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IM Pei’s unbuilt 1948 Shanghai Museum

IM Pei’s first project, a Museum for Chinese Art published in 1948, explored themes of Chineseness he returned to 60 years later with his Suzhou Museum, but was misunderstood by Western critics

The current museum boom in China has produced a vast number of buildings – over 1,500 in the last 15 years. Some of these are, inevitably, shoddy, but there are also many impressive works by leading Chinese and international architects, such as the Long Museum in Shanghai by Atelier Deshaus and Wang Shu’s Ningbo Museum. These are more or less recognisably ‘Chinese’ – perhaps none more so than IM Pei’s Suzhou Museum of 2006, with its white walls, grey roofs and polygonal windows. This is not the first time that architects have tackled the problem of representing Chinese culture in the modern city, however: in fact Pei himself began his career by addressing this very problem.

IM Pei, Museum for Chinese Art, Shanghai, 1948

IM Pei, Museum for Chinese Art, Shanghai, 1948

Pei’s design for a Museum for Chinese Art was published in Progressive Architecture in February 1948. The project was his graduate project at Harvard Graduate School of Design, completed under Walter Gropius two years previously. The building was to be located in Shanghai, and took the form of an extremely Modernist structure combined with the theme of the traditional Chinese garden. Progressive Architecture’s verdict was concise yet enthusiastic: the work was ‘an excellent synthesis of progressive design’ presenting ‘a much-needed architectural statement of proper character’ for museum construction in the 1940s.

The article also included a review by Gropius, which explained how Pei, through the themes of ‘the bare Chinese wall’ and the ‘small individual garden patio’ – the ‘two eternal features’ of Chinese architecture – achieved ‘a modern architectural expression on a monumental level’.1 The architecture’s Modernism was emphasised by its clear resemblance to Mies van der Rohe’s scheme for a ‘Museum for a Small City’, a project invited by Architectural Forum in 1943 to envisage the ‘architecture of 194X’ in America. But for all its Modernist credentials, the prominent references to Chinese culture in Pei’s museum nevertheless challenged the universal pretensions of modern architecture: the so-called International Style.

But this tendency was rarely as doctrinaire as legend has it, and Western Modernists welcomed Pei’s work as progressive. By blending a Chinese image with a Modernist form, Pei reintroduced tradition – a supposedly neglected theme in the anti-historical discourse of Modernism – to museum design. You could even perceive in the chorus of Western praise a glimmer of hope for the potential of Modernism to represent and preserve the cultural ‘essence’ of the Far East. But for all their enthusiasm, these faraway critics neglected the specific architectural context Pei envisaged for his museum. It was intended to replace an ‘inadequate structure’ in the city’s new Civic Centre, planned in 1933 to reveal ‘the dignity of the city of Shanghai’.2 This was part of the Greater Shanghai Plan, an urban project carried out by the Special City Government of Shanghai between 1929 and 1937. This significant yet neglected motivation suggests that Pei’s project can be read from an entirely different perspective: a new Chinese architecture that ran parallel to Western Modernism, rather than Western Modernism adapted to a Chinese context.

Greater Shanghai Plan, 1927

Greater Shanghai Plan, 1927

The Greater Shanghai Plan had been drawn up as a direct result of Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) relocating the Chinese Government to Nanjing in 1927. Following the move, the KMT nominated Shanghai as its ‘special district’ (and violently purged Communists from that city, leading to the outbreak of civil war). Two years later the municipal government formulated the Greater Shanghai Plan. Its aim was to transform a city dominated by, on the one hand, the prosperity of the international settlements, and on the other, the underdevelopment of the old Chinese walled city, and create in the process a Chinese-built metropolis.

The project started with the designation of an undeveloped area of over 4.67 square kilometres in the north-east as the new City of Shanghai. This was intended to host residential, commercial and industrial zones, with the Civic Centre as the focus of the plan. Presented in a cruciform design covering over one square kilometre, the Centre was to accommodate the Mayor’s Building, the city museum, the library, an auditorium seating 3,000 people, an art gallery and civic courts. Landscaping was added to complete the ‘monumental and beautiful ensemble’.3

Neither did the planners neglect the appearance of the governmental buildings: they were to be in  ‘Chinese Renaissance Style’, integrating Western techniques with Chinese architectural traditions. This term had been coined by American architect Henry Killam Murphy, who began experimenting with ‘adaptive architecture’ in his commission for the Yale-in-China university campus in Changsha, Hunan (1913-14). He quickly expanded his practice to campus and office designs in cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, and collaborations with the Nationalist Government for urban planning in Guangzhou and Nanjing followed.4 In the course of the KMT’s expansion, the style became an official means of representing architectural nationalism, and it flourished across KMT-controlled China in the 1930s.

Dong Dayou, Shanghai City Hall, 1932

Dong Dayou, Mayor’s Building, Shanghai, 1931

The Chinese Renaissance Style was consequently carried over to the Greater Shanghai Plan as the architectural statement of the new government. The earliest construction in the Civic Centre was the Mayor’s Building (1931), featuring a reinforced-concrete four-storey structure and a large gabled roof typical of Chinese imperial architecture, with lavish decorations on the exterior such as painted columns and carved totems. However, subsequent buildings in the complex, including the city museum, the city library and especially, the aeroplane-shaped Aviation Association building, all designed by Dong Dayou and built in 1934-35, witnessed a gradual transition towards modern elements. Nevertheless, traditional decorations were still retained as an essential feature.

Dong Dayou, Aviation Association Building, Shanghai, 1936

Dong Dayou, Aviation Association Building, Shanghai, 1934-5

Though the exact site on which Pei intended to place his museum was not specified, it was evident that the project was a challenge to the complex’s Chinese Renaissance Style; as suggested in Gropius’s review, the main concern was ‘to avoid having Chinese motifs of former periods added to public buildings in a rather superficial way as was done for many public buildings in Shanghai’.By employing the very specific theme of the Chinese garden, Pei could get away with erecting bare walls that would still be considered typically Chinese, while refraining from the colour and ornamentation of imperial architecture. In fact, the official publication of the Capital Plan of Nanjing in 1929 had identified precisely this possibility: the Chinese garden as an acceptable exception to the imperial language of the Chinese Renaissance Style. So Pei’s proposal fit in with the other buildings of the Civic Centre (and Nationalist ideology), despite its Modernist manner.

The museum was lower than the surrounding buildings, purportedly in order to accommodate the Chinese garden, but at the same time this questioned the grand architectural language in the Civic Centre. Pei placed the entrance halfway between the underground level and the surface level, connected by a Corbusian ramp that also echoed the narrow paths in Chinese gardens. In this case it led to an open courtyard, and this permeable structure of the building, inspired by the typical sense of connection of the Chinese garden, also achieved the visual experience of flowing space that had been explored by Modernists. Marble was used for the exterior, which, according to Pei, would ‘enhance the plastic and sculptural quality of the structure’ and elevate the design despite its relatively diminutive stature. The marble was also reminiscent of Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, indicating the universal aspirations of Pei’s design. Pei’s nonconformity to the plan suggested two aspects of progressiveness in his specific architectural context. First, it was an alternative expression of Chineseness from the political and nationalistic language of the Chinese Renaissance Style. Second, the design presented an example of Western Modernism for Shanghai that was far more modern than the integrated style of the surrounding new buildings.

IM Pei, Suzhou Museum, 2006

IM Pei, Suzhou Museum, 2006

Sixty years later, in 2006, Pei completed his Suzhou Museum – his return to China after his many international commissions. In fact it was also a return to the city of his birth, and the museum is located in the vicinity of the famous garden Shizilin, which had belonged to Pei’s family, and where as a child he absorbed Chinese architectural tradition.5 Though this time around Pei’s design seems more Postmodern, the building is nevertheless reminiscent of his Modernist graduation project. Walking through the galleries of porcelain, jade and textile collections, catching occasional glimpses of bamboos, rock formations and the lotus pond in the courtyard, you can experience the image of the Chinese garden that had guided Pei as early as at his graduation project – and which offered a way of building a Modernist Chinese architecture without lapsing into pastiche or fancy dress.


1. ‘Museum for Chinese Art, Shanghai’, Progressive Architecture, 28 February (1948): 50-52.

2. ‘Museum for Chinese Art, Shanghai’, 51.

3. Dayu Doon (Dong Dayou), ‘Greater Shanghai – Greater Vision’, The China Critic, vol, no 5, 103-106.

4. Jeffrey W Cody, Building in China: Henry K Murphy’s ‘Adaptive Architecture’, 1914-1935 (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2001), 1-16. Henry Killam Murphy, ‘An Architectural Renaissance in China: The Utilization in Modern Public Buildings of the Great Styles of the Past,’ Asia (1928), 468-507.

5. Ieoh Ming Pei and Gero von Boehm, Conversations with IM Pei: Light is the Key (Munich; London: Prestel, 2000), 17-20.

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