Final challenge

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2003, 12:00am

This is the last and the most difficult challenge of my life.' That is how I.M. Pei, 86, the world's most famous ethnic Chinese architect, described the task of designing the new wing of the Suzhou Museum.

The city announced last week that work would begin on Mr Pei's design in October, covering an area of 10,750 square metres, and be completed in 2005 at a cost of 347 million yuan (HK$326 million).

It was a coup for the city government to persuade Mr Pei to take the assignment - 12 years after his retirement - and only his fourth in China, after the Fragrant Hills Hotel in Beijing and the two Bank of China buildings, in Hong Kong and Beijing.

He accepted the job because Suzhou is his ancestral home. He was born in Guangzhou and spent just three months in Suzhou as a teenager before going to study in the United States in 1935, where he became one of the world's most famous architects, designing, for example, the glass pyramid in the Louvre in Paris.

He signed the contract in Suzhou in April last year, saying: 'Although my ancestors come from Suzhou, I have not lived there for a long time and my understanding of its culture is very superficial.'

On his return to New York, he buried himself in books and paintings of the history of Suzhou and had 30,000 documents sent to him by the city.

He completed his design at the end of November, consisting of several courtyards built around a garden.

But the question remains as to why such an eminent architect has done so little work in his native country, which has constructed more buildings in the past 25 years than in the previous 5,000.

According to one explanation, when he returned to see the Fragrant Hills Hotel in Beijing several years after its construction, he was angry to see the poor state of maintenance and badly dressed waiters stubbing cigarettes on the carpet. He is also said to have been upset at the demolition of most of the ancient city of Beijing.