Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects LLP History
New York, New York 10005
Telephone: (212) 751-3122
Fax: (212) 872-5443
Founded: 1955 as I.M. Pei & Associates
Sales:$23 million (2002 est.)
NAIC:541310 Architectural Services
The partners and their colleagues approach every building project on its own terms, drawing inspiration less from formal or theoretical preconceptions than from particularities of place and program. This approach stems from the conviction that successful environments of lasting value can be achieved only when individual building projects reflect a concern for the specific physical and cultural contexts in which they occur.
- I.M. Pei, Henry Cobb, and Eason Leonard found I.M. Pei & Associates.
- The firm shifts its focus from residential to institutional buildings.
- Pei wins commission to design the John F. Kennedy Library.
- Cobb designs New England's tallest building, the John Hancock Tower.
- Pei's East Building of the National Gallery of Art opens.
- Pei designs a glass pyramid for the central courtyard of the Louvre in Paris.
- Pei-designed Bank of China in Hong Kong is completed.
- Freed-designed U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., opens.
- Cobb-designed projects in Boston and Cincinnati are completed.
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects LLP, based in New York City, is one of the world's leading architectural firms. Drawing on the work of its founder, Ieoh Ming Pei, the firm established its reputation by designing a series of prominent public and corporate buildings in a style often described as Late Modernism. Among these are the John F. Kennedy Library and John Hancock Tower in Boston; the City Hall and Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas; the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York; and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Over a period of nearly 50 years the firm has completed more than 200 projects in over 100 cities across North America and around the world.
From Urban Development to Prestige Commissions: 1955-70
Born into a wealthy and prominent Chinese banking family, Pei studied architecture in the United States and remained there when the Japanese occupation of China, followed by World War II and subsequent rise of the Communists to power, made it unwise for him to return. Pei's education under such masters as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer put him firmly in the camp of the International Style of modernist architecture that derived from Gropius's famed Bauhaus design studio. Seven years in charge of architecture for real estate magnate William Zeckendorf not only enabled Pei to realize his designs but thoroughly acquainted him with the many practical steps needed to guide a work from conception to completion.
I.M. Pei & Associates was formed in 1955, with Henry Cobb and Eason Leonard as partners. Cobb supplemented Pei on the design side, while Leonard was in charge of managing a 70-person staff--still working exclusively for Zeckendorf's Webb & Knapp Inc.--on various aspects of a dozen projects at a time. During the late 1950s the firm concentrated on such residential complexes as Kips Bay Plaza and University Plaza in New York City, University Gardens in Chicago, and Society Hill in Philadelphia. Also begun at this time was Place Ville-Marie, a seven-acre redevelopment in the heart of Montreal that included the tallest building in the British Commonwealth.
By 1960 Zeckendorf's fortunes were beginning to wane--Webb & Knapp would later go bankrupt--and Pei was increasingly conscious that his own firm would never be considered for the more artistically challenging and high visibility projects he sought as long as he was viewed as merely a house architect. Accordingly, the links between I.M. Pei & Associates and Webb & Knapp were severed that summer. Pei was in charge of recruiting clients and overseeing the design process, which was then given over to Cobb, Araldo Cossutta--who became a partner in 1963--and James Freed. Each of the three headed a team of junior architects that was dedicated to the project until completion. Administration was in the hands of Leonard, Leonard Jacobson, and Werner Wandelmaier. All of them except Cossutta, who left in 1973, would remain together until the 1990s, forming a team perhaps unprecedented in architecture for its longevity. The firm's name was changed to I.M. Pei & Partners in 1966, when it moved its headquarters northward to 600 Madison Avenue, at East 58th Street, to accommodate the growing staff, which now numbered about 150.
By this time Pei had turned away from housing and urban development, perceiving the slowdown in federal funding for projects of any size. Henceforth his firm's hallmark would be institutional buildings, some of great originality and all characterized by devotion to the materials and geometry of modernist architecture. The forerunner was Pei's own design, conceived in 1961, for the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and sited against a mountainous backdrop. This complex of buildings was characterized by a verticality of rough concrete surfaces that evoked the walls of the mesa, and with this work, in the words of biographer Michael Cannell, Pei moved "beyond the stiff inhibitions of his Bauhaus schooling [to] explore the meditative geometry that became his trademark." About this time Pei designed the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, the first of the many museum buildings that would become a specialty of the firm.
In 1964 Pei won the commission that brought him and his firm to national prominence for the first time--the John F. Kennedy Library to house the papers of the recently assassinated president. Pei's knack for presentation is credited for receiving the approval of Jacqueline Kennedy in the face of competition from such revered architects as Gordon Bunshaft, Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Paul Rudolph, and John Carl Warnecke. However, his model of a truncated glass pyramid for the Cambridge site sparked a community revolt. By the time Pei's third design reached completion with the opening of the building in 1979, to tepid applause, on a swampy peninsula of Boston Harbor, the Kennedy era had lost its resonance with the public. Another prominent Boston project, the John Hancock Tower, also proved unlucky. Designed by Cobb in 1967 to be New England's tallest structure, the glass-sheathed edifice, jutting over its low-rise environs, became the building Boston loved to hate, even before its five-by-11-foot glass panels began popping out of the frame in 1973. All the more than 10,000 panes had to be replaced, and I.M. Pei & Partners lost an immeasurable amount of work because of the bad publicity, even though the building eventually received the recognition that the insurance company sought as the defining feature of the Boston skyline. According to Pei biographer Carter Wiseman, "The virtual blackballing of the firm caused by Hancock lasted for the better part of the next seven years."
I.M. Pei had better luck in Dallas, where in 1966 he designed a municipal government complex that featured an eight-story concrete-clad city hall angled over the adjacent plaza at 34 degrees. The project grew substantially in size and cost, and it was not completed until 1977, but the impact was so great that it led to five more buildings in the city designed by the firm.
Surviving the 1970s, Resurgence in the 1980s
I.M. Pei & Partners' dry spell put the firm's very existence in peril. Its founder's reputation for perfectionism, which often meant missed deadlines and cost overruns, put the firm at a competitive disadvantage amid the economic downturn of the 1970s. It struggled to meet its 150-employee payroll and fell behind in payments to consultants. There were no pay raises and no payments for overtime. "The firm was damn near bankrupt," a senior associate recalled to Cannell. "It was terrifying." Pei's Asian connections helped keep the partnership afloat during this period. Bankers in Singapore who knew his father provided the entree that gave I.M. Pei the commissions for a 52-story banking headquarters and a mixed-use project called Raffles City, plus an office building overlooking New York's South Street Seaport. Pei also built a shopping arcade in oil-rich Kuwait and, in 1974, visited China for the first time since his youth. Five years later he returned to design the Fragrant Hill hotel on the site of an old hunting preserve near Beijing.
The East Building of the National Gallery of Art was the commission that restored--and enhanced--I.M. Pei's reputation. This annex to the main building had to be constructed on an awkward trapezoidal site. Pei decided to exploit the location with a complex design featuring two triangular parts linked horizontally. They were clad in the same pink Tennessee marble as the main building. The great central space of the courtyard was spanned by a metal frame made of 25 tetrahedrons that supported hundreds of irregularly shaped panes of glass. An enormous mobile by Alexander Calder hung from the frame. The building opened to great acclaim in 1978 and in its first two months received more than a million visitors.
Pei was less interested in high-rise office buildings, leaving most of this kind of work to associates. While he gathered plaudits, Cobb operated with increasing autonomy within the firm. Among his significant designs completed in the 1970s were the Johnson & Johnson world headquarters, One Dallas Center, and the World Trade Center in Baltimore. Freed, who became a partner of the firm in 1980, along with Jacobson and Wandelmaier, was the designer, in 1984, of New York City's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The gigantic floor space of 1.7 million square feet was supported by a lightweight spaceframe of interlocking tubes similar to that employed for the East Building courtyard.
Pei returned to the spotlight as the designer of the 71-foot-high glass pyramid in the central courtyard of the Louvre in Paris, serving as the new entrance to France's national art museum. Three smaller glass pyramids were also built to provide light to newly added subterranean passageways leading to the three wings of the museum. When unveiled in 1984, the plan received a hostile reception; one member of the French Academy even declared that the only proper response was "insurrection." But by the time the project was completed in 1989, public opinion had swung in its favor; one writer declared that "The much-feared pyramid has become adorable."
Cobb and Freed to the Forefront: 1989-2002
The Louvre reconstruction was only one of five Pei designs completed in 1989, the others being an office building in Los Angeles for the Creative Artists Agency; the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas, a rectangular limestone structure enclosed within swooping curves of glass; a science building at the Choate Rosemary Hall School in Connecticut; and a 70-story tower--the tallest in Asia--for the Bank of China in Hong Kong. Cobb was working on a planned expansion--soon aban- doned--of New York City's Kennedy Airport, an international trade center in Baltimore, and a London office complex, while Freed had begun designing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles Convention Center. With a staff of 229, I.M. Pei & Partners was the largest architectural firm based in New York City when, in September 1989, its name was changed to Pei Cobb Freed & Partners to reflect the ever greater role that Pei's younger designer partners inevitably were assuming.
Pei, now 73, officially retired at the end of 1990 but continued to come to his corner office every day and to design structures. These included a sculpturally shaped bell tower for a Japanese religious sect and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. When completed in 1995, the latter reminded observers of a giant record player, with an aluminum-clad auditorium (which Pei called a "glass tent") resembling a stylus and a brick round plaza resembling a turntable. Freed, who came to the United States as a German Jewish refugee, could not come up with a design for the Holocaust Museum until he had visited a number of Nazi death camps. Completed in 1993, the museum combined, within a rather bland exterior, a Hall of Witness with skewed angles and twisted roof trusses, and a hexagonal Hall of Remembrance with multiple skylights intended to throw an indirect light upon the walls and floor and encourage quiet contemplation. Freed also designed the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Completed in 1998, on an awkward 11-acre L-shaped site in the heart of official Washington, this 3.1-million-square-foot complex was second only in size, among federal buildings, to the Pentagon.
Cobb designed the upgrade of the University of Cincinnati's conservatory of music, completed in 2001. Also completed that year was a Cobb-designed Boston courthouse, on a prime waterfront location, serving as headquarters for a federal district court and appeals court. In 2003 Freed's design was chosen for a new Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. The centerpiece consisted of three attenuated, arcing stainless-steel spires, with the tallest to be 270 feet high. Completion was scheduled for 2006.
There were a number of important personnel changes at Pei Cobb Freed during these years. George H. Miller was named a managing partner for administration and projects in 1989. Michael D. Flynn, a veteran with the firm, also was appointed a managing partner in the same year. Leonard retired in 1990, and Jacobson died in 1992. Pei's two architect sons had put about 20 years each in the firm when they resigned in 1992 to start their own partnership. Wandelmaier retired in 1995. Ian Bader and Yvonne Szeto were named partners in 1999.
Pei Cobb Freed, like other architectural firms, suffered from the 1990-91 recession, its gross billings falling from $36.7 million in 1990 to $20.5 million in 1993. Its operating revenues were estimated at $23 million in 2002, and its worldwide construction volume at $125 million. The firm was engaged in 37 projects, of which nine were overseas. In 2000 it moved its headquarters from 600 Madison Avenue to 88 Pine Street, a lower Manhattan office building designed in 1973 by Pei and Freed.
Principal Competitors: Emery Roth & Partners LLC; Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects LLC; Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum Inc.; Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates P.C.; Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP.
- Cannell, Michael, I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism, New York: Carol Southern Books, 1995.
- Dunlap, David W., "The Delicate Matter of Passing the Torch," New York Times, Sec. 11, pp. 1, 6.
- Filler, Martin, "Power Pei," Vanity Fair, September 1989, pp. 262-63, 266-68, 270, 291-94.
- "Freed, James I.," in Current Biography Yearbook 1994, New York: H.W. Wilson, 1995, pp. 188-92.
- "Pei, I(eoh) M(ing)," in Current Biography Yearbook 1990, New York: H.W. Wilson, 1991, pp. 495-99.
- Post, Nadine M., "The Perils and Pearls of Pei Cobb Freed," ENR/Engineering News Record, December 13, 1993, pp. 26-27, 30-32.
- Russell, James R., "The Ronald Reagan Building," Architectural Record, July 1998, pp. 59-71.
- Stein, Karen D., "Cleveland Rocks," Architectural Record, November 1995, p. 84.
- Wiseman, Carter, I.M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture, New York: Harry M. Abrams, 1990.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 57. St. James Press, 2004.