Suzhou Museum

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Suzhou, China

Suzhou Museum Reviews

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Suzhou Museum: A Design To Come Home To Jun 01, 2012
When confronted by the past histories of our hometowns, do we embrace it or look beyond it?

The mayor of Suzhou, a historic city just west of Shanghai in China, wanted Chinese American architect I. M. Pei to design a museum near the historic Lion Grove garden once owned by Pei’s family. Instead of embracing the opportunity Pei declined repeatedly, citing as his reservation the pressures of creating something permanent in his home town.

Pei, a world renowned architect of works like the Mile High Center in Denver, the John Hancock Tower in Boston, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, is best known for his functional yet elegant design of the Glass Pyramid outside the entrance of the Louvre in Paris.

Born in Guangzhou, southern China, in 1917, Pei moved with his family to Suzhou, though his father later took up the duties of the director of the Bank of China, and they had to move. Pei went to school in Hong Kong and the University of Pennsylvania, before getting a degree from MIT in1940. Unable to return to China due to the start of World War II, he stayed to teach at Harvard before joining the architectural firm of Webb and Knapp. After starting his own firm with James Freed and Henry Cobb, Pei became famous for his urban geometric designs for the JFK International Airport in New York and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

When he was approached again in 2001 about work on the Suzhou museum, it had already been over ten years since Pei built the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. His previous foray into designing for a home town that employed his father had not received the unanimous acclaim that he had hoped for. The triangle-tessellated design was meant to resemble bamboo shoots, but the practitioners of feng shui in Hong Kong were shocked at the bank’s angular look. Feng shui experts, who believed that a building and it’s inhabitants’ well-being rested on a harmonious relationship with its environment, thought the tower looks too much like a meat knife, and predicted impending doom for the construction. Despite his own skepticism, Pei had forgotten that in Hong Kong, feng shui still holds sway.

After much prodding from the Suzhou authorities, Pei saw that the possibility of creating a modern landmark in rapidly booming mainland China outweighed any possible criticisms that he would receive. He embarked on the Suzhou project with a much greater concern for native sentiment than he did with the Bank of China project. Five years passed from his acceptance of the proposal until the date of its completion.

The geometric style that Pei brings to the Suzhou museum comes from a particularly Western influence. The windows in the museum, for example, embed intricate patterns in its tiles that resemble the structures of the Louvre pyramid. But layered above this functional Western look is are Chinese influences. The window tiles are circumscribed by oval or octagonal frames that look like traditional Chinese windows found in a Qing dynasty house. West and East meet at the junction of the tiles and the frame that holds them together.

A visitor to the Suzhou museum would be struck by the sounds evoking nature even within the hallways. A water fall could be heard in the west wing and only grew louder as one makes her way to the paintings. The building seems to shape the environment, in contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kaufman House--Falling Water, where the environment shapes the building. The harmonious meshing of two styles bespoke a Chinese trait of avoiding contrasting clashes. Compare this to Pei’s Bank of China tower, a bamboo-like entity that sticks out like a sore thumb in the landscape.

The most famous area of the Suzhou museum is small footbridge that crosses a pond lined with a mountain landscape reminiscent of a classical Chinese water painting. The minimal color selection and the white wall that separates the pond from the trees outside both gave the walk across the bridge a sense of Chinese seclusion. On the other hand, the arrangement of rocks on the pond and the symmetry of the footbridge gave the landscape proportion and functionality, a look valued by the West. It’s as if the modernized bridge stands above a well-illustrated book of watercolors. The structure is Western, but the medium is Eastern.

Pei’s trademark angular style that permeated the Bank of China Tower persists in the Suzhou museum. The entrance is a geometric design using triangles, rectangles, and trapezoids of white walls, glass, and brown roofs. The select use of colors keeps the museum from looking like an “explosion in a shingle factory,” a phrase used to describe Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” one of the best examples of abstract art whose angularity made it inaccessible. Pei’s Suzhou museum is still abstract, but its expressiveness comes out of a balanced exterior.

The window of varied geometric shapes bound by a Chinese oval frame encapsulates the Suzhou museum, just as I. M. Pei’s Western architectural education seems to be bringing him home to be circumscribed by his native land.

Pei’s museum invites us to conclude that one goes to America to make her name, but comes home to China to experience life.

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