I.M. Pei has been called the most important living modern architect, defining the landscapes of some of the world's greatest cities. A monumental figure in his field and a laureate of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, Pei is the senior statesman of modernism and last surviving link to such great early architects as Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe.

Entering into the twilight of his career and well into his eighties when the project began, Pei returns to his ancestral home of Suzhou, China to work on his most personal project to date. He is commissioned to build a modern museum in the city's oldest neighborhood which is populated by classical structures from the Ming and Qing dynasties. For the architect who placed the pyramid at the Louvre, the test to integrate the new with the old is familiar but still difficult. The enormous task is to help advance China architecturally without compromising its heritage. In the end, what began as his greatest challenge and a labor of sentiment, says Pei, ultimately becomes 'my biography.'

'An exceptional presentation of Pei's work in his hometown in China, full of poignant insights into contemporarily pressing issues regarding the preservation of local architectural culture in the face of universal modernization. The film is also an inspiring story regarding I.M. Pei, one of the truly good people in the business of architecture, a modest man who has had enormous impact on the evolution of modern architecture at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. The film tells a compelling story and imparts important lessons in a direct and yet easy manner that is all Pei's own. I found the film interesting, pertinent, and highly instructive. It has great educational potential, as well a strong general interest, as this combines a personal story and public message that deserves to be disseminated to the widest possible audience.' Robert McCarter, practicing architect, Professor of Architecture, Washington University in St. Louis, author, Louis I. Kahn and On and By Frank Lloyd Wright: A Primer of Architectural Principles

'This film is an accurate and poignant portrayal of I.M. Pei, one of America's greatest living architects. In documenting the development of one of Pei's last projects, the Suchow Museum in China, the film conveys the depth and refinement of Pei's architectural mission, developed over the past 70 years. Respecting the logic and beauty of structure, Pei uses this fundamental architectural component to shape the heroic spaces and places of each particular project. His extraordinary attention to the project's overall design concept as well as its delineation, has been a hallmark of his distinguished career, and represents a clear philosophical position on what it means to build thoughtfully in today's global culture.' Karen Van Lengen FAIA, Kenan Professor of Architecture, University of Virginia

'I.M. Pei: Building China Modern presents a story of master Pei integrating his architectural vision for a museum in his hometown in Shouzo, China. With the ideals and heritage of the people in mind he is able to define a small and significant act of true progress for the city. This film is concise and poignant in it's brief following of Pei's major late work. The film reveals Pei's achievement to influence new societies amidst a physical presence and history of dominating and imposed form.' Larry Santoyo, Director and Senior Planner, EarthFlow Design Works - a Permaculture Design Co

'I.M. Pei: Building Modern China is an in-depth look at I.M. Pei's return to his home city of Suzhou, seeking to define a new architecture for China in the design of the Suzhou Museum. Students and educators will be intrigued by the master modernist's discussion of his design process and execution, public opinion, and the unique challenges of adapting traditional styles into a modern architectural language. Especially fascinating is how Pei created modern counterpoint for the traditional rock gardens of Suzhou. This well crafted film is a wonderful case study of how to both define and enliven a place by unifying the past and present gracefully in architecture.' Melanie Clark, Librarian, Architecture Library, Texas Tech University

'This film describes I. M. Pei's emotional journey to Suzhou, his birthplace, which is shown in revealing vignettes. The filmmakers present sympathetically his creation of a museum there that is at once authentically Chinese and yet modern. An enlightening section about his new way of 'painting with rocks' will make especially clear his thoughtful way of trying to bridge the traditions.' Carol Krinsky, Professor of Art History, Director of Undergraduate Studies, New York University

'A moving and intimate portrayal of I.M. Pei's lifelong quest to define modern architecture that is true to its cultural roots. Building China Modern follows I.M. Pei's eight year journey and his challenges to define Chinese modern architecture in the Suzhou Museum--to make it, in his Chinese words, 'Su he xin,' meaning 'Suzhou yet new.'' Shirley Young, Governor and founding member, Committee of 100

'Thoroughly engaging and informative...Pei--wonderfully modest, suave, and charming but still forceful at 90--guides us expertly in perfect English and Chinese...This film is highly recommended for all libraries.' Library Journal

'Striving to balance architectural advancement with respect for the grandeur of China's heritage, Pei works on his most challenging--and most personal--task yet...Highly recommended.' The Midwest Book Review

'Its real subject is the rapid change sweeping China and the tensions between modernity concomitant with change...The filmmakers could not have found a better subject than Pei through which to tell this story of how one reconciles such tensions...[The film is] a loving tribute to a second-generation modernist.' Sharon McHugh, World Architecture News

'The film imparts a strong sense of both a person and a place, increasing the viewer's understanding of each...Very useful in courses concentrating on Pei or Asian architecture. It would also be of value in Asian Studies courses looking at the transition from traditional society to the modern world.' Sandy River, Texas Tech University, Educational Media Reviews Online


Main credits

Shirley, Eugene B. (film producer)
Makepeace, Anne (film director)
Makepeace, Anne (screenwriter)
Funck, Brian (screenwriter)
Pei, I. M. (interviewee)
Jencks, Charles (interviewee)
Cobb, John B. (interviewee)

Other credits

Director of photography, George Adams; edited by Brian Funck; music composed by Huang Ruo.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

Asian Studies
Urban Studies


architect, Suzhou, China, modern museum, modern Chinese architecture, modern architecture, Pritzker Architecture Prize, Corbusier, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, landscape gardens, pyramid, Ming dynasty, Qing dynasty, Louvre, Harvard Graduate School of Design, integrating modernity and tradition, Bank of China, Hong Kong, tile roofs, rock farming, Charles Jencks, John J. Cobb, James Watt,"I.M. PEI",Bullfrog Films

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