Today we’re buzzing with Li Chung (Sandi) Pei, a partner at the New York-based Pei Partnership Architects. Design is clearly in Pei’s blood. His father is the famous I.M. Pei, the modernist architect behind countless landmark buildings (including Commerce Court in Toronto) and Sandi founded his award-winning firm with his brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei.
Sandi has earned accolades for projects such as the Dancing Water Theater in Macao, China and the MIT Arts + Media Technologies Facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Pei recently brought his talents to Toronto, where he’s embarked on designing 2221 Yonge in collaboration with Quadrangle Architects. Situated at Yonge and Eglinton, the Tower Hill project will stand 56-storeys high and sit askew atop a six-storey podium that will include a sun-filled amenity space.
We chatted with the architect about his plans for the mid-town skyscraper, his travels as a teenager and why people are so drawn to cities.
BuzzBuzzHome: How did you get your start in architecture?
Sandi Pei: I grew up surrounded by it. My family travelled to Europe every summer in my teens and, having a father as an architect, we would always be going to see important buildings and cathedrals in France, Italy, and occasionally Germany and Great Britain. When I was young I had the privilege of being able to see architecture, but through the eyes of my father.
I enjoyed architecture when I was in college and was asked to teach a little bit in studios. That in turn led me to going to graduate school for design and ever since I’ve been very engaged in design and architecture. After graduating from Harvard’s School of Design I went to work with my father and worked there for 17 years before starting my practice 1992. You’ve almost got 40 years there!
BBH: Was there a particular city or structure that really stood out to you when you were travelling Europe with your family?
SP: I think that there’s something about travelling through Europe which introduces you to the whole idea of a long, old civilization, the notion of great urban spaces and cities which are planned over time.
One of things my father always used to say is that architecture has a very, very long history and we are only here for a certain amount of time. So the notion of architecture as part of a continuum – that has always been important to me. And going to Europe is an excellent way to understand that when we do buildings we must be thinking about how they fit into their surroundings and how they will contribute to the development of cities going forward.
We have a certain responsibility as architects, practitioners of this art, to make responsible buildings that really reflect the life of the place in which we are building.
BBH: Was there any hesitation about going into the field?
SP: I had many hesitations of course. I think following in the path of somebody who, by the time I entered it, was already well known, it was always something that shadowed me in the beginning. It made it more of a challenge and challenging.
But as you get farther and farther into this profession and after many more years of practice, I realized what a great benefit that it’s been to be able to follow and have a source of inspiration whose work is as fine as my father’s. So the hesitations that I had and the feeling of being overshadowed, I now have a different perspective. It’s an advantage for me.
BBH: A lot of your work focuses on high rise building and larger projects. What are some of the challenges associated with working on something on a grander scale?
A: Because of their size, because of their impact on their area and surroundings, it elevates the importance in what you do because it requires you to be a bit more thoughtful and deliberative. We have been trying very much to think about how our buildings will stimulate future development within cities, within neighbourhoods.
I think that’s the responsibility when you’re doing things on a certain scale or when you’re doing buildings of importance where they will be seen by many people and experienced by many people – you have that kind of responsibility.
BBH: There’s a lot of building going on in Toronto. Are there any structures or pieces of architecture that have caught your eye?
SP: I must say I haven’t been into Toronto enough to be able to make a judgement of the buildings there. But what I find interesting and wonderful about Toronto is the range, variety and sophistication of buildings and the history and tradition of very important architects and architecture of Toronto. You have Frank Gehry who of course is world famous. He’s one of your native boys!
I think that the fact that you have wonderful museums is the sign of the maturity and the sophistication and the multicultural bread of Toronto. That’s why it’s always wonderful to work in places that have a very knowing population and a very dense immigrant population.
And it’s a really vibrant place, wonderful restaurants, by the way. It’s really terrific. I really enjoy coming there.
BBH: How do you see 2221 Yonge fitting into midtown Toronto?
SP: Our site is in a particularly important part of Toronto at Yonge and Eglinton – one of the areas which under the new urban planning guidelines really calls for intensification. Why? Because of the very, very excellent services that are there, transportation and the activities that a hub of transportation generates.
We’re trying to contribute to the intensification of that area and we have introduced a building that is roughly the same height as neighboring buildings. But I think it’s equally important that we’re trying to introduce some activities at the ground level which will animate the street life. We’ve tried to create a wider sidewalk, more transparent facades and we’ve introduced retail spaces as well.
We have set back the building actually a bit more than the guidelines recommend in order to minimize the position of the tower on the street in terms of shadow and light.
And we also introduced pre-cast concrete into this building to differentiate it from many of the other residential building that are proliferating in downtown Toronto.
BBH: In Toronto and other large centres in North America, there’s been a large movement of people returning to cities. What do you think of this trend?
SP: I think it’s inevitable and it’s wonderful. I think there are wonderful reasons for it, the first one being there’s so much richness and life in cities. There’s culture, there’s diversity, there are services which enrich the community and enrich people’s life and opportunity.
The population, particularly in Toronto, is very, very far-reaching and because you have people from all over the world. It enriches the whole environment of the city. I think that’s what draws people into the city.
I have nothing against suburbia but I think that those who live outside often wish they could come in and enjoy the theatre or have wonderful Indian food. They can partake in all the variety.
Thanks for buzzing with us Sandi!