I.M. Pei in Suzhou and Beyond

The second of our remembrances focuses on the architect I.M. Pei, who passed away this week. A true champion of modernism worldwide, I have admired his work both from afar and close up.

Perhaps the most vivid memory with his work was from the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. It may not be his best known work, but it is a masterpiece in itself and a love letter to his hometown.

The exterior facade combines Pei’s trademark geometry and minimalism with more the more traditional designs and tropes of an adjacent palace and Suzhou’s famous gardens. It also makes extensive use of water as an architectural element both inside and outside the building.

The simple geometric shapes, as well as the use of water, stone, and glass, gave the entire complex a very warm and welcoming feeling, even as the rain came down around me. Inside, the simplicity of the galleries left ample mental space to enjoy the exhibits and artifacts, while the atrium was a work of art itself.

I admire the way he often brought modernist aesthetics and principles to traditional spaces. This is perhaps most dramatically seen in his glass pyramid that anchors the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Napoleon courtyard of the Louvre museum at night time, with Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid in the middle. Benh LIEU SONG [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The pyramid is perfect, a stark contrast to the severe facades around it, and perfectly balanced in size and space. While I know many traditionalists have hated on this addition over the years, I for one love it. I am an unapologetic modernist and often find myself sparring with traditionalists even here in San Francisco.

Pei’s modernism was intended to integrate with its surroundings, even as it stood in contrast to it. For example, he wanted his stark geometric design for the Mesa Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (U.S.A.) to look “as if it were carved out of the mountain”.

Until reading others’ tributes and remembrances, I had forgotten about his role in the Javits Center in New York, a building I am quite familiar with both inside and out. It is a massive and imposing structure but crisscrossed with triangular details that remind me of the Suzhou Museum (built 20 years later). The project was plagued by challenges and controversies, and “during the inauguration ceremonies, however, neither [James] Freed nor Pei was recognized for their role in the project.” [source]

Jim.henderson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Triangles do seem to be a major recurring theme in his work, and perhaps part of why it appeals to me even within the scope of other modernists. Triangles are powerful and strong, and the often stand out in Western spaces dominated by rectangles. These elements also played a role East Building for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., a project is loved by many, but similar to the Louvre, criticized by some traditionalists.

The building is a masterpiece of minimalism. Even some of those traditionalist critics have grown to love it in the years since it opened in 1978. And it serves its purpose, both as a home to art and a work of art itself.

The growing popularity of art museums presented unique challenges to the architecture. Mellon and Pei both expected large crowds of people to visit the new building, and they planned accordingly. To this end, he designed a large lobby roofed with enormous skylights. Individual galleries are located along the periphery, allowing visitors to return after viewing each exhibit to the spacious main room. A large mobile sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder was later added to the lobby.[93] Pei hoped the lobby would be exciting to the public in the same way as the central room of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The modern museum, he said later, “must pay greater attention to its educational responsibility, especially to the young.”[94]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei#National_Gallery_East_Building,_Washington,_DC

Defending modernism, even after a century, remains a tireless job. As we lose champions like I.M. Pei, it falls to those of us in later generations to make sure this beauty is preserved and celebrated.

Weekend Cat Blogging and Photo Hunt: Foreign

This week’s Photo Hunt theme is foreign. Cats often intersect with my foreign travels, and with the objects that I bring home. Consider the Suzhou painting silk cat and Maneki Neko from Japan in the photo below:

We have seen these items before, in discussions of cats of China and the cats of Tokyo, respectively.

Here, we see Luna near some of our art pieces:

Most of these, including the large watercolor on the left and small metal sculpture, are local. However, the mostly yellow geometric print is foreign. It is by a Cuban artist. I visited Cuba twice in 2001 and purchased this print in the town of Matanzas. The topic of visiting Cuba as an American (and the entire U.S. policy towards Cuba) could fill up an entire article.

Sometimes one may assume something is foreign when it is in fact not. Consider this photo of Luna from December:

The title may be in French and evoke a bygone era in Paris, but it is actually the work of an American artist, Ken Bailey.

We close with some more maneki neko figures:

All of the cat figurines in this photo are from Japan. There is one more cat, however, on the matchbox. This is not foreign, and created by a local artist.


A sad note this weekend. Gattina and family, who regularly host “Cats on Tuesday”, said farewell to their cat Lisa this week. Lisa was a little over eighteen years old, which is a good long life for a cat.  We send them our thoughts.


Weekend Cat Blogging #248 is hosted by Meowza at his blog iMeowza.

Photo Hunt 203: Foreign is hosted by tnchick.

The Carnival of the Cats will be hosted this Sunday by Nikita Cat at meowings of an opinionated pussycat. We also wish Nikita a happy birthday this weekend!

And of course the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

Suzhou Museum and Zhong Wang Fu

On Saturday morning, I visited the Suzhou Museum. I have been in the area around the museum, which includes the old canals and the Humble Administrator’s Garden, but never had the time until now to venture inside.

The museum is more a culture and heritage museum than an art museum. Its collection is primarily traditional Chinese items, though it does have a contemporary art wing as well. For me, however, the main attraction was the building itself. It was designed by the architect I. M. Pei, whose family has long resided in Suzhou.

The museum’s architecture incorporates the shapes and elements the adjacent traditional gardens and palaces, including its own gardens, pools and rockeries, but stripping away the ornaments and focusing on the lines and geometry. This extends to the interior as well:

Overall, the architecture and design of the museum was quite photogenic, and readers should look for more examples in future photo series, and of course “Wordless Wednesday.”

One exhibit recreated a traditional Chinese study, and suggest that traditional elements of Chinese design can fit very easily into a modern context:

I wish my office looked like that.

I did take some time to see a few of the traditional artifacts, including several examples of animal figures such as this black-and-white jade cat:

Before the new museum building opened in 2006, it was housed in the neighboring Zhong Wang Fu, a traditional Chinese mansion with gardens and courtyards. The grounds and buildings have been restored and remain open to the public:

One can observe which elements were incorporated into the new building, and which ones were not.

Suzhou Canal

This a view looking down on of the many canals that crisscross Suzhou, China. On the previous trip, I primarily explored the canals at night. During the day, one can see how the older buildings line up against the edges. Some are elevated, while others have platforms that descend to the water level.

Fun with Highways: Chinese Edition

Well, it has been a while since I have done a “fun with highways” post here at CatSynth, so why not visit some of the highways I traveled while in China?

Shanghai has a series of highways, most of which are designated with the letter “A” followed by a number:

A20, (12) A2 to Donghai Bridge Exit 2km and A1-Pudong Airport overhead signage
[photo by ramonyu]

During my trip, I became quite acquainted with the A11 (Huning Expressway) that connects Shanghai to Suzhou and beyond. However, one cannot really view either city from the A11. Nor can one really see the details of the delta region. It’s just a big highway traversing sprawling suburban development like one can see in many parts of the U.S.

By contrast, the A9 extends into the center of Shanghai as the Yan’an Elevated Road. Shanghai makes a distinction between “expressways” and “elevated roads”, though I don’t really see much difference.

The elevated roads are multi-lane freeways, and the Yan’an cuts right through the downtown of the city, closely paralleling the pedestrian thoroughfare Nanjing Road and People’s Square, before ending at The Bund along the river.

Yan'an Elevated Road Next Exit The Bund 1.5 km and Tunnel overhead signage in Shanghai, China
[photo by ramonyu]

Essentially, it parallels a major part of my walking tour only a few blocks away.

Photographer Liao Yusheng has a fantastic series of architectural and landscape photos along the Yun’an Elevated Road, along with this description:

Yan’an is part of a sprawling elevated highway system in the heart of Shanghai that epitomizes the gung-ho mega public-works projects that are going on all over China at the moment. This is a six-lane highway that is literally jammed into the middle of a densely packed modern city. Hundreds of thousands of families were displaced and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to make this happen. In forcing this monstrosity onto an already fully-developed (yet still evolving) megalopolis, Shanghai has created a conduit with which to examine the multilayered texture that makes up this city.

I only discovered his work in preparing this article, but it was a great find and reminds me of my own urban and architectural photography. I encourage readers to check it out!

The story does remind me of the highway development in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, where entire neighborhoods were demolished to build, among others, the Cross Bronx and Bruckner Expressways. Somehow, we often end up back there.

I did also find that China has it’s own highway enthusiasts, including the blogger Wang Jian Shuo.

Weekend Cat Blogging: Cats of China

This weekend, we visit the cats of my recently concluded trip to China.

Suzhou is renowned for its silk. The climate is particularly suited to silkworm cultivation (though one would not think so given the freezing temperatures during this trip), and the city has long been a center for both production and craft. Cats are a common motif on the “two-sided” embroidered silk paintings of Suzhou:

Outside the Suzhou Number One Silk Factory, I encountered this stray cat running through the parking lot.

Cat in Suzhou, near the Number One Silk Factory

In Shanghai, I saw this cat in a clothing shop on Dingxi Road:

Dingxi Road is a commercial street in an outer neighborhood, not far from Zhongshan Park and completely devoid of foreigners. The shops that line the street cater to local residents, and the clothing shop where I encountered the cat was no exception. I think the shop’s owner was surprised and delighted to encounter a foreigner – and more surprisingly, a scruffy “white guy” – who was interested in cats. On the other hand, I think the cat was a bit annoyed by the attention and would prefer to sleep:

Some things are the same everywhere.


We are spanning continents, as Weekend Cat Blogging #190 hosted by Kashim at Paulchens FoodBlog in Vienna.

In the far away state of Florida, Pet and the Bengal Brats host the Bad Kitty Cats Festival of Chaos.

The Carnival of the Cats will be hosted this weekend by the House Panthers (of which Luna is a member).

And of course the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

Suzhou Humble Adminstrator’s Garden and Tiger Hill

In addition to its many canals, Suzhou is famous as one of the major centers of classical Chinese gardens. Perhaps the largest and best known is the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

The garden is about 13 acres and about 500 years old (at least one site suggests it is exactly 500 years old, having been built in 1509). The “humble administrator” was a government official Wang Xianchen, who clearly could not have been that humble with a spread like this. It is interesting to note that gardens such as these were almost always private, and the idea of maintaining them is relatively recent.

The elements of the garden include the plants, water, architecture (much of it the more minimalist and geometric Ming Dynasty style) and rocks, such as the lakebed rocks in the photo above. The natural and geometric elements fuse in a way that seems very fresh and modern, and one can see where many twentieth century artists, architects and designers may have gotten their inspiration.

This is the sort of place where I could easily get lost in the visual elements for a long time.

But of course we had to move on. We next visited one of Suzhou’s other well-known landmarks, Tiger Hill. The highest point in the city, Tiger Hill was originally the site of a king’s tomb, and later a Buddhist monastery and temple.

Although this photo makes the pagoda at the top of the hill look perfectly straight, it is actually leaning quite strongly to one side:

Supposedly, it is the many attempts over the years to locate and excavate the tomb in the hill that has led to the weakening of the ground below the tower and its severe tilt. The entrance to the tomb was finally discovered in the 1960s in pool lower on the hillside during a sever drought. However, it has remained unexcavated, lest the tower tilt even further.

The top of the hill supposedly provides a spectacular view of Suzhou, but with the dense winter fog I was not able to see very much.

Suzhou Grand Canal at Night

So far most of my touring has been at night. That will change over the weekend, but meanwhile here are some nighttime images from the Grand Canal in Suzhou. The city is crisscrossed by a network of canals, one of many things for which it is famous.

The architecture of the bridges and buildings along the canal range from very traditional, as in the above photograph, to more modern. In all cases, however, things are always brightly lit with colored lights here. Even the trees are bathed in a green glow.

The Grand Canal forms a loop that circles the old city, and one can observe segments of the old city wall and the towers just beyond it.

Here is a more modern building along the bank of the canal. It blends the geometric modern features that regular readers of CatSynth know I am fond of with more traditional elements.

Daytime will provide different view of the city entirely. The large buildings and their lights which are so prominent at night fade into the background, while the more modest homes that come down to the edge of the water become visible, as do the city’s famous gardens.

Sunrise over Suzhou

Sunrise overlooking a lake and causeway in Suzhou, China.

The moment of the photo reflects the sights and sounds of any large city in the morning, and that is comforting. Of course, everything is written in Chinese.