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I.M. Pei's Controversial Design Sees Suzhou Divided

The final design for the expansion of the Suzhou Museum submitted by renowned architect I.M. Pei is causing controversy. The respected Chinese-American architect has had his vision called into question before, for such seemingly incongruous structures as the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris.

The museum sits next to the Garden of the Humble Administrator built in the late 16th century by a Ming Dynasty official, which is valued for its beauty and cultural importance. When Li Xiucheng, a leader of the peasant uprising known as the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1851-1664), set up his headquarters in Suzhou in 1860, he ordered construction of a residence for his own use with the Garden of the Humble Administrator incorporated into it.

According to Pei's design, the expanded museum will encompass the entire complex of the Garden of the Humble Administrator, including Li Xiucheng's residence known as "Prince Zhong's Palace". Some structures within the palace will be demolished along with other residential buildings outside. The palace happens to be the best-preserved structure left from the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

The Garden of the Humble Administrator, the largest and one of the most beautiful in Suzhou, was added to UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage list in the 1990s, along with a dozen other ancient gardens in the city. "Much of the credit goes to its surroundings, in particular to Prince Zhong's Palace," says Professor Lin Yuanxiang, a senior advisor to the China World Cultural Heritage Research Committee. "Expansion under Pei's plan runs counter to the World Cultural Heritage Protection Pact that prohibits disruption of the harmony between cultural relics and their surroundings."

But Pei insists that his design is an innovation, "a challenge" to conventional architectural concepts. The 86-year-old architect was born in Guangdong but his ancestral home was in Suzhou, and he is eager to do something for the native city of his forebears.

Professor Lin Yuanxiang is vehemently opposed to the plan, insisting that the palace is important to the preservation and protection of the garden, even though it plays a supporting role to the more prominent garden. "If the museum has to be expanded, why not build a new one elsewhere? Can you imagine demolishing part of the Forbidden City in Beijing simply because Prospect Hill had to be expanded?" he argues. Prospect Hill, which faces the Forbidden City across a street, was an imperial resort during the Qing Dynasty and is now a park. To ensure that no damage is done to Prince Zhong's Palace, he is urging the Chinese Government to apply for its inclusion in the World Cultural Heritage listing.

Despite the controversy, the city government has approved Pei's plan, and construction is likely to start this month. Suzhou is already an internationally renowned tourist destination. According to a local official speaking on condition of anonymity, the city government expects the newly expanded museum to put Suzhou in the global spotlight thanks to I.M. Pei's involvement.

(China Daily HK Edition October 15, 2003)

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