PBS documents I.M. Pei's return to China

HOMECOMING: PBS's "I.M. Pei: Building China Modern" follows the architect as he designs a modern museum in his native Suzhou.
HOMECOMING: PBS's "I.M. Pei: Building China Modern" follows the architect as he designs a modern museum in his native Suzhou. (Bing Lin/pei Partnership Architects)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In his mid-80s, Chinese American architect I.M. Pei agreed to design a museum for his home town of Suzhou, a picture-book city of canals, gardens and poetic bridges where Pei's ancestors lived for 600 years. "I.M. Pei: Building China Modern," which premieres Wednesday night on PBS, follows that project from Pei's first site visit to the opening ceremony five years later.

The art museum, a low-rise assemblage of gray-and-white forms that gives a characteristically Pei twist to the roofline of the ancient city's traditional buildings, opened in 2006. It was only Pei's second building in China, and the first one he designed in the post-Tiananmen go-go years of the booming Chinese economy.

The hour-long documentary, which chronicles Pei's return to his homeland, is part of PBS's "American Masters" series. It isn't long enough to deal with all the issues it raises. From the beginning, during Pei's tour of the neighborhood that will be supplanted by his building, we learn that old buildings will be destroyed to make room for his new one. Pei demurs, a little at least, suggesting that Chinese officials go slow and consider all their options. We hear from one resident who sounds like a propaganda plant, toeing the usual line: These are unsanitary and unpleasant structures, and no one will miss them.

The film at least acknowledges that this isn't entirely true. But it doesn't take the issue seriously enough. China's traditional urban architecture is being decimated at an appalling rate, in the name of progress, and being replaced with desultory buildings that enrich only their developers. We never learn how old or important the demolished structures are. Without that knowledge, there is no way to judge whether Pei's museum is a worthy project.

But never mind. This is PBS, and the visuals are lovely. Now 92, Pei is also lovely, an old man but sharp as a tack, and given to pronouncements that are both revelatory and poetic. In the former category, we hear him explain the importance of a consistent charm offensive when working with recalcitrant officials and balky locals: "You must take the public in from Day One." So true, in the branch of P.R. known as architecture.

In another scene, Pei describes "stone farming," whereby rocks are slowly eroded in water until they take on smooth and suggestive forms. "The father sows, and the son reaps," he says to his grandson Stephen, who sits silently next to him. A garden of stones becomes central to his design concept for the museum.

Old men with energy, high spirits and full capacities are inherently charming, and Pei, who has charmed his way across the planet and left a huge imprint on it, charms yet again. The film's larger claim, that Pei is giving back to China a new and more Chinese form of modernism, is bogus. Pei is too old for that battle, which has already been joined and advanced by Chinese architects one and two generations younger than the old master. It's easy, of course, to find bad buildings that prove architecture is directionless in China, and the camera shows us at least one laughable example in Beijing. But that proves only that the filmmakers visited the wrong parts of town.

The film also follows the basic script of archi-dramas, from conceptualization to conflict to construction to triumphant opening, a predictable format that is to architects what "Law and Order" is to cops and prosecutors. But it does sketch in Pei's epic career, touches on the larger history of architecture in 20th century China, and captures the energy of China's vibrant economic and cultural efflorescence. Sit back, relax, don't think too much, and listen to the wise old man.

I.M. Pei: Building Modern China

(one hour), part of PBS's "American Masters," airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WETA and 10:30 p.m. on WMPT.

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