Still working at age 99, Ieoh Ming Pei, better known as I. M. Pei, is the architect behind many iconic construction projects, ranging from the massive and corporate—the 72-story Bank of China masterpiece that dominates the Hong Kong skyline—to the artistic and daring pyramid of the Louvre Museum. (The glass pyramid felt so out-of-place at the time that Frenchmen would spit on Pei in the streets for ruining the iconic museum.)
He has had his share of embarrassments: the 60-story Hancock tower in Boston revealed a structural flaw when a huge number of 4’ x 11’ glass window panels blew out during a 1973 windstorm, crashing to the earth. Police blocked traffic around the building on every street for more than a year while engineers worked to determine what exactly was wrong with the building. (The problem? Wind was only a secondary cause. Ultimately, they were failing because the outer temperature of the glass was hotter than the interior, so when the building oscillated in the wind, the glass couldn’t adequately move with the building. The plywood panels that replaced the glass during construction led to the city-wide joke that the Hancock Tower was the world’s tallest wooden building.
But one of Pei’s projects that stands out from the rest is the Mesa Laboratory for the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Unlike the work that he was famous for in cities, this was nestled in the foothills above Boulder, Colorado. When Pei went to make his initial assessment of the area, he stopped at another Colorado icon: the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Pei was impressed, but felt the buildings were detached from nature.
National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Co., designed by I.M. Pei.
Pei wanted to build something that blends in and synergizes with the natural sandstone of the location. The NCAR was built on a large parcel of land, which includes a mile-long road to just get up to the site, and Pei was determined to preserve that sense of remoteness. Like the tall sandstone cliffs that surrounded it, the NCAR would have two groups of towers, all made from local stone and colored cement that mimic the height and solidarity of the stone spires. He drew inspiration from Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, where towers of sandstone nestled harmoniously with their surroundings.
Working also on the theory that the best success in science comes when people from disparate fields come together to work on a project, Pei was insistent that there would be no single good way to get from one place to the other. He built walkways and hallways with sharp 180 degree turns, or stairs that meet in a common rest area, so that employees would be forced into spontaneous discussion. In the cool autumns and springs, these common areas would be found outside, walking from one set of towers to another. In the frigid winter and hot summer, underground tunnels connected building with building.
It was not without its flaws: flat roofs in heavy winters lead to leaks in the ceilings and the sandy soil allowed buildings to shift and crack, but both Pei and Walter Orr Roberts, the leading atmospheric researcher and head of the NCAR both loved it. Despite the success that he would go onto later, Pei considered it his breakout building.