The Suzhou Museum: Looks Like Masonry … Sounds Like Fiberboard

On Sunday I found myself in Suzhou with a few hours to kill, and so I decided to spend a little time at the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum. Opened in October 2006, the building has received mostly warm reviews partly predicated (I believe) on the belief that the structure might be Pei’s last commission. At the same time, the Museum complex was designed to complement – and update – the traditional white stucco walls and gray tile roofs that define Suzhou’s unique architectural heritage. As Pei told the International Herald Tribune:

Instead of gray tile roofs, I needed something that would develop volumes … [S]o I let the walls climb onto the roof. If the walls were stucco, why not the roof?

The result looks like this:

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On Sunday, I paused beside those stucco-like walls, ran my hand along their surface, and – sensing something weird – I knocked upon them with my knuckles, as if I was knocking on a door. The response was a hollow, sharp, thump – the very sound that I’d expect if I was knocking on a large sheet of wood hung over an empty space. To say the least, this was an unexpected result. And, just to make sure that it wasn’t an anomalous one, I walked around the museum, knocked on exterior and interior walls (I know: I must have looked nuts), and found the same result throughout the structure. That is to say: the exterior and interior walls of I.M. Pei’s Suzhou Museum aren’t made of stucco, brick, concrete, or any of the other classic materials and methods used for centuries in Suzhou. Instead, they’re mostly likely made of some kind of painted fiberboard (there isn’t a tree outside of California’s national parks capable of providing solid sheets big enough for those walls) that is anchored to a solid core by some kind of bracketing.

This is odd. After all, as anyone who has lived in China can attest, poured concrete is the building material of choice in China. It’s cheap (as a a method and material) and it’s been utilized for centuries. In Suzhou, where masonry is a design principle and a way of life, it’s hard to find a building that isn’t built from poured concrete walls and/or simple masonry – especially those that are of traditional design, or derived from it. So why on Earth wasn’t the Suzhou Museum built that way, too?

This morning I allowed myself a twenty-minute google search to determine whether anyone else has commented upon the museum’s construction materials, or whether, perhaps, Pei or his firm preferred fiberboard to masonry and stucco. In both cases, I have been unsuccessful – even though the Museum has been open for more than a year. Still, I have a hard time believing that I am the first person to notice, much less, comment on this. So, it may be the case that I am simply incapable of appreciating the advantages of fiberboard over masonry (much less, finding other commentaries on the same subject). Or, perhaps, others are just too polite and/or afraid to take note of the fact that the walls of Pei’s likely last commission will begin rotting in a few years (I noticed the black streaks of leak in several places throughout the complex). Or, most likely, nobody wants to ask what masonry would have cost, compared to fiberboard, and why the money wasn’t appropriated, or where it went, if it was. But really – could masonry be that much more expensive than fiberboard? Could Suzhou be so cheap? Could I.M. Pei and/or his firm be so careless? I’d love to have answers to any or all of these questions.

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Anyway, if I’m totally off-base here, I hope somebody will either comment, or send an email explaining why. I’ll be happy to post any reasonable information providing an explanation for the choice of materials used in this important building complex.

[UPDATE: A couple of quick hits. First, Ding comments that the museum cost RMB 339 million. If that statistic is accurate, then I am even more curious as to why the Suzhou Museum didn’t use masonry instead of fiberboard or whatever it is that’s covering the empty spaces in the interior and exterior walls. That’s an astonishing amount of money for a rather modest complex – in China.

Second, via China Law Blog, an interesting recent post by Wangjianshuo in which he asks, of China, “Are we afraid of grace and beauty?” and “Where are the beautiful places we built recently?” He offers two answers to the latter question, one of which is: the Suzhou Museum.

I agree with Wang: the Suzhou Museum is beautiful. But, alas, it is also tragic because – like so many recent buildings in China – it was built cheap, and won’t last.]

7 thoughts on “The Suzhou Museum: Looks Like Masonry … Sounds Like Fiberboard

  1. increasting article
    but alothough you are in Shanghai, you never can understand what the profound meaning of Suzhou Museum.
    it is a life style and chinese tradition sphere in that museum.
    it is prefect.

  2. Vickey – Thanks much for the comment. I hope that my post didn’t suggest that I don’t like the design of the museum. In fact, I like it very much, indeed. Though I am not in Suzhou, or Chinese, I think that I appreciate the distinctly and profoundly Chinese elements that Pei utilized. My disappointment is that the contractor did not respect the design by using the best materials and methods to build it. My fear is that – because it is the victim of sub-standard construction quality – it will not age well. A pity.

  3. Come on….it’s China, this is true of all chinese buildings not just IM Pei’s museum, the bigger problem is they seldom use control joints to control the cracking, and usually very poor waterproofing measures. So you’re exactly right these materials will only last a few years then have to be re-finished. This is a problem with concrete construction it is not flexible and unforgiving, therefore it cracks. And it is unfortunate that such a prominate structure couldn’t have beed the material it needed to pass the test of time.

  4. March 31, 2010 — I just watched the PBS feature on IMPei’s Suzhou Museum. Much is said about the fact that Pei did not want to use tiles for the roofs. Curious to learn if not tiles, then what? I went to Google. Your article (Google: Shanghai Scrap of 12/19/07) states that the walls were made of fiberboard, and eventually leaking will be a problem. You quote Pei as saying:” If the walls were stucco, why not the roof?” So: my question is: is the roof of stucco, or if not, of what? If you have visited the Museum since you wrote of it in Dec.07, is it leaking yet?

  5. D. Doar:

    First, thank you for mentioning the PBS feature – that explains the sudden rush of traffic to this two-year-old post.

    In answer to your question: the roof is sometimes glass (natural light is an feature in some of the galleries and hallways), and sometimes steel (steel panels that appear to have been fitted to the super-structure).

    I last visited the museum about a year ago, and I don’t recall seeing any leaks at the time. But I wasn’t looking, either. It was a quick trip.

    The rumor in Shanghai and elsewhere is that the Pei family was/is frustrated by the quality of the construction, and they remain concerned about the long-term viability of the building. I guess we’ll see.

  6. I noticed the wall too when I visited the Suzhou Museum last year,It’s really wield .In a documentary L.M Pei referred to the Xiangshan Hotel he built several years before.the roof of the hotel is covered with tiles.As years go by,the tiles cracked and the rain can leak into the room.So he substitute the tiles with granite this time,and he said the durable years will be at least 50 years,so I speculate he must have take the rain into account.Maybe the shell have been processed to prevent the moisture from penetrating through the wall.In Suzhou it’s very hard to keep the white wall constantly brand new because of the the rain containing dust and graffiti.It should be easier to replace if it’s mend of stucco.
    actually the Suzhou museum is not the Pei’s last commission, he just give his son some suggestion.and he took several jobs after that.all his job is almost the same shape,I would like to call this lazy rather than style,but deeply in my mind,I think the building is very classic,some landmark built followed the museum ,such as the newly-built Suzhou train station embody some components of the museum .

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