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Appreciating I.M. Pei and Architecture for Transformation

A remarkable man died at the age of 102 on May 16th, 2019. I.M Pei lead the design of some of the most unique buildings, which blended daring visual effect with practicality. Among his most notable projects were Boston’s John F Kennedy Library and Museum, Bank of China tower in Hong Kong, Japan’s Miho Museum, Suzhou Museum in China and Dallas City Hall with fellow architect Theodore J Musho. Remarkably, Pei was in his eighties when he designed the spectacular Islamic Museum of Art in Qatar.

I came to appreciate I.M. Pei for his work on Louvre Museum in Paris. This project was for me a masterful example of architecture for transformation of a building. I have adopted some of the lessons I observed from the Louvre project to my work with clients as an architect for organizational transformation. Let me explain.

A crucial aspect of organizational transformation is developing the architecture. That is, the use of design principles to uniquely visualize and plan for implementing transformative changes in an organization. Unless you have been involved in designing and initiating the transformation of an organization, you may be unfamiliar with the term architecture for transformation. This term came into use in the 1980’s and continues to be used. The basis for architecture for transformation:

  • Translating the executives’ vision for the future of the organization into words. “Painting a word picture” of the commitments and intent of the executives with the future of the organization is the crucial first step. This involves identifying what the future is likely going to look like, called the Default Future. With the Default Future articulated, the next step is for the executives to create a new future that if achieved would fulfill the needs and wants of key stakeholders of the organization. This Invented Future is one which becomes the basis for developing an architecture for transformation.
  • Combining the core elements which have proven to be important for achieving success in other transformations. McKinsey refers to these as “transformational tactics”. These core elements or tactics include changing mindsets, inclusion of groups in planning and implementing the specific projects and etc.
  • Execution or implementation plans which establish urgency for undertaking the transformation as well as creating tangible results in the business. The challenge is to create action and momentum without overstraining the capabilities and resources of the organization.


Lessons Learned from I.M. Pei & the Louvre Project

Challenging Design

In redesigning a building or transforming an organization, the first step is to assess the level of complexity. The Louvre was an exceptional example of complexity. The first structures were built in the 12th century as a fortress on the banks of the Seine River. The building slowly evolved into a royal residence. Successive Kings built increasingly elaborate galleries, halls and residences. Architects of different eras had been asked to develop plans for construction of a new component or structure in the Louvre. Because the Louvre was the palace of the Kings, it played a prominent role in the French Revolution. The buildings were first opened to the public in 1793. This was during the French Revolution and came shortly after the executions of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After the Revolution, different buildings were used as governmental administrative offices and residences. Eventually it became a museum.

By the early 1980’s it was painfully clear that a major remodeling of the Louvre was required. The architectural challenge was to honor the magnificent history, protect the unique beauty and to remake the various buildings into an efficient, modern museum. The buildings were in need of renovation, core infrastructure was missing, and the gallery space was very inefficient. The building was “constructed as a royal palace and was fundamentally ill-suited to serve as a museum.” In addition, there was a problem with the entrance. It was too small to accommodate ever increasing numbers of guests. The Louvre Project was to change all of that, as well as add 650,000 square feet of much needed support space.

I’ve been involved in organizational transformations for over thirty years. Each one has had a plethora of surprises and unique dynamics. Each requires creative thinking about these unique challenges of the business and personalities of key stakeholders.

Diverse Stakeholders

If you have spent any time in France, you know that the French are very passionate about the beauty of their splendid country. This beauty is both natural and man-made. There are many magnificent buildings, of which the French are very proud, and certainly the Louvre is one of those buildings.

Excitement built as the initial plans for remodeling the Louvre were discussed in the early 1980’s. As you probably know, the French LOVE to hotly debate items of French life. During this time the Parisian cafes were filled with animated conversations about how the remodeling should be done, and of course everyone had their own unique views. That is, until the French government announced that it had hired I.M. Pei as the architect who would oversee a complete redesign of the Louvre. The first shock was that the government had not hired a Frenchman. A second shock came with the realization that the architect to whom this precious French treasure had been entrusted was not a European! Then there was a moment of stunned silence followed by outrage. What set the ‘tongues wagging’ in the cafes, restaurants, and homes was that the French government had awarded this most prestigious assignment to a Chinese born American! An AMERICAN!?!?!

Needless to say, there are many strongly held opinions about consultants in every organization. In developing the architecture for transformation, it is essential that each group of stakeholders are able to express their commitments and concerns. The willingness of consultants and executives to listen to the various stakeholders is a crucial first step. The second step is to consider how to address what stakeholders have said in developing the design for the transformation. Of course, not every point of view can be completely satisfied… but some elements can be included.

Disruptive Approaches

Organizational transformation requires disruption in approaches to communication, employee mindsets and ways of conducting the business. These disruptions are to interrupt the status quo so that new ways to working and thinking can be implemented. While this is completely logical, nonetheless it is upsetting to people when it is happening. This was clearly the case for Pei’s design for the Louvre. The focal point would become the plaza of the Louvre with the construction of a series of glass pyramids and fountains. For many onlookers, the construction of pyramids made of glass and steel was too modern and seemed completely out of line with the architecture of the existing buildings.

Sustaining Momentum During Execution

Given that meaningful transformation of an organization takes three plus years, the architecture must include plans for sustaining the commitment and engagement over that length of time. A building construction such as the Louvre clearly faces the same challenges. The Louvre project took six years to complete. During those long years there continued to be hot debate about the decision to hire an American and the radical changes this “rogue American” was proposing. While there were construction barriers, the citizens could see the beginning of the frames for the glass pyramids that became a focal point of the changes. The furor over hiring an American was compounded by the inevitable traffic jams that were created by renovation activities in the heart of Paris. Of course, the traffic jams were inevitable regardless of the nationality of the architect, but that was not the conversation among frustrated drivers at the time. I had the pleasure to briefly live in Paris during this time and was frequently in the Tuileries with my young children. Given my kids were playing at the boat pond and in the gardens, I often spoke with other parents and tourists. I found it interesting how often I was asked about what I thought about an American being hired as the architect for the Louvre…. given that my accent makes it clear that I am an American. That was one of those questions for which there was not a good answer.

Stunning Accomplishments

Transformation of organizations produces achievements and results which were previously thought impossible. Further, there are major changes in the organizational culture. There is an enthusiasm about the activities in the organization as well as what the future holds. So too was the time just before the grand opening for the renovations brought about by Pei’s design. For all the initial criticism and uproar, the Louvre project was a stunning success. I.M. Pei cemented his place in history as a great architect with this project. The architecture enabled remaking the Louvre from a very old palace into a modern museum. One part of the design was to shift the feel of the Louvre from being a series of long linear buildings into a coherent U-shaped configuration with multiple views of the courtyard or plaza. The courtyard now serves as the focal point for the Louvre. Highlighting the focal point of the courtyard or plaza are the pyramids.

Dennis Sharp says:

“Of all the Grand Projects in Paris, none created such a stir as the Pei Pyramids in the courtyard of the famous Louvre Museum. Spectacular in concept and form, they provide a startling reminder of the audacious ability of modern architects to invigorate and re-circulate traditional architectural forms”


He was a quiet, soft spoken person whose influence is enormous. I.M. Pei’s unique style and vision can be seen in buildings all over the world. Each is a unique expression of the location and intent for the building. His mastery of architecture and design can also be appreciated by those of us who engage in developing architecture for organizational transformation. Pei’s contributions during his 102 years of life were enormous. He serves as a model for creativity and innovation for the rest of us.

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