The gardens of Suzhou preserve the legacy of an ancient canal city that flourished with the silk trade and dazzled Marco Polo. High walls shut out the ugliness of the commercial sprawl it has acquired in the past fifty years. If you arrive early in the day or out of season to avoid the noisy tour groups, you can still savor the idealized landscapes that scholars created for poetry readings. Old men sit around playing mah jong and students sketch pavilions and courtyards, patterned pavements, moon gates, and ponds reflecting pagodas.
That interplay of man and nature left its mark on Ieoh Ming Pei, who was born in 1917 in what is now Guangzhou, and spent childhood summers in his family’s Lion’s Grove garden, before leaving for America to study architecture at MIT and Harvard. The Suzhou Museum, which he completed in his 90th year, is a triumphal homecoming, crowning a half-century of practice in New York.
Members of the Pei family have lived in Suzhou for about 700 years, so the tug was strong. But the architect was skeptical of the mayor’s invitation. Following his first return to China in the 1970s, he had designed the Fragrant Hills Hotel outside Beijing, a project that was crudely constructed and poorly maintained. The Cultural Revolution had dragged the country down and standards of quality were too low to satisfy a perfectionist. Pei suggested that Suzhou first clean up the city moat and address the needs of its historic core.
In 2002 he came out of retirement to design the museum “I have roots here, and I wanted to do something that would have great impact on architecture,” said Pei. To ensure it was built as he wanted, he put his three sons in charge of the project - a characteristically Chinese strategy - and asked his nephew to manage the store.
The new museum adjoins its former home, a princely mansion that was rebuilt in the 19th century, and the 16th-century Garden of the Humble Administrator, a UNESCO World Heritage site. High walls tie the properties together, and Pei has employed the local palette of whitewashed cement plaster, outlined with the same blue-gray granite as the pavers and diamond-shaped roof tiles. His love of rigorous geometry appears in the roof gables and square lanterns that rise above the walls.
Gates open onto a spacious entry courtyard, a great hall and a water garden beyond, forming a central axis that divides the long west wing from the shorter wing to the east. The lofty, octagonal hall is the pivot around which the entire composition revolves. A light steel frame inserted within the concrete walls supports its four tiers of angled and rectilinear planes and sharp-etched openings. Its vertical thrust is a counterpoint to the horizontality of the concourses that lead to the galleries and provide a cross axis.
“Without light there is no architecture,” declared Pei, and every space in the museum is suffused with natural illumination, filtered through wood-imprinted aluminum sun screens over the skylights and clerestories. The light has a tangible presence, modeling the white planes and filling the volumes. The sound of splashing water draws visitors along the concourse to the west, which is terminated by a top-lit staircase accessing the two upper-level galleries and the basement auditorium. Its sculptured granite treads feel suspended within the luminous void. Pei has taken the traditional water maze, which carried cups of wine from host to guest during garden parties, and has extended it up the rear wall, allowing the water to course from one channel to another and down to a lotus pool at the base.
The museum has a modest collection of Ming and Qing-dynasty artifacts, which attracted little attention in the musty old galleries. Here, they acquire a new distinction and Pei hopes that the museum will be enriched by loans from other institutions, besides serving an educational role. To achieve this, he has created a succession of galleries that are works of art in themselves: scaled and furnished to enhance every kind of exhibit. Split-roof rooms with exposed steel tubes supporting pitched wood ceilings alternate with shallow vaults of plaster, folded into a star pattern to give ceilings the illusion of greater height. Silk-lined vitrines enhance the impact of small porcelain objects and light-sensitive calligraphy.
In contrast, the three east-wing galleries for changing exhibitions of contemporary art are large and spare. It was Pei who proposed this addition, hoping that the rupture in Suzhou’s long tradition of creativity might be healed. And he found room to recreate a Ming-era scholar’s study, and a wooden teahouse of the Song dynasty, when the city was at the height of its wealth and fame.
Every detail was meticulously considered. Twisted metal handles on glass doors are designed to project the figures “88”- an auspicious number in China - as shadows on the pavers.
Each window in the museum frames plantings so that you are constantly aware of the natural world. Pei personally selected pine, maple and pomegranate trees from the region to provide points of focus in the courtyards and cast their shadows across white walls. He traced a path through a grove of bamboo to reveal the sky, and he grafted clippings from a 500-year-old wisteria to the new plants that cover a pergola in the tea garden, forging a symbolic link to the past.
For Pei, the eroded rocks tortured into strange shapes that the Chinese once prized, seem grotesque, but he wanted to create the illusion of a mountain range on the far wall of the garden behind the pool.
Inspired by a favorite Song-era scroll by the artist Mi Fu of mountains emerging from mist, he sought jagged rocks in Shandong province and had them thinly sliced and brought to this site. There they were trimmed and arranged according to his sketch, and some of the surfaces were burned to enhance the sense of depth as they are modeled by shifts of light.
Indoors and out, the exile who has spent his life creating exemplary Western museums, shows how modernity can be fused with ancient Eastern traditions.