Designed by IM Pei Architect and Pei Partnership Architects, Suzhou Museum brings the Pei family back to its roots
In 1982, IM Pei designed his first building in China with the establishment of Fragrant Hill Hotel in the outskirts of Beijing. It was also the first western hotel built in China by international architects and engineers. CC Pei, IM Pei’s son and co-founder of Pei Partnership Architects, describes those days as “primitive compared to today”. While the hotel was well-built, it was poorly maintained. “This made my father quite sad,” he says. “And he was reluctant to do any further buildings in China until he could be assured that they would be properly maintained.”
Nearly two decades later, the mayor of Suzhou contacted IM Pei Architect and Pei Partnership Architects to see if they would be interested in designing a museum in Suzhou. As the Pei family was originally from Suzhou, the Suzhou Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio & Television did not have any other architect in consideration and the architects felt the time was right. The Suzhou Museum could offer a case study for contemporary design in historic environs “I had roots here, and I felt I hadn’t done right,” said IM Pei in an interview with New York Times. “I wanted to make amends, or do something that will have a greater impact on architecture.”
Drawing up a brief proved to be difficult for a municipal government and Cultural Relics Bureau that had limited experience in modern museum design, but worked closely with the architects in developing a brief. What proved to be most challenging, however, was establishing the “museographic” theme. “The Cultural Relics Bureau collection was mostly in storage, and all they could show us were the photographs,” says CC Pei. “It was very difficult to determine which objects were really ‘museum quality’.”
Luckily, they were able to bring in the expertise of James Watt, the curator of Chinese art from Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “The design follows the spirit of the traditional Suzhou garden house like the one my father knew as a boy,” says CC. “Carefully composed views out to the garden recall his family’s nearby house in Shizilin.”
Read the full story in the January 2012 issue of Perspective magazine!