Linking Past and Present

The Suzhou Museum combines architecture and angles

By: Gary Bowerman

Suzhou, but new; China, but new.” Many architects would have balked at the Suzhou government’s requirements for its new museum. Conceived to house a wealth of historic treasures and artworks, it must combine Suzhou’s famed gray and white, two-story architecture with contemporary angles. Unfazed, Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming (I. M.) Pei set to work.

The historic old city, 62 miles west of Shanghai, is famous for many reasons: its UNESCO Heritage Gardens; network of narrow canals; long-established silk industry and Marco Polo’s 13th-century epithet as the “Venice of the East.” But most visitors to Suzhou fall in love with its fabulous architecture, based on simple whitewashed walls and upwardly arching gray slate roofs. Now, thanks to Pei, the city has a new landmark, destined to become one of China’s most visited and photographed tourism attractions.

Opened to great fanfare last October ready for the Mid-Autumn Festival national holiday the Suzhou Museum neatly fuses the artistic and cultural heritage of one of China’s most affluent, culturally rich and technologically progressive cities during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Further linking the leap from past to present, my journey from Shanghai was aboard one of China’s futuristic new CRH (China Railways High-Speed) bullet trains, modeled on Japan’s famous original. Spacious and comfortable, the carriages feature airplane-style reclining seats and plenty of legroom. But just as I made myself comfortable, the 30-minute journey was over and I was standing amid a construction site: A huge swathe of land around Suzhou’s old train station is being redeveloped.

No matter, a five-minute, $1.20 cab ride later and I was walking along in Dongbei Jie in the heart of the old city. Here I passed Suzhou’s largest and most traditional garden, the Humble Administrator’s Garden, but I’d save that pleasure for another time, as this visit was reserved for I.M. Pei’s masterpiece.

Although he designed Hong Kong’s harborfront Bank of China Tower, Pei famed for grafting a glass cube onto the Louvre gallery in Paris, as well as designing the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio had only created one other building in mainland China, Beijing’s Fragrant Hills hotel. But the attraction of working in Suzhou, his family’s ancestral home where he spent many childhood summers, was strong, even for a man in his 90th year of life.

It was not an easy project. A building and its garden are one integrated entity in Chinese culture, Pei has said, but adapting this precept to a modern Suzhou icon was a challenge because, he admitted, “No one knew how to do it.” The resulting $40 million, 160,000-square-foot building respectfully revises the city’s architectural heritage. The entrance is beneath a two-layered glass and chrome roof, which resembles both a solar power installation and a centuries-old Chinese temple. The large, walled-front courtyard is traditional in style but without the usual decoration of flowers, plants and trees. Once inside, Pei has emphasized the museum’s calming sense of space by furnishing it sparsely and allowing light to drift in from all angles: using large-paned windows, smaller hexagonal portholes and layered bamboo grills that form the high-arched ceiling.

Though the interior is stunning, the undoubted highlight is the garden. Like Suzhou’s traditional gardens, it features a lake filled with giant goldfish, central pagoda, bridge and copious space to sit and reflect on life. But the open landscaping is minimalist, with just three solitary wisteria trees and a small cluster of bamboo shoots painting color onto the gray-and-white backdrop.

It feels like a garden created by an architectural genius rather than a horticulturist. The lake pagoda roof, for instance, has been sliced into two overarching sections, and the straightness of the bridge leading to it contrasts with the time-honored zig-zagged style for Chinese water gardens. The whitewashed garden walls are also careful reworkings. Instead of crowning them with upturned gray slate in the established Suzhou style, Pei has encapsulated them in roughened granite trim. Look closely, however, and both ancient and modern are visible: Pei’s contemporary walls are offset by their stylistic predecessors separating the museum’s garden from the neighboring 19th-century Palace of King Zhong.

As with many of Pei’s creations around the world, the building is the star, making it easy to overlook the museum’s exhibits. That would be a mistake, even though only a fraction of its 30,000 historical treasures from the Wu period are displayed. Well-written notices in each section (audio tours are also available) make accessible both the region’s long history and the artfully lit artifacts.

Suzhou, the museum says, enjoyed “a sophisticated and intellectual lifestyle” during the Ming and Qing dynasties and its “pursuit of elegance and refinement left important contributions in painting, calligraphy, handicrafts, architecture, interior design, fashion, gastronomy, music and dance.” This rich creative legacy is evident throughout the museum, underpinned by a striking diversity of cherished materials; including bronze dragon-headed teapots, celadon spittoons, inscribed stone cricket containers, red sandalwood carvings, a porcelain statue of Dharma, carved jade pendants, axe-heads and snuff bottles, a bamboo lion with two cubs and a rose quartz depiction of a kneeling Avalokitesvara.

After leaving the museum, I walked around the city to more closely examine its famous buildings. Three hours later, it was impossible to deny that Pei has created a museum that redefines old and new Suzhou, and by definition opens a new link between ancient and modern China.


Suzhou Museum
Hours: 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.


Suzhou Garden Hotel

Renovated and reopened in 2006, this 238-room hotel has beautiful gardens and an impressive guest list: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter have all stayed here. 86-512-6778-6778


New 390-room hotel in the city’s Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone. Designed as a business hotel it offers comfort and luxury for leisure travelers. 168 Tayuan Road Suzhou Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone, 86-512-6808-0168

Sheraton Suzhou

Designed like an old Suzhou pavilion with its own water garden, this 407-room hotel is a longtime favorite with tourists and business travelers.