Suzhou Museum by I.M. Pei

I visited the Suzhou Museum on Dec 3. The museum is designed by I.M. Pei, and we had the honor to attend a behind the scene tour conducted by Bobbie Pei. Bobbie was so kind to talk about the design philosophy of his uncle. That tour was one of the highlight of the trip.

Symmetry is the key

Symmetry is one of the very key element of the Chinese architecture. It is also the symbolic sign of I.M. Pei’s design. Look at these pictures:

Below: The big Chinese window in the coffee shop.

Below: The Courtyard of the Museum.

The West Wing of the Suzhou Museum. The interesting thing is, there are two wings of the museum. The intention of the designer is to ask people turn left and see the west wing first and then leave the museum from the east wing. Pei didn’t put a large sign at the entrance “Turn left please”. He made the west wing a little big longer (seems more interesting), and had a water fall at the end of the hall way, so the sounds of water can be very attractive to visitors. At least, I turned left without a thought. That is the beauty of good design. It is the same principle in usability: if you need a label to explain something, the design may already failed.

Architects always face challenges. Just as triangle site Pei faced in the design of National Gallery East Wing in Washing D.C., this big white existing wall at the entrance is not easy to handle. Pei used stone to form a scene according to painting in Song Dynasty.

The “stone drawing” is not a 2-Dimensional picture. It is 3D. Looking from west, it looks like this:

The hallway of the west wing:

Even looking at 45 degree of the reception hall, it is still strictly symmetric.

This is the pond of the Museum.

My Thoughts

This is a great museum. The museum itself is a piece of art. Although I don’t like the management of the museum – they didn’t bring life into the architecture, and especially the open-ended Li Lan Qing’s personal exhibition of stamps there made it look funny, I love the museum itself.

The geometry thinking in the museum made me feel that I am in a world of pure lines and triangles, squares, and symmetry.

Suzhou is beautiful. The icon color gray and white made the the gardens so unique. However, this town started 2500 years ago, and many of the architects was built 300 years ago. How to bring the heritage of Suzhou and extend it is a challenge that not many people face.

Conflicting between Architect and Museum Construction and Management

I read a book about Pei. His conflict with construction workers when he designed the Xiangshan Hotel was famous – the workers don’t care what the designers say and just randomly put things up.

I didn’t expect the same conflict still exists two years ago, when the museum was built. Some trees died, and management simply put a random tree there. Every bamboo was planted exactly as what was designed originally, but it was re-arranged and it completely broke the “one-line sky” scene at 45 degree view point.

In the YLF conference, I talked about conflicting rules. This is another example about different people have completely different ways of doing things, and how they see this world.

Again, thanks Bobbie Pei for take the time to conduct the tour for us. That helps me a lot.

2 Comments

  1. Your story about IM Pei’s struggles with the management and construction team reminds me of how things in general, is done in China.

    Every single person that has renovated their house or apartment has had the same issues. Even if the foreman is reliable, his workers may not be.

  2. I adore the Suzhou museum – it is the main reason I would go back to Suzhou for… Would you be so kind as to reveal the name of the book on Pei you read? I would be interested too.

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