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I.M. Pei
First Person Singular
The Museum on the Mountain

I.M. Pei: First Person Singular & The Museum on the Mountain
Home Vision Entertainment
1997, 1998 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 85 + 49 min.
Street Date July 29, 2003 / 24.95

Starring I.M. Pei
Directed by Peter Rosen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Architecture comes alive in these two illuminating looks at the prolific and impressive career of I.M. Pei. An amazingly creative man, Pei won notable contracts in the 60s and later got several of the century's most distinguished jobs, such as renovating the Louvre in Paris. Pei participates heavily in the docu, explaining his career heights and the depths too, such as when windows began to fall out of a building designed by his company - by the hundreds.


First Person Singular: Architect I.M. Pei's life and work are chronicled from his boyhood in China to his studies in America and rise to prominence. Various of his buildings are covered, including a massive high rise in Hong Kong, an Ohio Rock and Roll Museum, and his grand renovation of The Louvre. The Museum on the Mountain: This shorter doc examines the story behind the construction of an amazing building high up in a remote Japanese site where a castle was once planned, hundreds of years ago.

Some documentaries on architect Frank Lloyd Wright have been almost depressing in their revelation of a man beset with personal tragedies, and who had problems relating to clients and people in general. I.M. Pei is quite the opposite, a small Chinese man whose talent, creativity and charm elevated him into the top rank of international architects. We see him in person explaining and defending his achievements, and sometimes just beaming with simple pride over them.

What Savant knows about architecture can be written on the head of a pin, so it was refreshing to watch two documentaries that make the kinds of concepts and challenges Pei faced seem so accessible. One of the main focuses is the Louvre project, a maze of bureaucratic obstacles inside obstacles. The basic use of the buildings hadn't changed for over a hundred years, with one wing of the museum occupied by the accounting and disbursement part of the government that funded Pei's work. One of his first requests was that the people signing his checks clear out to free the structure for more museum space! If the red tape from that jolt wasn't enough, Pei's plan was to repurpose the area between the Louvre's wings from civil service parking, and plant a big glass pyramid in the middle that had nothing to do with the classic structures all around.

Walking the finished construction confirms Pei's genius. The Pyramid compliments the traditional surroundings without distorting them. By relocating the museum entrances through underground passages, Pei allowed access to the Louvre from entirely new directions, making it a cultural crossroads instead of a one-purpose destination. As the renovation was a major strategic move for Francois Mitterrand, Pei's work became politically relevant: the pride of France at the highest cultural level was determined by a foreign architect, and not even a native European.

Another interesting section uses good archival photos to document the search for an architect to design a memorial building for John F. Kennedy. Jackie brought a score of the top names in the world to a meeting where Pei was a relative beginner, but he won the job. It ended up taking the better part of a decade just to decide where and how the memorial would be built.

Part of the show presents opening days at both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio and The Miho Museum, built on a remote Japanese mountainside. The second, shorter documentary on this disc deals with that project exclusively. What it lacks in scope it makes up for in detail - both the location for the construction and the difficult politics that led to Pei's being chosen lend themselves to a fascinating story. Japan and China haven't always been close neighbors, to put it politely, and Pei's diplomatic skills winning and keeping the job should be studied by heads of state who want to make peace in the world.

The Miho Museum ends up remarkable just because of where it was built. The steep forested cliffs form a jewel-like setting around the building complex that becomes as important as the construction itself - it really looks as if one has stepped into an ancient Japanese painting. The entrance to the museum is a stark bridge jutting from a tunnel in the middle of an adjacent green hill, with the illusion that nary a tree has been disturbed except exactly where the museum stands. It's an amazing place with spiritual qualities not usually associated with modern architecture. The opening day footage shows I.M. Pei pacing in the lobby of the virgin museum as thousands of VIPs mingle outside waiting to be the first through the doors. The docu allows us to share Pei's excitement.

Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of I.M. Pei: First Person Singular & The Museum on the Mountain are clean and functional transfers from materials that overall are top-quality. It's mostly the carefully-chosen camera angles that allow us to perceive the finer aspects of Pei's various creations. The medium for much of the shooting seems to be 16mm, which has its limitations, but the visuals are always better than adequate. The shows make generous use of classical music, which is nicely mixed.

An interesting addendum is an interactive section that examines in detail 20 of Pei's buildings, illustrated with photographs. This modest disc is highly recommended for architecture buffs and to anyone who might become interested in architecture as a calling; it's truly inspirational.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I.M. Pei: First Person Singular & The Museum on the Mountain rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Interactive Project featuring photos and descriptions of 20 structures by I.M. Pei
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 2, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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