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Suzhou Museum

Pei Partnership Architects

Suzhou Museum
By Michael Webb -

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,...

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