection as chief architect for the John F. Kennedy Library in Massachusetts. He went on to design Dallas City Hall and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. He returned to China for the first time in 1975 to design a hotel at Fragrant Hills, and designed Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong, a skyscraper in Hong Kong for the Bank of China fifteen years later. In the early 1980s, Pei was the focus of controversy when he designed a glass-and-steel pyramid for the Musée du Louvre in Paris. He later returned to the world of the arts by designing the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the Miho Museum in Japan, the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.

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. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei)



I liked the America of Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – it was all a dream, of course, but a very alluring dream for a young man from Canton. I. M. Pei




I arrived in the U.S.A. in 1935, to San Francisco. I got the boat from China, and I didn’t even speak English. I could read a little, perhaps write a little, but that was all. It was a 17-day journey, and I learnt to speak English from the stewards. I. M. Pei





Architecture must not do violence to space or its neighbors. I. M. Pei








To me, form doesn’t always follow function. Form has a life of its own, and at times, it may be the motivating force in design. When you’re dealing with form as a sculptor, you feel that you are quite free in attempting to mould and shape things you want to do, but in architecture, it’s much more difficult because it has to have a function. I. M. Pei





Modern architecture needed to be part of an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, process. I. M. Pei




It is good to learn from the ancients. I’m a bit of an ancient myself. They had a lot of time to think about architecture and landscape. I. M. Pei




Biographical Information

Name: I. M. Pei
Full name: Ieoh Ming Pei
Born on 26 April 1917 in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, Asia
Place(s) of activity:
1919 Family moves to Hong Kong
1927 Attends Saint John’s Middle School in Shanghai
1935 Leaves for the United States, short stay at the University of Philadelphia
1936 – 1940 Transfers to MIT; Bachelor of Architecture; Alpha Ro Chi Medal
1941 Research assistant at the Bemis Foundation;
Works for Stone and Webster
1942 Marries Eileen Loo, student at Harvard Graduate School of Design
1943 – 1945 Volunteers for the National Defense Research Committee in Princeton
1945 – 1948 Studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, Master of Architecture;
Occupies a post as assistant professor for two years
1948 Employed by William Zeckendorf as architectural director for Webb and Knapp
1954 Becomes a US citizen
1955 Founds I. M. Pei and Associates
1966 The firm becomes I. M. Pei and Partners
1968 Firm receives AIA Prize
1979 AIA Medal
1981 Great Gold Medal of the Academy of Architecture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s