Against the visual cacophony of new buildings evident in so many Chinese cities, the Suzhou Museum by I. M. Pei with Pei Partnership Architects stands out, or rather stands back, in its simple elemental contextualism. Rachna Kothari revisited it to reassess its success and finds an architecture of experience not imagery.
The design of the Suzhou Museum, which was conceived by celebrated Chinese-born American architect I. M. Pei with Pei Partnership Architects, and opened in 2006, had an ambitious aim: to create a meaningful new language for architecture in China, replacing the current frenzy of instant spectacle. Seven years on, the museum still provides refreshment for less frantic sensibilities, replacing the glossy with the tactile, the swanky with the warm and the picturesque with the intuitive; evoking a contemporary ambience, yet with a spirit that seems to have its roots buried deep in 2,500 years of local culture.
The construction industry in China has persistently been the subject of comment, even derision. Audacious skyscrapers, vast museums and expansive masterplans designed by star-practices compete with ghost-towns, poor construction quality and banal copycat buildings for international headlines. It is a vast country coping with the constant attrition of its centuries-old cultural fabric, hastily being overlaid by confused and contradictory symbolism and simulcra. What’s going on in China attracts awe and concern in equal measure.
Against this context of muddled architectural rhetoric, Suzhou Museum with its measured formal simplification presents a haven of satisfying, experiential spatiality. Its design approach is in interesting contradiction to Pei’s most famous project, the Pyramide du Louvre in Paris, which asserts itself in counterpoint to the old. Here in contrast, the design of the Suzhou Museum aims to establish a new paradigm of contemporary contextualism. Located in the historic Zhong Wang Fu Palace complex, and backing on to a World Cultural Heritage garden dating from 1506–21, the museum draws directly from this rich contextual repository.
On passing the customised, steel finished lamp-posts along the paved market street, you arrive at an unassuming sloping entrance, punctuating the high walls of the museum premises. The glazed wall of the octagonal entrance hall overlooks a body of water that reflects the tints of the sky, whilst it is lined with stone murals of mountains, in front of which groups of visitors pass by: forming a composition evocative of Chinese paintings.
The building’s plan is formed to the west by a framework of galleries showing ancient Chinese art, whilst further contemporary art galleries, and recreational and administrative spaces, organised around a placid pool of water, sit to the east of the entrance hall. Passageways of increasing volume, topped by skylights, lead to the exhibition galleries. Wood clad, intimately scaled and optimally lit, these exhibition spaces invoke curiosity in, and reverence for, the exquisite detailed objects of ceramics, bronze, wood and jade. The interplay of volumes and light, often found in Pei’s works, lends a profound experience to the inside, changing with daylight and materiality. Octagonal and hexagonal shapes reappears in a myriad of “avatars”: in plan, as apertures framing views, in light fixtures and in the stone landing within the pool, establishing a tacit geometrical play within the larger themes. The museum’s monochrome tones remain faithful to old Suzhou’s predominant palette of charcoal-coloured tile roofs and white-washed walls, but the crisp, solid appearing black granite used to frame its façades but also as a robust roofing material, distinguishes it, its material darkness getting more pronounced after rainfall.
A structurally elaborate staircase connects the three levels of galleries. Cantilevered over serene water features that impart a moist stillness to the air, and inundated with a haze of natural light from skylights, its scale is neither overwhelmingly monumental nor submissively small. It is an element that seems to embody the sensibilities of the architecture. This relatively small 10,750 square metre museum is full of contemplative spaces without ever feeling too enclosed or claustrophobic. The exhibition galleries on the ground-floor are punctuated by glazed walls, veiled in thin curtains like a mist, that overlook the silhouette of the eastern wing and a lush bamboo grove. The museum steers between being a place for the learning of history for groups of visitors, and an atmospheric repository for solitary reflection, but without there needing to be any specific thresholds between the two activities. From an austere room reminiscent of refined scholarship, displays of Buddhist scripture, pottery, tea, textiles, silks and paintings, to a full-scale replica of an ancient Chinese hut, contrasting areas of focus are provided for visitors.
A walk outside, crossing the lotus pool, leads to the opposite, eastern wing. The change of light and ambience from inside to outside feels like a carefully calibrated and conscious part of the design. Pines, osmanthus and ginkgo trees dot the minimal landscape. Access to the cafeteria is reached past an open internal court – alive with groups sipping tea over animated chatter, shaded by a wisteria entangled “like a lively dragon” (in the words of the museum's official brochure), on a slender metal pergola. Planned in a loop, the circulation allows one to go back to the main hall or exit into the magnificent Zhong Wang Fu Mansion.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the museum has received less media attention and accolades than many of its look-at-me, blobby counterparts, possibly due to its emphasis on an architecture of experience, paying no lip service to imagery. Nor is it diagrammatically radical or conceptually ground-breaking.
And yet it is with its simplicity of purpose, and in a most poetic and personal manner, the Suzhou Museum does postulate a possible way forward for Chinese architecture, whilst also appearing as an enduring place that establishes a link with the past.
– Rachna Kothari is an architect and writer interested in the socio-spatial and experiential nuances of the built environment; she is currently based in Shenzhen.