From IM Pei to PEI Architects, from one person to a generation: Interview with Toh Tsun Lim, Principal of PEI Architects

105 years ago today, the famous Chinese-American architect IM Pei was born. During his splendid life, IM Pei used building materials as his pen to write countless modernist poems. Thirty years ago, with the support of their father, Chien Chung Pei and Li Chung Pei established Pei Partnership Architects in New York City. Standing on the shoulders of giants, how can today’s Pei inherit and carry forward IM Pei’s “design heritage”? How to adhere to their own design concept in the international practice of Eastern and Western cultures? These questions are a curiosity of external concerns and may also be central to how  PEI Architects moves forward. With these questions in mind, YouFang of Position Magazine recently conducted an exclusive interview with Toh Tsun Lim, principal of PEI Architects. The following are Mr. Lim’s answers.

Toh Tsun Lim, Principal at PEI Architects

What was the reason for you to join PEI Architects in 1994? How was your impression of the practice and Mr. I.M. Pei at that time?

TTL:  In 1992 Mr. Pei had retired from his own firm, Pei Cobb, Freed and Partners, to focus on personal projects and to collaborate with his sons, Didi and Sandi, who had also just started their new firm Pei Partnership Architects (now PEI Architects).  Although the firm was new and small the collective experience of the partners and their father made it a formidable practice. The timing was fortuitous as it was a great opportunity for a young architect like myself to join at its inception where I was immediately immersed in a sophisticated practice and could work closely with the Pei’s on a large international project. That opportunity would never have existed in any other firm, including Pei Cobb Freed.  It was a great benefit to us all that they took a very hands on approach as we all learned a great deal in a short period of time.  I was always amazed at the trust they placed in their staff for tasks which were greater than we thought we deserved.  Mr. Pei was far too gracious a man to demand anything of anyone and his leadership came from all our respect of his clear vision.  Didi and Sandi Pei operated the same way as their father with high standards expected but never asked for.

Toh Tsun Lim & Didi Pei
From left to right: Cui Renyuan (China Manager), Sandi Pei, Toh Tsun Lim

Mr. Pei has been praised as “the last master of modern architecture”, based on your personal working experience, how would you interpret it? As a Principal at PEI architects, what do you view as the most precious “design legacy” left behind by Mr. Pei?

TTL:  Modernism was the perfect venue for Mr. Pei’s talents.  Besides the minimalist design and the rejection of ornamentation that were the hallmarks of Modernism, it was also a movement very much rooted in classical ideals of balance, symmetry and proportion.   These ideals are what make Modernist designs enduring to this day. Classical ideals, irrespective of style, transcend time and fittingly that is the legacy of Mr. Pei’s work:  timelessness.  Within the Modernist framework his clear design solutions were expressed by a strict geometry but appreciated by all because they were so composed and elegant.  His work perfectly embodied true modernists ideas which were artful, serene, classically beautiful edifices in concrete, metal and glass that are revered more today than when they were built.  It was his design clarity and commitment to the final quality of his projects that make them timeless both physically and stylistically.  Maintaining a commitment to such lofty ideals is difficult particularly over a span of such a long career that watched the rise and fall of other fads like postmodernism, de-constructivism and now technologically driven form.  Certainly no other architect has cultivated such a long career and it is remarkable that his consistency and commitment to original ideals overcame all the other design eras that now seem dated.

East Hall of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Beijing Bank of China Headquarters in Beijing
Miho Museum in Kyoto

How many offices does PEI Architects currently have? Could you please introduce some of the team’s recently built key projects around the globe?

TTL:  It was important to our firm that we maintain only one headquarters here in New York.  While we have an office in China for business development and client support we wanted all design work to come from our home office. This is a very strategic, purposeful decision to give confidence to clients that all designs have the personal involvement of the Partners and Principals at PEI.  Our international experience and reputation is why clients seek us out and so delivering that is paramount to us.

We build around the world and we most recently completed a finance center in Sao Paulo known as the Faria Lima tower.  The project is designed to be an iconic building along the main avenue and is meant to catch attention by its unique geometry and compelling simple shape.  All other typical buildings along the avenue are rectangular blocks governed by zoning that turn a flat façade towards the street. To break this repetitive monotony we rotated the building facades at an offset angle to the avenue and expressed a unique sloped geometry with an efficient rectangular floor plan behind. This simple gesture allowed us to create a very original building massing within the standard zoning envelope.  Our Faria Lima tower is the most recognizable building on the street and as a result it has been a highly successful project for our client which remains fully leased since its opening.

B32 Faria Lima Tower, Sao Paulo, Brazil
B32 Faria Lima Tower, Sao Paulo, Brazil

In Toronto, Canada our first super tall residential tower was just completed this year.  This project seeks to distinguish itself from Toronto’s ubiquitous glass towers by highlighting the terraces as a unique design feature rather than as appendages to a large glassy mass. The project has been a great financial success for our client as its distinguished design led to a full sell out before construction was complete.  This terrace design provides both abundant outdoor living space, shading and privacy from adjacent buildings through intermittent areas of open views and opaque screening.

2221 Yonge Street, Toronto, Canada
2221 Yonge Street, Toronto, Canada

In Suzhou, China we recently completed a new banking office tower for our long time client, the Bank of China.  This is a magnificent site, bordered on two sides by canals that provides a large open area with long unobstructed views across Suzhou.   Here our simplified forms and surfaces provide a crisp massing which conveys an image of strength and dignity for the Bank.  This simple, clean massing gives the appearance of grand scale and distinguishes the tower from our immediate neighbors.

Bank of China Tower, Suzhou, China

In Hainan we conceived of another Bank of China tower as a series of distinct floating volumes that clearly identifies each part of its program with a unique building form. The buildings are unified by a large continuous podium that rings the site and is organized around a series of courtyards to bring light, air, and landscaping throughout the building.

As with most Chinese courtyard buildings, the process of entering and experiencing the building is modulated by a series of interior and exterior spaces that transition from public entrance yards to more private landscaped ones.

Haikou Jiangdong International Financial Building (Under Construction), Haikou, China
BOC Hainan 3
Haikou Jiangdong International Financial Building (Under Construction), Haikou, China

Kent Barwick, president of the New York City Art Association, once commented on Mr. Pei as: “Drawing the essence from the two distinct cultural soils of the East and the West, and traversing the two worlds with ease.” Is this still the design philosophy that PEI Architects wish to practice in the current architecture discipline?

TTL: This was true of Mr. Pei and still is true of PEI architects today.  Mr. Pei and his sons had the benefit of an upbringing within both eastern and western cultures and their long family history in Suzhou roots them in China though they have lived in the United States for many years.  Their balance of eastern values in the US is because of their frequent travel back to Asia and their far reaching connections to family, scholars, artists, business and political leaders who continually nurture their immersion in both cultures.    I would go on to say that cultural sensitivity goes further to many of our other projects around the world where we have been called to produce buildings that speak to the local traditions.  Regardless of locale, we begin each project with the fundamental question of what is the “essence” of that country’s architecture and from there our process of design begins.

In terms of PEI Architects’ recent projects in China, what are the most representative ones, in different genres (master planning, architectural design, restoration and renewal, interior design, etc.)? What is your vision of the company’s future development in China?

TTL: We are first and foremost architects so our core design strength will always be with architectural building structure rather than other disciplines such as master planning or interiors work. As for China, there is so much opportunity there, not only within China itself but around the region as China expands its economic and commercial ties to neighboring countries.  With our international experience and our particular cultural connectivity to China we are well positioned to help in this new era of development.  To aid in this effort we have developed strong ties with the LDI’s in China who share their expertise in China as we reciprocate with our international experience. 

The design language of Bank of China Shanghai Free Trade Zone Commercial Tower reminds us of the two classic projects that Mr. Pei built for the BOC in Hong Kong and Beijing. Is this an intentional tribute, or how do you interpret the new project’s ambition? 

The design language of Bank of China Shanghai Free Trade Zone Commercial Tower reminds us of the two classic projects that Mr. Pei built for the BOC in Hong Kong and Beijing. Is this an intentional tribute, or how do you interpret the new project’s ambition?

TTL: The BOC Shanghai Free Trade Zone Tower represents an important evolution of iconic design elements from the Bank’s other headquarter buildings throughout China.  The iconic structural X bracing developed originally for the Bank of China Hong Kong evolved into a slimmer version here that reflects the particular needs of this project and the evolution of modern office operations. The Hong Kong Branch was the definitive model of an integrated structure and architectural design but for Lingang we did not want a heavy diagonal expression to dominate the tower facades or prohibit the openness of the views. Hence, we sought to minimize the bracing structurally and the result is an exterior glass wall that appears more sheer, taut and monolithic, with more glass than any of our previous projects.   As well, the demand for increased floor-to-floor heights, larger windows and more stringent energy conservation requirements have led us to develop a cladding system that utilizes the most sustainable and technologically advanced glazing available. Our intention was not to have the cladding distract from the powerful conceptual arch form that defines this project as a gateway between eastern and western commerce.

Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong Image Source Network
Shanghai Lingang Bank of China Financial Center, Shanghai, China (Under Construction)

As the Principal of PEI Architects, what do you view as the core competitiveness of PEI Architects at the moment?

TTL:  We are at an interesting point in time in terms of global architecture.  What was once and international style that dominated development around the world with ubiquitous glass towers is now giving way to a preference for more regional identities, particularly in China and Asia.  Many countries, rightfully so, are asking if design can be more tailored to their own heritage and culture while addressing the needs of a modern, evolving society.  As such, PEI architects is uniquely positioned to take on this task as we have been the one architectural firm that has consistently delivered projects as a global firm and in particular with China which as the largest and fastest growing market in the world.   Our core strength comes from many years of working internationally, with our shared eastern and western ideals and our evolving our practice that has kept pace with the evolving building industries around the world. 

From the Fragrant Hills Hotel project in 1982, where Mr. Pei and Didi Pei delivered an international hotel that was merger of east/west design and an honest celebration of local construction practices to the recent Bank of China Lingang project where the latest technologies allow PEI Architects to engineer a dramatic structure that ushers in a new era of building sophistication, we capitalize on the state of the industry to produce an enduring architecture that correctly reflects a building’s time and place.

Photo courtesy of Fragrant Hills Hotel
Shanghai Lingang Bank of China Financial Center, Shanghai, China (Under Construction)

Interview, Editing / Li Bochao, YuanyuanVision / Li QianyaProofreading / Yuanyuan/ Photos and renderings are Copyright/PEI Architects, unless otherwise stated.

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