The Suzhou Museum might not be I. M. Pei’s most famous building, but it clearly expresses the architect’s longstanding quest to meld local traditions with modern architecture. And with “I. M. Pei: Building China Modern,” a one-hour documentary on PBS, that quest will receive a little more recognition.
The documentary, part of PBS’s American Masters series, follows Pei as he returns to the 2,500-year-old city of his ancestors to construct a museum for ancient Chinese art, located within historic Old Suzhou. Along the way, the filmmakers recorded various milestones, from Pei’s first site visit in 2002 to the building’s jubilant opening in October 2006, and interviewed such architectural luminaries as Pei, now 92 years old; his sons, Didi and Sandi Pei, partners at Pei Partnership Architects who oversaw the project; and historian-critic Charles Jencks.
At the film’s premiere last week at the Paley Center for Media in New York, producer Eugene Shirley said he seized on the Suzhou museum to investigate how China’s rapid modernization impacts its traditional culture. When he learned Pei would be designing the museum, he said, it seemed like the perfect lens through which to approach the topic.
That didn’t mean the eight years of filming, which continued until last September, were a breeze. Director Anne Makepeace described the subtle restrictions imposed by the crew’s omnipresent, Chinese government-approved “handlers,” who limited the choice of interview subjects. Notably, no residents on camera oppose their displacement by the construction.
When asked about the film's central theme, the dialogue between modernity and tradition, Didi Pei explained the goal of the Suzhou Museum by saying, “How do you move forward, to bring more current building technology into China, without completely destroying the original spirit?” He compared the project to late-20th-century Japanese architecture, which is clearly modern, but which retains a very Japanese spirit (for an example, one need look no further than the portfolio of newly minted Pritzker winners Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA).
“That’s what I’m really hoping will happen in China,” Didi Pei said, “and I think that’s what my father was trying to do, to show, ‘Look, you don’t have to throw away that spirit in order to be modern.’”