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IM Pei: Building the Future of China

When China emerged from its 30 year isolation in the 1970s, their recent architectural history was marred by Soviet-style Communist buildings that eschewed the country's celebrated architectural legacy. Knowing that the eyes of the world were on them, the CCP invited a delegation of the American Institute of Architects to tour the country in 1974. Among them was Ieoh Ming Pei, a native son of China who had made a name for himself overseas with his abstract style and masterful attention to detail.

The 1974 visit marked the first time IM Pei had returned to his homeland in 40 years, and the sight of the concrete boxes that populated China’s landscape stunned him. It was a dramatic change from the courtyard homes and gardens of his youth and Pei lamented the destruction of the country's historic timber at the hands of China’s rapid urbanisation. Within four years, the standard-bearer of modernism headed back to China, ready to tackle the problem first-hand and lead the country into a new era of architecture.

In 1978 when the Chinese government invited Pei to return to his homeland to design a high-rise hotel, he had already won fame for his groundbreaking work on the John F Kennedy Library in Massachusetts and the Smithsonian's East Building of the National Gallery. But Pei didn’t want his debut work in China to reflect the style of his celebrated designs; he planned to change the landscape of China by bringing one of the country’s greatest traditions, courtyard architecture, into the modern era.

Pei selected a dilapidated hotel nestled in the foothills of Beijing’s Fragrant Hills for his first battleground against the swelling tide of skyscrapers and urban sprawl and settled in for a fight that would see him lose his trademark cool, banging his fists on a table during negotiations to demand the integrity of his design remain unscathed by modernist elements.

“The Fragrant Hills project was more closely watched by the architectural community both here and in China because he set out explicitly to explore a new path for architecture in China,” says Didi, Pei’s second eldest son who co-designed the Fragrant Hills project with his father. “His process there was what I would call a single-minded search for a new vocabulary for architecture in China.”

In the end, Pei won out, opting for a strategy that implemented advanced Western technology to recreate the essence of courtyard architecture. Pei replaced the hotel with a building that was a distinctly Chinese, pulling on the memories of his ancestral home in the gardens of Suzhou for inspiration. But the government was not interested in a reminder of China’s past and the design of the Fragrant Hills Hotel fell flat with party leaders.

“He was crushed. They didn't respect what he was doing,” Sandi Pei, the architect’s third son, told Asiaweek in 2001. “They were all looking to the West, but he wanted to emphasise what exists and is special in China.”

Accused of being a reactionary, Pei left China and the building fell into a state of disrepair. Today, the four-star hotel often hosts state visitors and is seen as one of China’s architectural feats, but the damage had been done. In 2006, he described the incident by saying, “It was an experience that discouraged me a lot about China. I didn’t think China had a future.” Pei had washed his hands of his homeland.


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