One of Li Chung Pei’s most enduring childhood memories are his trips to Europe. Every time one of the Pei children graduated from high school, it was an occasion for the whole family to visit Europe that summer. In the 60s, transatlantic flights between New York City and London or Paris were considered only for well heeled jetsetters. These holidays were splurges for the middle class family – even if head of the household was 1983 Pritzker Prize winner Ieoh Ming Pei.
‘Of course, my father had an ulterior motive: it was a chance for him to revisit the great European cities and small towns, their chateaux and their art,’ says Pei, who goes by Sandi. ‘If dad was, say, a banker, we probably would have done something else. And that exposure to European culture was enriching and enjoyable.’ Along with his duties as a partner at Pei Partnership alongside his older brother Chien Chung, or Didi, Pei serves on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art and Christie’s auction house.
When studying at Harvard, Pei was the editor of its literary magazine and considered pursuing a career in journalism at one point. But his passion for architecture prevailed and he went down the same path as his father and brother, with the latter initially studying physics. The two Pei boys worked for their father initially; Didi on the pyramid at Paris’ Louvre and Sandi on the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, where he learned first hand how much feng shui still ruled in some parts of the world. When their father decided to decrease his day to day workload to concentrate on consultancy, the brothers set up Pei Partnership in 1992. Today, the firm stands at around 50 people and is run like a studio out of New York City, with four other principals that direct projects.
Pei typically runs the projects where he initially established the client relationship. He admits that his strength is in generating work and design, while his brother is better at project administration and management of the office. ‘But I do the same amount of administration as he does design,’ he adds. ‘We all know what’s going on in a small office.’ One of the latest projects on his drawing board is a 550-unit residential tower in midtown Toronto, the firm’s first project in the Canadian city. ‘Our scheme is currently undergoing community review,’ says Pei. ‘The city has identified Yonge and Eglinton as one of five parts that will be up-zoned due to its good transportation network. The area’s current density [of mostly low-rise apartment blocks and single-family bungalows or two-storey houses] is unsustainable.’