I.M. Pei: Building China Modern

Monday 29 Mar 2010

New US documentary traces legendary architects journey to design Suzhou Museum

Today, a new film about architect I.M. Pei’s Suzhou Museum will debut on America’s Public Broadcasting System WNET. Directed by award-winning filmmaker, Anne Makepeace, 'Building China Modern' follows the story of the design and construction of the Suzhou Museum over a four-year period, from Pei’s first visit to opening day. While the film purports to be a biography of one of Pei’s most recent buildings, and given his advanced age possibly one of his last, its real subject is the rapid change sweeping China and the tensions between modernity concomitant with change.

Regarding this later theme, the filmmakers could not have found a better subject than Pei through which to tell this story of how one reconciles such tensions. Pei has dealt adeptly with the conflicts between modernity and tradition most of his life. His seminal buildings, for example, the Kennedy Library, the East Wing and the Lourve Pyramid, were all controversial when first proposed and surmounted enormous challenges to be built. As an architect, I’ve often wondered how Pei managed to do it – quell what must have been enormous opposition to his projects and forge ahead with seemingly little compromise. I was hoping this film would provide some insight as to how Pei works his special magic, but it does not. And this I think is unfortunate.

Of the many contexts in which Pei has worked, none have been more challenging than Suzhou. And none have had more riding on it, personally and professionally. In addition to being Pei’s ancestral home Suzhou is a 2,000-year-old city. And the museum site located is the city’s oldest neighbourhood with buildings dating from the Ming and Quing dynasties accounting for most of district’s classical architecture. The film sets us up to learn how Pei reconciles the tensions between modernity and tradition in its dramatic opening scene which shows an image of the Louvre Pyramid with Pei delivering the line “How do you make history live and point to the future”? But it never delivers. Instead we are treated to glimpses into the design process with little explanation as to the forces that shaped what ultimately turns out to be the architect’s most contextual building. While there are many possible explanations to account for this shift in Pei’s work, the question remains unanswered. Perhaps the pull of Pei’s homeland was too great and personal of a context to be a trailblazer? Perhaps he caved to political opposition? Perhaps he has mellowed with age or changed his stance? The bottom line is that this building is decidedly different than Pei’s other work and we don’t know why.

Still the film has its delightful moments. The ceremonies that surround the museum’s groundbreaking in 2003 and opening in 2006 are spectacular, with no equal in Western culture. Pei is a superstar in China. And a most fascinating story within the film is how the design of the museum’s gardens came about, which Pei says is more important than the design of the building. Suzhou had a tradition of building with stones, which are left for long periods in the tidal waters to prepare for their use, which has a softening effect. Pei uses these stones to construct a garden. It is an experiment of ‘Painting in Rocks.’ The rocks are cut and arranged in a painterly way referencing Sung Dynasty paintings. To achieve perspective, Pei modified the texture of the stones by flaming them with remarkable results

‘I.M. Pei: Building China Modern’ is not so much about architecture as it about Pei himself, the man and the architect. In the film we don’t learn much about how Pei got this commission or about the building’s program, only some spare details. It is not critical and puts Pei in the best light. The film is more about Pei, the Chinese-American in Suzhou, about ageing and the respect for the old that is part of Chinese culture. It is more a loving tribute to a second-generation modernist who is seen here passing the torch to his two sons, with whom he shares design credit and who continue in his footsteps.

Click here for more information on the documentary.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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