Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I.M. Pei and Suzhou

SUZHOU, China - The distinquished Chinese American architect I.M. Pei crafted what may be his last major commission when, in October 2006, his masterful Suzhou Museum opened in this east central Chinese city. An artful fusion of traditional Chinese elements - garden, pond, footbridge, rocks recalling mountain peaks, a circle incorporated into the main entrance, a high water wall inside - plus Pei's trademark triangles and pyramids, the museum is a must-see for any visitor to this part of China who nurtures an interest in art and architecture.

Pei, who is now 92, used elegant whites and greys in his design. He has told interviewers that he took on the job because his forebears came from Suzhou, a city of 6 million that was a center of art and culture during the Ming and Qing dynasties. For Pei, who was born in China but emigrated to the United States as a young man, the museum presented an opportunity to make an architectural mark in his native land, where he has done no other work, save for a Beijing hotel in the early 1980s.

Pei's work on the museum is subtle and contemplative - fitting for an institution that boasts major holdings of classical calligraphy, sculpture, ceramics and painting. Some artworks by contemporary Chinese artists are included in the museum's collection, too, but this is principally a home for classical art - and classical architecture.

Suzhou, about 100 miles northwest of Shanghai and easily accessible by fast train or by car - allot 90 minutes or so to reach the city - also plays host to no fewer than 9 UNESCO World Heritage gardens. I roamed through several great gardens on my recent visit, but perhaps the most memorable garden experience I had in Suzhou was at Master of Nets Garden, the first Chinese garden I have visited at night.

It was illuminating in both the literal and figurative sense to see the garden, with its pagodas, neatly tended plants and waterways, under sensitive night-lighting. The nighttime garden also is home - from mid-March to mid-November, when the weather is warm enough - to site-specific performances by entertainers in vintage Chinese clothing. Two masked actors greet visitors with a good-natured blessing, and as a guide shows the way, the action moves from place to place, outdoors and indoors. An enchanting performance by a man playing xiao (a bamboo flute) was almost, but not quite, ruined by a drunk braying into his mobile phone. For me, the highlight was a performance on the stringed zheng by a young woman with dexterous fingers and graceful arm movements who coaxed celestial sounds out of the instrument.

Much of Suzhou is determinedly modern, but the city retains oases of calm among the hurly-burly. Master of Nets Garden and Pei's new Suzhou Museum are chief among them.

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