Discovering the Aesthetics of Suzhou

Anya DunaifDecember 8, 2016Beauty and the SensesFeatures
Discovering the Aesthetics of Suzhou

Artwork by Anya Dunaif

Before traveling to Suzhou, a city in Jiangsu Province just to the west of Shanghai, I knew little about it, except for a Chinese saying that I had been taught in Mandarin class: “上有天堂,下有苏杭,” or “Above there is heaven, below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou.”

I also had heard that renowned architect I. M. Pei was from a Suzhou family and that the ancient garden city, dubbed “the Venice of the East” by Marco Polo, was a major influence on his modern, geometric style.

Suzhou gardens are meant to imitate the natural world, yet there is something wonderfully supernatural in their beauty. Labyrinthine stone paths and tunnels, rock sculptures, green ponds, lush flora, arched bridges, white stucco walls and gray tiled roofs comprise the gardens. I found the rock sculptures extremely intriguing. Striking and amoebic, they first seemed to be anomalies of nature, reminding me of coral snatched from the depths of the sea.

After returning home to Brooklyn, I discovered that rock sculptures are created by a long, painstaking process. An individual rock is chosen by a rock farmer for a specific spirit or quality sensed within. It is then chiseled to form openings that, when the rock is placed in a lake or stream, are shaped and smoothed by currents. This process takes decades or even centuries. Sometimes the son or grandson of a rock farmer will be the one to remove a sculpture from the water. A rock sculpture represents both the life and aesthetics of a rock farmer. It is a concrete example of the beauty and harmony created by the combination of human expression and natural power.

I longed to go back to the gardens and examine the rock sculptures, knowing that there was so much intention placed behind each curve and crevice. I came to realize that the sculptures are carefully chosen and designed to fit a certain location, just as each of I. M. Pei’s buildings is created to fit its function and setting. Each one is unique. There are no overarching rules qualifying a rock which is to be formed into a sculpture, just as there is no set way to go about creating a new building, for the design of each structure relies on the history of its location, the personality and interests of the client, and the purpose it will serve.

Ieoh Ming Pei, commonly known as I. M. Pei, was born on April 26, 1917, in Guangzhou, China. It was the Warlord Era, full of strife and poverty. Pei’s grandfather, Litai, negotiated with militia, begging them not to destroy his beloved city of Suzhou, while Pei’s father, a banker named Tsuyee, was forced to flee to Hong Kong. A few years later, he was promoted by the Bank of China and given a manager’s position in Shanghai. He moved with his wife, Lien Kwun, and five children to the diverse, westernized city, 65 miles to the east of his hometown, Suzhou. I.M. Pei spent his summers studying Confucian ethics in Suzhou with his grandfather. Doing so allowed him to explore his family garden, the Lion’s Grove, named for a lion-like rock sculpture that resided there. In 1935, Pei left Shanghai, the city with tall, inspirational buildings, and Suzhou, the city whose style and spirit would influence Pei’s work throughout the years, to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later to obtain his master’s degree in architecture at Harvard. In 1955, he founded I. M. Pei & Associates, which 11 years later became I. M. Pei & Partners. Pei went on to become one of the world’s most famous architects. Some of his prominent works include: the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the National Gallery of Art East Building, the Bank of China Tower, the Grand Louvre, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Miho Museum, and the Museum of Islamic Art.

After graduating from architecture school, Pei worked for prominent real estate developer, William Zeckendorf. One of Pei’s early projects was Denver, Colorado’s first skyscraper, nicknamed the Mile High Center. He designed the tower to take up only one quarter of the building site and refused to have the first floor rented out to shopkeepers. Instead, the remaining acreage was left for gardens and fountains. The design of the structure and the open space caused the apartments to rent for a premium and the building to have the lowest vacancy rate in Denver. Pei was able to incorporate aspects of traditional Chinese architecture, such as ample space for gardens and leisure, in his design, making the skyscraper distinctively attractive. Like a rock farmer, he shaped the building according to his own aesthetic principles, allowing it to become a work of art that others would appreciate.

Due to World War II and the subsequent Communist takeover of China, Pei and his wife Eileen did not to return to their homeland for many years. The couple became naturalized citizens of the United States in 1954 and their four children grew up in America. In 1972, just six months after President Nixon’s historic invitation to China, Pei received an invitation of his own. After years of self-isolation, the nation was beginning to reopen, metaphorically tearing down the so-called “bamboo curtain” that allowed Nixon to become the first American President to visit the communist state. As Pei would soon discover, the China of the 1970’s was very different than that of the 30’s. For example, the Pei family garden was now open to the public; centuries-old buildings were destroyed by war or cemented over by the government. In 1974, Pei returned to China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), during which many bourgeois intellectuals and artists were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. When Pei arrived, he met with government officials who proposed projects near the Forbidden City, the palace of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasty emperors and the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world. Pei found himself defending the priceless buildings which, to many, symbolize the power and history of one of the world’s oldest cultures. Looming skyscrapers would ruin the aura of the Forbidden City. Pei took this into account, cognizant of how people perceive and internalize a space and its surroundings.

As tourists began to venture to China once again, new hotels were built. In the late 70’s, Pei was asked to design a hotel, called Fragrant Hill, just outside Beijing. The feel and function of the building would be very important, for it would make a long lasting impression on foreigners. Pei was faced with the task of representing China through his design, and displaying the aspirations that the country had with his streamlined, modernist touch. The hotel wove around the site’s ancient trees, in order to avoid cutting them down, and as with the Mile High Center, Pei left room for gardens. Drawing upon his ancestral Suzhou, he chose to incorporate a rock element. He happened upon a two-million-year-old stone forest called Beyond the Clouds. After a year of negotiations with officials in charge of running the national park, Pei was able to transport 230 tons of rock monoliths to Beijing by train. The rocks served to complete the hotel, which was sleek and geometric, while still retaining characteristically Chinese elements, such as the sense of harmony between buildings and nature. Pei successfully combined the traditional and the modern to create a unique style of 20th century architecture.

After an illustrious career, Pei retired from his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, in 1990, with the desire to take on projects only outside the United States for the joy of doing so. In the early 2000’s Pei was asked to design another building in his homeland, a museum in beloved Suzhou, the city that had inspired him throughout his career.

This past summer, I studied in China for a month, spending a week in Suzhou with a host family. One day, after visiting Taihu, the third largest freshwater lake in China and the place where many rock sculptures are formed, my host sister and I broke off from our fellow students to see Pei’s Suzhou Museum, which was completed in 2006. In the sweltering heat of late July, we searched for a cab through the congested traffic. The relief I felt once we found one didn’t last long, for the car reeked of cigarette smoke and was not well ventilated. When we finally arrived at the museum, I jumped out of the cab and was immediately overcome by the beauty of the long street paved with stone and lined with traditional buildings on one side and Pei’s modern, angular museum on the other. As I entered through the front gates, I was reminded distinctly of the typical Suzhou gardens through which I had been wandering for the past few days, yet I also felt like I was in an almost futuristic place. This is similar to the dual sensation that I experienced in the gardens themselves, which seemed strangely natural and supernatural at the same time.

The Suzhou Museum, which is located in the historic Old City, is built from the same white stucco walls as traditional Suzhou buildings, yet lack the curved tile roofs. Pei opted for gray slanted roofs, some parts of which come together at a box-like top that is a continuation of the white stucco. The structure simultaneously fits in with the old-fashioned buildings in the surrounding area and stands out due to its smooth, geometric form, representative of I. M. Pei’s style. The museum incorporates a magnificent garden, which is streamlined like the buildings. A straight, low bridge extends across a large pond, with koi swimming in the waters. Next to the bridge is a pagoda with a roof made of slanted glass triangles and rectangles. When I was there, adults and teenagers alike sat in the shade reading, while parents rested with children. It is a place for people to connect with the paradoxically historical and futuristic environment created by the museum, just as pagodas in Suzhou gardens serve as spots for quiet contemplation and achieving harmony with nature. Next to the pond are thinly cut rocks, which play the role of rock sculptures, yet evoke the mountains of a traditional Chinese landscape painting. The rocks were chosen carefully, some tinted darker to create a sense of perspective and to give an impression of mist floating between mountain peaks.

Hexagonal windows and large glass walls function as portals between the garden and the interior of the museum. Windows of various shapes and ornate designs are prominent in classic Suzhou architecture, forming a frame from which to view a garden or look into a sitting room. Pei takes advantage of light in his design of the museum, as he has with other projects (for example, the primary purpose of the Louvre pyramids is to let light into the underground entrance). The hallways connecting the wings of the museum are lit by bars of sunlight streaming through the spaces between thin wood panels on the ceiling. The exhibits are also lit for the most part by skylights, giving the space a natural feel. The museum’s permanent collection contains artifacts from the Ming and Qing dynasties, during which Suzhou was a major cultural hub. There is also a special exhibition on display in the downstairs rooms. Light shines to the bottom floor accompanied by a waterfall, which runs into an indoor pond. This scene itself is something at which to marvel, and, like the garden, is a place to rest and appreciate the beauty of the museum and the works of art that it houses.

Designing the Suzhou Museum was a meaningful return home for Pei late in his distinguished career. Not only was he able to connect with his ancestral city, but also to share his experience with family. Two of his three sons, Chien Chung and Li Chung Pei, known as Didi and Sandi (Chinese for “little brother” and “third brother”), have followed in their father’s footsteps. Both practiced at I. M. Pei & Partners before founding their own firm, Pei Partnership Architects, in 1992. They collaborated on the design of the Suzhou Museum with their father. Like the sons of a rock farmer, who continue to preside over a rock as it is shaped by currents, waiting to remove the finished product from nature and carry on the spirit of the original farmer, the two Pei brothers further their father’s vision by continuing to practice as architects.

I look forward to returning to Suzhou and experiencing the beauty and the element of surprise that both the city and museum encapsulate. Last summer, as I turned a corner or walked beneath the archway of a classic garden, I was constantly presented with new images. These various amazements were in the shape of windows, foliage and rock sculptures. When I go to the gardens again, my mind will process these forms in a different fashion. A rock sculpture that once evoked a certain memory will conjure another. Similarly, when I revisit the Suzhou Museum, I will notice previously unseen allusions to traditional architecture and also observe more characteristics of Pei’s individual style. Both Suzhou gardens and Pei’s design serve as a window into oneself. The opportunity to reflect on my summer in China has allowed me to examine my own aesthetics and sensibilities, while learning about I. M. Pei and the ancient city of Suzhou.

Anya Dunaif is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. Her interests include visual art, film, writing, science, and languages (Mandarin, Ancient Greek, and Latin).