If you haven’t already, it’s time to take a look at the Suzhou Museum in the Jiangsu region of China. Created by the world-renowned Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, it’s a must-see landmark in the historic garden city of Suzhou.
Read on to find out more.
The Suzhou Museum was originally founded in 1960. For the redevelopment, they brought in Pritzker Prize-winning architect I. M. Pei to spearhead the project. The museum has now become one of the most iconic buildings in Suzhou — a city often called the “Oriental Venice” thanks to its 2,500 year old history and extensive canal network.
Covering a span of over 10,700 square meters, the museum complex is situated right in the city’s historic district alongside one of the city’s landmark UNESCO World Heritage sites – the Humble Administrator’s Garden dating back to the early 1500s.
A Modern Response to the Vernacular Tradition
Dubbed as the last surviving modernist architect, I. M. Pei has taken his vision of modern architecture across the globe with signature projects such as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the Grand Pyramid of the Louvre in Paris, the East Building of the Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to name but a few. So it’s exciting to see him reach back to his roots.
The architectural maestro draws upon modern elements to re-envision the ancient cultural heritage of his hometown. To me, this place presents exceptional treasures which epitomize the wisdom and virtuosity of the tradition and the modern.
Suzhou’s traditional architectural elements feature white-washed walls capped with a grayish-black tiled roof. Influenced by this, Pei reinvented this look with modern charm, forging a contemporary vocabulary. Great emphasis is placed on atmospheric simplicity, paying tribute to the city’s rich culture.
“I’ve been dedicated to exploring the ways in which Chinese architecture can be modernized. The root of Chinese architecture lies in tradition, and out of that a new bud will bloom.”
Light is the Key
Pei’s earlier works are characterized by squares, rectangles and pyramids. Geometry also finds expression in this innovative project.
I. M. Pei’s core design concept is “allowing light to make the design.” You’ll find the angled window frames are arranged in unusual diamond patterns. Skylights reflect the tints of sky, and bring an interplay with light and shade to the interiors, with a steel roof used instead of a traditional wooden beam.
Outlining the outside of the building you see granite slate, giving you a three-dimensional shape that looks like origami creasing and folding.
The Walled Garden
“A Western building is a building, and a garden is a garden. They’re related in spirit. But they are one in China.”
In response to Suzhou’s traditional heritage, at the core of the museum complex is a walled interior courtyard. It contains typical elements of classical Chinese gardens, such as a water pavilion, zig-zag footbridge, a serene lotus pond, lush bamboo grove, and sliced rock formations resembling a mountain range.
The lotus pond’s streams circulate around the museum, connecting the three main buildings.
“The beauty of Chinese poems, paintings, and gardens have always been the fountainhead of my inspiration.”
Western Modernity vs. Eastern Tradition
I. M. Pei uses an extraordinary blend of Suzhou’s traditional garden style with his transcendental concepts of geometric forms and functional layouts. The modernist master architect, trained in restraint, has incorporated a contemporary design philosophy into classical Chinese garden grammar by showcasing his ingenious synthesis of form and light.
If you’re interested in seeing more architecture from the region, check out these Suzhou apartments or find out more about designer Sarah Armstrong who takes local Shanghainese inspiration for her homeware range.