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I.M. Pei's influence was profound, and deserves to be remembered

Published in The Canberra Times, 25 May 2019

The death last week in New York, at the age of 102, of the great Chinese-American I.M Pei has had some passing attention in the Australian media.

Rightly so for one of the most brilliant and heralded architects of the last century: his buildings including, among many others, the Kennedy Library in Boston, the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, the Louvre reconstruction, the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong, the Miho Museum outside Kyoto, and his last great work the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha - not to mention the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

What has been less noted, and remembered, is I.M Pei's role in the creation of Australia's new Parliament House, as a member of the international competition jury which in 1979-80 chose the iconic Giurgola Thorp design now gracing Capital Hill.

It was the then chair of the National Capital Development Commission, Sir John Overall, who seduced him into that role, along with another world-renowned architect, the Australian enfant terrible (although by then no longer quite so enfant or quite so terrible) John Andrews.

I know just how much I.M's extraordinary architectural sensibility - and above all the crucial importance he attached to context, physical, social and cultural, in determining design solutions - influenced the jury's deliberations.

I was also a member of the jury, along with my parliamentary colleague Barry Simon MP who was the then Coalition government's representative. As then a very junior new senator I was an implausible candidate for so important a role.

I only managed to secure it because no-one else in the caucus of the day expressed the slightest interest in taking it on, with the shellbacks who then made up the majority of my colleagues no doubt regarding it as an arty-farty kind of enterprise in which I was welcome to indulge!

As I result I spent some of the most fascinating weeks of my life - and it did take over six weeks in total - as the jury first reduced 329 schemes submitted down to a short list of 10, and then a few months later, judged the final submissions and wrote a full report explaining why we chose the winner.

It was all the functional equivalent of an advanced postgraduate degree in the principles of design, with two global superstars as tutors.

I remember vividly how insistently I.M, in particular, argued for the critical importance of the new building not only respecting Burley Griffin's capital design principles, but sympathetically integrating with all its surroundings.

Standing with us one day on Mt Ainslie looking back across the Lake, I remember him saying "we can't allow any building looking from this perspective like a top hat perched on the head of the old Parliament House".

And it was I.M who most immediately appreciated the democratic symbolism involved in the winning design which we captured in the much-quoted lines in our report that "so far from the new Parliament House glowering down, forbidding and inaccessible, people will walk and children will clamber and play all over its roof!"

He, like Romaldo Giurgola, would I think be turning in his grave at the recent decision of the securitat - in my view a massive overreaction - to close off entirely to public access the great grass ramps that sweep up and over the building.

As a result of the relationship we developed 30 years ago, I remained a friend of I.M Pei's for the rest of his life, visiting him in New York almost every year and spending two hours or so each time over dinner, lunch or coffee, discussing - along with how to solve America's and the world's political problems - why he did what he did in designing the dazzling series of buildings for which he will be forever remembered.

I had the privilege in sitting in on a kind of continuing master-class, from one of the world's most sophisticated, thoughtful and elegant designers of grand public buildings.

I.M talked to me over and again about form and function, about massing volume and creating great spaces, and - overwhelmingly - about the centrality of context.

All lessons which I hope I have put to good use in my present role as Chancellor - and chair of the Campus Planning Committee - of the Australian National University, as we finalise a new Master Plan, to be launched in a few months, aimed at restoring some timeless elegance and coherence to the future architectural development of this naturally very beautiful campus.

IM Pei was a cherished friend, one of the most civilised, stimulating and personally thoroughly delightful persons it has ever been my privilege to know.

I know that delight in his company was shared by everyone associated with the New Parliament House jury.

Measured against the rest of his professional achievements, the role he played in ensuring that Australia had exactly the right building as the centrepiece of our national capital was no more than a minor cameo.

But his influence here was profound, and deserves to be remembered.

Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC is Chancellor of the Australian National University and was a member of the Australian Parliament for 21 years.

This article was originally published in The Canberra Times