Selection of the Architect: Ieoh Ming Pei

Western Union telegraph to I.M. Pei informing him that he had been selected to be the architect.

Telegram sent to Walter Orr Roberts from I.M. Pei accepting the NCAR job, 1961

NCAR Archives, Mesa Laboratory Construction Records

The public mandate for a building that would harmonize with the site was foremost in the minds of the selection committee when it began searching for an architect. Seven member universities of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), NCAR's parent organization, had schools of architecture, and the deans of these departments formed the committee, which began by drawing up an ambitious slate of six nationally known architects in May of 1961. NCAR staff members were heavily involved in the interview process, which culminated in the unanimous selection of I.M. Pei two months later. It was a decision that was to profoundly affect the futures of both Pei and of NCAR.

I.M. Pei has become one of the foremost architects of our time, creating designs that have altered the cityscapes of the United States, Europe, and Asia. However, at the time, he was not an obvious choice for the NCAR commission. While widely respected, he had made his reputation as a designer of large urban renewal projects—he had never tackled a project set off from an urban setting. Prophetically, the NCAR selection team saw this inexperience as an advantage.

Walter Roberts and I.M. Pei sit outside the Mesa Lab in conversation.

I.M. Pei and Walter Orr Roberts in front of the Mesa Laboratory,1967

UCAR Digital Image Library #DI02085

In addition, Pei's reputation as a man who dealt easily with clients, his charm and sensitivity, his imagination in design, his experience within tight budgetary constraints (notably with the use of structural concrete) all contributed to his selection. For his part, Pei was openly eager to tackle the creative demands of the NCAR assignment. As both the NCAR staff and Pei had hoped, the Mesa Laboratory was to mark a break through that was to change the direction of the architect's career. 

Pei was born in Canton, China, in 1917, and moved to the United States in 1935 to study engineering and architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard School of Design. Pei studied under famous Bauhaus designers Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Though not a "functionalist," Pei does acknowledge Breuer's influence on his strong interest in "light, texture, and shadow"-- all very apparent in the NCAR design.

Pei and NCAR founding director Walt Roberts became friends during the Mesa Laboratory project and remained so long after the building was completed. “How he would talk about the weather!” said Pei, remembering the late Dr. Roberts, “It was absolutely fascinating. He would look up at a clear blue sky and say that it was going to rain, and when – and then it did!” 

Listen to I.M. Pei talk about the challenge of designing the Mesa Lab.

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View more from the NCAR Archives Digital Collections
Summary of meeting among Walter Orr Roberts and Mary Andrews and architectural and site planning consultants Sasaki, Dober, Robinson and Belluschi. Topics discussed include how and if to choose a site planner, possible architects, and how to choose an architect for the Table Mountain Site Summary of meeting among Dr. Roberts, Mary Andrews (Dr. Roberts' assistant), Tician Papachristou, Ed Wolff and I.M. Pei in Boulder. I.M. Pei expresses his intense interest in working on the new NCAR facility. Walter Orr Roberts writes to Pei telling Pei he is one of a select number of architects identified as being suited for the task of designing the laboratory and headquarters of NCAR. WOR asks Pei to visit to understand the scope of the project and asks Pei for additional information about his work. Correspondence from Walter Orr Roberts to I.M. Pei detailing next steps in Pei's official selection as architect of the Mesa Lab. July 1967 report of the NCAR Site Planning Committee, headed by W.B. Harrell, to the UCAR Executive Committee recommending I.M. Pei, one of six architects considered, to design the NCAR Laboratory on Table Mountain. Press Release announcing I.M. as the architect for the NCAR Lab. Includes background on Pei, NCAR, and plans for the new NCAR facility.