THIRTEEN’s American Masters explores the creative genius of I.M. Pei as he reshapes the future of architecture in China in I.M. Pei: Building China Modern, premiering March 31 on PBS
Film captures the visionary architect addressing the prevailing issue of modern
development, to reconcile tensions between modernity and tradition, through his
architectural journey in designing and building the Suzhou Museum in the oldest
neighborhood of a 2,500 year-old city.
Get to know other cultural artists at pbs.org/americanmasters.
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 Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe.
Entering into the twilight of his career and well into his eighties, 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.”
Premiering nationally on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 9 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local
listings), American Masters’s I.M. Pei: Building China Moder follows Pei on this
historic journey to define China’s architectural vision as it comes into its own on the world
stage. Post-broadcast, the film will stream online at pbs.org/americanmasters.
Currently in its 24th season, American Masters is a production of THIRTEEN in
association with WNET.ORG – one of America’s most prolific and respected public media
“I.M. Pei is an architectural poet – a living legend,” says Susan Lacy, series creator and
executive producer of American Masters, a seven-time winner of the Emmy Award for
Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series. “He’s among the league of rare American
masters whose artistic sensibilities have both provoked public debate and transformed our
notions of what is possible, of how tradition can be honored in the 21st century.”
The film captures Pei as he forges an architectural language that brings together Western
modernity and Eastern tradition into a current synthesis. After decades of living in the U.S.
and amassing unprecedented international acclaim for his projects, Pei returns as a
“foreigner” to his birth country to give a new direction for Chinese architecture in which
history can live in the midst of change. In effect, Pei, who has contributed to America’s urban
landscape during the height of its architectural and engineering power is now helping China
do the same. Few architects have played such a critical dual role.
With an agenda of change, Pei inevitably enters into a crucible of conflict in Suzhou. For
those concerned about the loss of traditional forms of architectural identity, he is too
modern. For those who would simply bulldoze China’s past, he is too tradition-minded.
Adding to the already complex assignment, he faces the controversy of displacing residents
living at the museum site. To meet the design challenges, Pei draws on ideas that stretch far
back within his own life and work – including a 1946 thesis project at Harvard, where he was
taught abstract modern architecture. Throughout his education and career, Pei maintains
his “impossible dream” to bring together modernity and traditional, regional influences
(including nature) in his work. Eight years in the making, American Masters’ I.M. Pei:
Building China Modern traces Pei’s pursuit of that dream and explores the defining
conflicts of our age – the lure of the modern versus the pull of history. The result is a
surprisingly revealing and intimate portrait of the man who set as his goal nothing less than
the redefinition of architecture in modern China.
American Masters’ I.M. Pei: Building China Modern is a co-production of
PACEM Distribution International, LLC and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in
association with South Carolina ETV (SCETV), the China Intercontinental Communication
Center (CICC), and The New River Education Fund, Inc. Eugene B. Shirley, Jr. is producer.
Anne Makepeace is director. Eugene B. Shirley, Jr. and Anne Shirley are executive
producers. Caroline Courtauld and Tom Parry are co-executive producers. Anne Makepeace
and Brian Funck are writers. Polly Kosko is executive-in-charge of production for SCETV.
Sally Jo Fifer is executive producer for ITVS. Susan Lacy is the series creator and executive
producer of American Masters.
American Masters is made possible by the support of the National Endowment for the
Arts and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding for American
Masters is provided by Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Jack
Rudin, Elizabeth Rosenthal in memory of Rolf W. Rosenthal, The André and Elizabeth
Kertész Foundation, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation, and public television viewers.
Major funding for American Masters’ I.M. Pei: Building China Modern is
provided by Shumei and its flagship cultural institution, the Miho Museum. Additional
funding for the program is provided by Kimball Chen, Alice King, Goldman Sachs (Asia) LLC,
Shirley Young, Paul B.J. & Phyllis S.Y. Chu Charitable Trust, Ambrose W.H. Lam, Elaine
Forsgate Marden, Grace Wu Bruce, Sir David Tang, Adeline Yen Mah and Robert A. Mah.
To take American Masters beyond the television broadcast and further explore the
themes, stories, and personalities of masters past and present, the companion Web site
(pbs.org/americanmasters) offers interviews, essays, photographs, outtakes, and other
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