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How does I.M. Pei incorporate traditional elements of jiang nan residential housing style into the contemporary design of the Suzhou Museum?

The major areas of this analysis are:

  1. The architect’s historical background
  2. General study of the traditional jiang nan residential house style in china.
  3. The Suzhou Museum
  4. Key elements of the traditional Chinese architecture they were used by Pei in designing the Museum.

The architect’s historical background

In the modern architectural field, I. M. Pei earns a high reputation and is a well-known architect. He is the only world-class Chinese architect as well as one of the most important architectural artists in the 20th century.

I.M.Pei was born in Guangzhou on April 26, 1917. His ancestry was a prominent family in Suzhou. For a period of time, I. M. Pei spent his childhood on his family's private garden, the Lion Forest Garden, in Suzhou. I. M. Pei said, "It did have an influence on my work." Since 1930s, he has designed many museums, colleges, commercial centers and skyscrapers. Over 70 years' career in architecture, his inspiration has created many public buildings in Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Iran and Taiwan. In 1983, I. M. Pei was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. I. M. Pei pursues the dream and surpasses himself continuously in making his buildings immortal. He is a true outstanding architect in the world.(1)

General study of the traditional jiang nan residential house style in china.

Jiangnan or Jiang Nan (sometimes spelled Kiang-nan) is a geographic area in China referring to lands immediately to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, including the southern part of the Yangtze Delta. This region is largely Wu-speaking.) The word Jiangnan is based on the Chinese name for the Yangtze, Cháng Ji%u0101ng, and nán meaning "south." The region encompasses the Shanghai Municipality, the southern part of Jiangsu Province, the southern part of Anhui Province, the northern part of Jiangxi Province, and the northern part of Zhejiang Province. The most important cities in the area are Shanghai, Nanjing, Ningbo, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou and Shaoxing.

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The architecture used to build most of the houses in this place is referred to as the Jiangnan Architecture. The house has white washed plastered walls simple color - dark grey clay roofing -a type of "siheyuan" (courtyard houses in china) with smaller courtyard due to dense population. The house structure uses wood beam structure. water and stones are also very important elements in Jiang nan architecture.

Pei's interest in Suzhou gardens was majorly due to the fact that his ancestry originated in Suzhou. This meant that Pei had a lot of information on this type of architectural design.

The Suzhou Museum

Positioned ideally in the Jiangsu province in Suzhou, this intriguing museum that houses many of the country’s important cultural relics was founded in 1960.  The museum was originally housed in the Zhang Wang Fu palace complex which was once the residence of Zhang Prince.(2)

Since Three Kingdoms, the site of mansion was always the residence of famous persons. In Yuan Dynasty, it was turned into Dahong Temple. Wang Xianchen, a Ming official censor, resigned and lived in seclusion in 1509. He built a villa named Humble Administrator's Garden, on the base of the abandoned Dahong Temple. Since then, the owner of the Garden was changed several times. In 1738, the Garden was divided into two sections: the east belonging to Jiang Songxian was rebuilt and renamed as Fuyuan Garden and the west owned by Ye Shikuan was also rebuilt and became Shuyuan Garden.  Later in October 2006, a state of the art museum was built at the meeting point of Dongbei Street and Qimen Road.

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The current building of Suzhou Museum was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese- American architect Ieoh Ming Pei in association with Pei Partnership Architects. Construction of this building started in 2002. It was inaugurated on October 6, 2006.

Ieon Ming Pei wanted to preserve the culture of the city of Suzhou. During the planning of the Suzhou museum he said, "you don't need me, you don't need a modern building, what you need is a plan for the preservation of the city."(3)

The museum is 10,700 square meters and has a display area of 2,200 square meters. It has more than 15,000 pieces in its collections. The extensive collection features Neolithic pottery and jades, porcelain, Bamboo carvings, Ivory carvings, Zhang and Wang Tomb Relics, Folk Figures, textiles, contemporary art galleries and much more. Most are ancient paintings and calligraphy, ceramics, crafts, unearthed relics and revolution relics. Among them 247 pieces are ranked first-class. It also possesses more than 70,000 books and documents, and over 20,000 rubbings of stone inscriptions. The collection of paintings and calligraphy includes works of

masters from Song Dynasty to Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Suzhou Museum provides the finest location to discover the best of ancient Chinese art, paintings, crafts and calligraphies.

The museum was originally housed in the Zhong Wang Fu palace complex which was formerly residence of the Zhang prince of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Rated as one of the most pre-eminent Suzhou museums, the remarkable Suzhou Museum is well connected and visitors can conveniently reach it via public bus network or car.

This impressive museum which is a highly regarded regional museum offers excellent guided tours for visitors hoping to get some insight on ancient Chinese arts and crafts.  The information desk provides museum maps and publications while the attractive tea house offers guests the chance to sip fine Chinese and Western tea. Visitors will also find the museum shop positioned at the east wing to the Great Hall (4).

Key elements of the traditional Chinese architecture they were used by Pei in designing the Museum.

The museum structure itself is a derivation of a traditional courtyard and garden. The modern take on this classical style is striking and not altogether appealing. It is not until the visitor tours the museum that he can appreciate the combination of indoor and outdoor space, the hand-selected trees and rocks from Mr. Pei himself, and the use of natural light to accentuate both the works of art and the gardens

Pei established a contemporary form of Chinese landscape design when designing the museum. The Museum is divided into 3 sections the centre, west wing and the east wing. The central part has the entrance to the museum and the main garden. The east wing is where most of the exhibitions are. The west wing contains the administration offices. The water pond is at the heart of the museum’s design. This fact shows how Pei uses traditional elements in contemporary design since Suzhou is abundance in water resources.

There are some keys elements of Chinese architecture that were used by Pei. One such aspect is widow frames that view the outside environment. Another important element in Suzhou tradition architecture is rocks. Pei used rocks to from a scene according to painting in Song Dynasty. Pei's museum adopted the primary color of jiangnan residence (white and grey). Instead of using whitewashed wall plaster and dark grey clay tile, Pei used grey granite to replace the tiles. Traditional roof beam structure was replaced by steel structure. The museum structure had metal sun screen with wood panels instead of traditional carved windows lattice.

The use of traditional white and grey colors shows that Pei wanted to maintain the traditional style in today’s times. “The gray and white forms recall those of the region, but they remain resolutely modern.”(5) Another factor that strongly associates the museum and the tradition is the fact that Suzhou Museum, carefully set into the ancient heart of the city, represents a sensitive and successful call to respect the past while turning to the future.  Pei clearly was determined to preserve the Suzhou city tradition, he said,” … you don’t need me; you don’t need a modern building. What you do need is a plan for the preservation of the city…” (6)

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According to Philips, “The classical Suzhou garden is a microcosm of the world depicted in the basic elements of water, stone, plants, and buildings.”(7) These are the things that Pei included in his design for the Suzhou Museum thereby preserving great deal of the city’s tradition. In designing the Suzhou Museum, Pei had the opportunity to do something that blended with the old Chinese city of Suzhou and yet in the same time show we are in the 21st century.

“When you are looking for old architecture in China, there is not that much of it. There are places like the Forbidden City or Buddhist temples and monasteries. The rest is made up of villages and towns where people live and work. In cultural buildings, garden and building are one - they are not separate. I can’t imagine doing a building in China without a garden. There is no distinction between garden and rooms; they are joined together. The garden cannot be big - they are always on a human scale.” “Big houses in China are measured by how many courtyards they have. The family is the basic unit, but they do not wish to flaunt wealth, so they build high walls. … Inside, there are courtyards after courtyards. You have a tradition of gardens behind walls.” “Chinese gardens consist of three elements – water, rocks, and plants. There is no such thing as a lawn in China. You don’t go out in the garden and play badminton. The kind of Western life in the garden does not exist. People like to meander and to lose themselves in a garden.” “Although some lines, colors, or materials may openly echo local usage, what Pei has sought in Suzhou and elsewhere, is a sublimation of tradition in architecture that bridges the chasm between the brutal march of China’s new skyscrapers and its real roots, its culture.”(8)

Pei is truly an amazing architect. What makes him stand out is the fact the link the past and future in his architectural work. The intimate relationship of the aging architect with his subject, his legacy as a foundation for modern Chinese envisioning, the cross-cultural intuitions, the concept of aging, and the unbearable beauty which obviously celebrates the inner spirit and outer peace, was transcendental in its impact.

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