An Architect’s Journey
This Wednesday night, PBS will premiere the newest installment of its American Masters series, I.M. Pei: Building China Modern. Last week, I caught a preview screening of the documentary, which traces the eight-year design and construction of Pei’s Suzhou Musuem, in China. Completed in 2006, the museum may have been Pei’s most challenging project to date. Not only was he attempting to capture the spirit and history of the 2,500-year-old city in a modern building, but he also had to deal with overly cautious Chinese government officials.
In the film, Pei treads lightly around these officials, acknowledging that here he is an outsider—even though he was born and raised in China (he moved to the United States when he was 18) and his forbears lived in Suzhou for centuries. Playing the outsider is a familiar role for Pei. The film opens with the 92-year-old architect reflecting on his masterful 1989 addition to the Louvre. Pei describes the criticism and backlash from the French public, which balked at having a foreigner involved in the redesign of a national structure.
In the end, the new Suzhou Museum becomes a metaphor for Pei’s own lifelong struggle with his Chinese heritage and his adopted identity. This final project is more than a bookend to his architectural career—Pei calls it “my biography.”
I.M. Pei: Building China Modern makes its national television premiere on PBS this Wednesday, March 31, at 9 p.m. EST.