Features Of The Suzhou Museum Cultural Studies Essay

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The legacy of the ancient canal city is preserved in the gardens of Suzhou, the legacy of a city that identified with silk trade and its beauty left Marco Polo astounded. Even though the city had acquired ugliness of the commercial sprawl all this is shattered by the high walls saving it from the ugly look it had suffered for the last fifty years. If one arrives early in the day or at a time when the season is low for purposes of avoiding noisy tour groups, there is still the opportunity of appreciating and savoring the landscapes that are put on a pedestal by scholars for purposes of poetry reading and as described by Jodidio and Adams (2008, Inc. 312), "The classical Suzhou garden is a microcosm of the world depicted in the basic elements of water, stone, plants, and buildings" it is truly a place anyone with the right instincts would be eager to visit at least once in a lifetime. It is a common phenomenon to find old men seated around in the name of playing mah jong and excited students sketching pavilions and courtyards. It was in Ieoh Ming Pei that the association between man and nature made a mark, a man born in the year 1917. The Suzhou Museum whose he completed in the 90th year of his life marked a victorious homecoming, crowning the practice he had for a half-century in New York.

When reputation is to be mentioned in the modern architectural field then not mentioning I. M. Pei will be considered an error, apart from being a well-known architect he also falls among the most significant architectural artists who existed in the 20th century. It is also worth noting that he is the sole world-class architect originating from China. The area currently known as Guangzhou was his birthplace and his childhood life was spent in Lion Forest Garden - a family's private garden - a place that played a significant role in shaping his future work. Designing this museum is among the many works he has done which include designing of many colleges, commercial centers and skyscrapers, as well as other museums in many different countries. It is not surprising that he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in the year 1983. He followed his dreams and went beyond his own capability by trying to impart immortality into buildings and in designing the Suzhou Museum he had the idea of preserving the tradition of Jiang Nan architecture as indicated in his statement, "you don't need me, you don't need a modern building, what you need is a plan for the preservation of the city" (Jodidio and Adams, 2008, Inc. 311). This does not mean his design was not to be modern but it only meant that both the past and the present must be respected so as to jump to a successful future and Jodidio and Adams (2008, Inc. 311) stress this fact when they state that "… the 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."

Features of the Jiang Nan residential houses

The name Jiang Nan which means 'River South" refers to lands that closely border the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and is a very popular geographic area in China. The significance of this area has been experienced in the entire Chinese culture due to the distinct intellectual life which has greatly influenced the history of the country. The distinguishing feature that this area has compared to the area in the Northern parts of the country is the abundance in water resources such as rivers, lakes, precipitates, and channels among others. These have greatly influenced the lifestyle and culture of the area and more specifically the design of the residential houses.

The layout arrangement of the houses in Jiang Nan is similar to those in Siheyuan; however, due to the limited arable land and dense population these buildings are tighter and have smaller yards which are meant for lighting and drainage. The design is such that all the rain flows into the central small yard through the inner roof giving them the name "All Water into Hall." In contrast to the houses in the north that have brighter colors and paintings that are colorful, the houses in Jiang Nan adore the simplicity of white walls and black tiles which is a representation of the humility of the residents. These houses are categorized into two types; the Huizhou, and the Jiangzhe. The former type is commonly identified with its "Hui merchants" who at some point were major players in China's business field, the money the got from the business were used to build these houses, which were black and white, in the Huizhou Rivers and mountains. The latter type has gained universal fame from its Water Towns and has been described as the 'Venice of the east.'

The Suzhou Museum

The construction of the Suzhou Museum whose designer was I. M. Pei ended in the tenth month of the year 2006, the area covered by this building is approximated at not less than 10,700 square meters. The exact location is at the cross of Dongbei Street and Qimen Road and as expected the museum contains three sections within it; the center, the West Wing, and the East Wing. At the center section lays the entrance to the museum, the hall and the main garden, while the exhibition area is found in the West Wing and the administration offices and education area are within the East Wing. It has a layout of three axes which matches the popular style of Prince Zhong's Mansion. The walls of the museum are made of gray clay tile which is one of the conspicuous features of this building. The conventional material for roofs is clay tiles but this is not what the Suzhou building uses instead gray granites which have uniform colors are used to make the roof. The roof structure is also made from modern steel replacing the conventional roof beam structure, and wooden frames and white ceiling form the interior decoration of the building. Further replacements of the conventional materials is also done at the windows where instead of using carved windows lattice, metal sunscreens with wooden panels are used with the purpose of making the museum building more superfluous. There are two design concepts that were considered in the design of this building the first is the "Chinese style with innovation, Suzhou style with creativity" and the second is "not too high, not too large and not too abrupt", these were instrumental in selecting the site and the high-quality construction resulting in a very comprehensive modern museum connecting perfectly with humanism. Among the key features that make it blend with nature is the Suzhou style garden character and the simple geometric form representing modern art, these two features are then crowned by the superb layout of the structure with full function. To emphasize his view on blending the museum building and nature, he once said, "(In China) architecture and the garden are one, a Western building is a building, and a garden is a garden. They're related in spirit. But they are one in China" (Barboza, 2006).

In order to advocate the culture of the people and at the same time portray architectural sophistication and technical development the construction of the Suzhou museum utilizes the space resource.

As soon as one enters the museum he/she is greeted by a large window opening that gives the clear view of a pond having a myriad of koi swimming about, just behind the pond is a 'mountain range' formed by rocks and appears just like a mountain range behind a lake. Viewers of the pond are under the shelter of a large pyramid shaped enclosure, of course typical of Pei's work, in the ceiling. This does not just add to the beauty but also allows for the natural flow of light giving the hall a perfect feature of nature. Techniques of framing and highlighting are a common greeting throughout the museum all these built into the structure of the facility.

A closer look at the features of the Suzhou museum shows the extent to which I. M. Pei borrowed ideas from the traditional elements of Jiang Nan residential housing style when designing the contemporary building. This starts right from the selection of the site. Pei made the pond the heart of the design which directly relates to the traditional elements where the abundant resource in the area where the traditional residential houses were built was water in form of rivers, lakes, etc. Chinese architecture is also identified with the incorporation of an opening or a window that gives a good view of the outside environment just as in the Suzhou museum. Rocks have been significantly used in the Suzhou tradition and to capture this Pei used rocks to form a perfect 'mountain range' representative of a painting in Song Dynasty. Pei did not stop at this but went ahead to choose Jiang Nan residence primary color, white and grey, and in capturing this Pei used gray granite to replace whitewashed plaster wall dark gray clay tiles. If anyone thinks that these colors are not modern then Jodidio and Adams (2008, Inc. 311) think otherwise, they say that "The gray and white forms recall those of the region, but they remain resolutely modern."

Summary and conclusion

In any project that is undertaken by man there must be challenges and so did the design of Suzhou museum face challenges. The first challenge was on the location which was at the historic district of the city and this would necessitate the moving or destruction of some traditional houses, obviously the residents complained. Pei was lectured by government officials, despite the respect they had for him, he was instructed to make the museum modern but must conform to the Suzhou style of building, an idea no one knew how to achieve. Pei worked so hard in blending the East and the West and at the same time seeking to remain true to tradition of the Chinese courtyards and gardens but juggle around with those models. The design in his mind was neither a flat Western roof nor arched gray tile roof typical of Suzhou, ingenuity was necessary at this stage. The result was not perfect but was good, whitewashed walls without gray tile roofs, gray stone was used instead.

In response to the heritage of Suzhou, a walled garden having a void at the core of the museum was incorporated. Taking a different direction from that of iconographic landscapes known by most tourists, the emphasis of the garden was on simplicity of water, rocks, and sky. Pei always hoped that the country would ultimately define its path. In regard to the question of the museum design being his final project, Pei said that, "Never predict the future. If you ask my wife, she'll say that's it. But if you ask me, I'm not sure it's the end. There are always challenges in life" (Barboza, 2006). If anyone is looking for a single phrase to define the Suzhou museum it is, "a truly magnificent piece by an amazing architect" (Bryant, 2009).