Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


John V. Maciuika

Committee Members

Rosemarie Bletter

Marta Gutman

Hilary Ballon

Subject Categories

American Art and Architecture | American Studies | Architectural History and Criticism | Architecture | Real Estate | United States History | Urban, Community and Regional Planning


urban renewal, urban redevelopment, real estate development, modern architecture, urban design and planning


This dissertation reevaluates the practice of design and real estate in the United States through an insufficiently understood case study of the architect-developer team of I. M. Pei and William Zeckendorf and their twelve-year partnership in urban renewal. William Zeckendorf (1905-1976) was the most ambitious real estate developer in the United States in the 1950s, with an outsize personality and larger-than-life plans. Unlike most developers of the era, Zeckendorf believed that quality design and visionary planning were critical to remaking city cores through urban renewal. To accomplish this, he hired I. M. Pei (b. 1917), a talented, young designer out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, creating a scenario that fundamentally changed the traditional working relationship between developer and architect. In 1948, Pei joined Zeckendorf as the in-house architect of Webb & Knapp, and together, they became the most active urban renewal developer and architect in the country. Webb & Knapp’s urban empire stretched coast to coast, remaking huge swaths of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, through federally funded urban renewal. It also developed privately funded urban renewal schemes in Denver, Los Angeles, and Montreal. Yet despite this tremendous volume of influential executed works in urban planning and design, this untold history has fallen prey to sweeping, simplistic condemnations of urban renewal as a “failed policy.”

Zeckendorf and Pei provided an alternative and effective model for real estate development and design practice within the context of the most aggressive city-rebuilding programs in the history of the United States. This study raises serious questions about practice and the history of urban architecture and modernism, which all too often privileges information about “architect-creators” to the exclusion of such important other actors as real estate developers. The pathbreaking and successful collaboration between this visionary developer and a talented, young architect offers a more nuanced—and more accurate—evaluation of urban redevelopment strategies in the United States than previous critiques. It moves beyond a scholarship that to date has been dominated by an oversimplified and distorting dichotomy between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs—the respective avatars of “top down” and “bottom up” approaches to urban planning. Zeckendorf and Pei imagined, designed, and built large-scale urban projects imbued with substantive architecture, mixed in use, technological and financial ingenuity, a distinct modernist aesthetic, and bold new thinking about how people should live, work, move around, and entertain themselves in cities. The nature of the Zeckendorf-Pei collaboration was unprecedented, but the results were not without controversy. Pei and Zeckendorf’s unique twelve-year partnership and their urban renewal work broke design and planning barriers. Together, developer and architect skillfully played their parts in a powerful public-private collaboration that altered the American city and redefined how Americans thought about urbanism.