Architect Ieoh Ming Pei began working for the New York developer William Zeckendorf in 1948, and went on to design a series of major urban projects for him in North American cities until founding his own firm in 1960. While these projects themselves—which include two in downtown Denver, the Place Ville-Marie in Montreal, and mixed use urban renewal projects for Washington, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh—were widely publicized at the time, the intellectual context that informed them and their importance to the history of urbanism are not as clearly understood.
In this paper I argue that Pei’s urban design work for Zeckendorf was closely related to the modified modernist approach to urban design that began to be advocated in the early 1950s by Philadelphia city planner Edmund N. Bacon, and the architects Louis I. Kahn, and Josep Luis Sert, Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1953-69. That direction, which was made public at the First Harvard Urban Design conference in 1956 and further developed at the third Harvard Urban Design conference (1959), was an internal critique of earlier CIAM ideas. It put a new emphasis on pedestrian street life and urban connectivity, anticipating some of the ideas of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), while still advancing the model of master planning in an era of extensive Federal investment in cities.