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From Modernization to Liberalization

A Historical critique of the Fragrant Hill Hotel

Essay for Media Architectural Theory WS 16/17 Bauhaus-University Weimar

Prof. Dr. Ines Weizman Juniorprofessur Architekturtheorie Fakultät Architektur und Urbanistik

Weiwei Liang Student number: 116699 Weimar, March 2017

1. Abstract

2. Background of the Missionary

2.1 the Social Background

2.2 Return to China

3. Description of the Fragrant Hill Hotel

3.1 Site plan

3.2 Architecture and Garden

3.3 the Elements in the Garden

4. The Shaping of an Architect

4.1 Impact from Childhood

4.2 Life in the United States

5. Historical Critique of the Building

5.1 Criticality in China and the West

5.2 Critical Context

6. Bibliography






At the end of 1970s, I.M.Pei, the Chinese-American architect who left for the United States since 1935, was invited to design a high-rise building in the grand Forbidden City, which at that time the communist China eager to express the international and heroic image. However, in the end the Fragrant Hill Hotel with low-laying structure and in a traditional garden emerged in the imperial hunting preserve. In 1970s the significant time in China such as the relieving of confrontation with the west, and the modernization program assumed by Deng Xiaoping, provide the social environment to the development of a social landscape. Since the first total openness in such a traditional old country, modernism and indigenous cosmopolitanism had began as Migration from the West in China. This paper describes how a Chinese-American architect at this background pursued to find a new Chinese architectural language, why was the Fragrant Hill Hotel unlike any buildings with relentless geometry and crisp planarity those he had done before, and why it is nowadays still full of critiques and even Pei had said, “it is the most tortuous thing I’ve ever done.”

Background of the Missionary

The Social Background

The modern and contemporary Architecture of China have emerged and developed in such a relative short time swiftly, in a social and political context, designs and buildings sphere emerged in historical environment. After the Second World War and the civil war, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese communist party, the architecture was influenced from the relation between the Profession and the state authorities. After the influence of Russian in the 1950s, socialist functionalism in the 1960s and 1970s, short period political expressionism in the early 1970s, came the dynamic transformation because of the introduced reform and open door polities by Deng Xiaoping’s leadership.


  In order to prove the Chinese emerging role in t the international community, the Chinese government intent to build a group of high-rise buildings and the most of all was to be a hotel in the center of Beijing – the Forbidden City. I.M.Pei, the Chinese-American architect was invited to deign such a flagship in 1978, because largely of the international impact of the East Building of National Gallery in 1974.

Return to China

Before this invitation Pei has been twice in his homeland since leaving for the United States in 1935. During the AIA tour, a cultural exchange tour organized by the American Institute of Architect, Pei returned to China for the first time after 30 years. He was warmly treated with extraordinary luxuries. Once millions of Chinese had left their homeland because of the war or the searching of betterment. “Now the Chinese government was pragmatic and treated those oversea Chinese as resource.” Pei said to explain. During the Tour what he had saw gave him a deep impression. Even though the social and economy class what he had been born had gone, the observation of the material illness let him to against “slavishly following Eastern European patterns ”. He suggested his countrymen to treasure their own tradition as inspiration to modernization.

After four years Pei was asked by the Chinese again to back home. In view of this accumulated international impact of the East Building National Gallery, he was invited to make a speech on city planning and architecture. To react the eager of Chines government for the plan, high-rises in the center of Beijing, he reaffirmed his stand and concerned that the tall buildings in the capital would destroy the particular visibility of the courtyards.

During the course of his third visit back to China, this time the Chinese government suggested him to bring his family to spend the Christmas in 1978. When they arrived, they were entertained warmly by many Chinese high officials and a large of reporters. The Chinese announced without Pei’s warnings of the high-rise issue, they would like him to design a group of tall buildings as hotel for the tourism campaign. Indeed, Pei said, “ I didn’t want to commit a crime. That would destroy the tranquility.” This time the Chinese accepted his opposition and they had another choice. They told Pei the site could be out of the city center,

where was the imperial hunting preserve, is about twenty kilometers apart from the Forbidden City. After visiting the site, Pei decided gladly to build a hotel in the old imperial hunting garden.

Description of the Fragrant Hill Hotel

Site plan

The site investigation was immediately taken. The Fragrant Hill is an imperial garden at the foot of the Western Mountains in Haidian District, in the northwest of Beijing. It was also formerly known as Jingyi Palace or \"Jingyiyuan\". It covers 1.6 km2 (395 acres) and consists of a natural pine-cypress forest, hills with maple trees, smoke trees and persimmon trees. Steep slopes can be found all around the hill. Large of the evergreen in the preserve are over hundreds of years old. When the leaves of the exuberant trees turn to blazing red in the autumn, the whole of the hill would be the most awesome scene.


   Bird view of the Fragrant Hill Hotel, 1990, Marc Ribond


  Architecture and Garden

The type of this building and such a small scale for Pei may not be the normal he had ever drawn, but the problems he was in front of are more than the scale thing. He wanted to find a new method, which involves different vocabulary of language, to embark on the design of the hotel. Of course he could have utilize what he had trained and experienced in Western Modernism but that was not he sought for. On the other hand the indigenous architecture with modern structure were promoted by the government and also extended by the vernacular architects, which may be called “neo-national style”. The Chinese form may those historic imperial palaces and temples with specific traditional elements, and combined with post-modern influences. Pei was looking for the third way, without employing the Chinese roof on the palaces and temples, and turned to the vernacular textures. He investigated to know the bests what was already be there. So he decided to make trips throughout China, particularly in the Southern China such as Hangzhou, Suzhou, Yangzhou and Wuxi. He also visited his family’s former villa in Suzhou.

In course of those trips, Pei realized the clues he wanted could not be founded in the centuries-old architecture of the emperors, instead, in the traditional residential Chinese houses. The conception to begin might be thought to the Pei family former villa in Suzhou, where Pei had spent the childhood with his siblings and provide the basic form for The Fragrant Hill Hotel. The first important consideration is the relationship of buildings and the garden. In the Fragrant Hill Hotel, the buildings and garden are from an organic whole in accordance with the principle of harmony nature, they play a role in a balance. Neither was more or less than the other. In this sense, it is a point of the relationship between enclosure and opening. It can be seen from the ground plan, in order to preserve the old trees in the imperial garden, Pei got the rational to design the rambling floor plan he had visited and so admired in his former villa in Suzhou.


   First ground plan, 1990, Nathaniel Lieberman Pei had confronted the first difficulty, which demands natural setting for the Fragrant Hill Hotel. The Chinese government required that should be preserved as many as possible, since they were so powerful presence. So to begin his design Pei investigated a detailed survey. The trees consist of cypress, chestnut, cedar, pine and ginko. The team labored to draw the layout with each tree and pointed out which tree were either not healthy or small enough to move. Finally the layout

with preservation of the trees meets the demand of the client.

Though all the elements in the floor plan is not rambling, the one he created

was a meandering composition accommodated with the enclosure or half enclosure courtyard, the plan wrapped around those interior courtyard at the base of the hill. The hotel building itself, with 325 guest rooms was to be centered on a four-story central atrium and 11,000-square-foot main reception space.

The main entrance and the views through the windows were manipulated like those in Suzhou villas. The “borrowing” views are those one saw through the picture frame of the openings on the wall. At the entrance he erected a traditional screen wall to provide a glimpse of all the way through the room. The aim of this ornamental screen as Suzhou gardens was to reveal only part of the element at a time to create a continuing series of narrative visual process. Openings of various shapes in walls drew the visitors on to view the continuing scenery.

The central atrium behind the lobby was covered by glass and metal rods, which functioned in many ways like the large interior court in his East Building of the National Gallery, which were meant to diffuse the light coming through the glass roof. The atrium provides a focus orientation space for the more intimate rooms around it.


   Atrium, 1990, Marc Ribound The walls of the Fragrant Hill Hotel were out of off-white stucco over reinforced concrete. Because of the lack of the technology condition locally at that time, the

color Pei wanted can only be made in the United States and transported.

After the basic design Pei turned to focus on the rest of the garden with great help by Chen Congzhou- the significant authority on the Chinese garden. To the


  garden as mentioned above, was wrapped and linked to the architectures. The ancient trees were compositional elements for small gardens as a series of interior courtyards. Artificial hills, trees, rocks, ponds are all necessary. The key to design the garden is the arrangement of the all the elements above.

Pei and Chen both agreed that besides the ancient trees, the water maze on the site should also be preserved, which is one of the only five remaining in China. “Water maze” was out of an ancient legend. A group of poets were sitting by the countryside stream for entertainment. Each of them would set a cup of wine in a saucer and allow it to float down the shallow and slow-moving waterway. Each poet would in turn to compose a poem in the time it took the wine to cover a prescribed distance. Pei rehabilitated the water maze to serve as a centerpiece for the architectural composition.

Because of the prominent role rockery played in a garden, they were to be positioned taking account into the water maze. Pei selected the rocks by chance on a photograph of the spectacular rocks in the southwest China that would be better than the available ones locally. So the rocks in Yunnan province were in the caravan of railroad cars, they hauled all 230 tons; the distance is 1,500 miles to the fragrant Hill Hotel. The water and rocks were created as a final touch for the composition. Water gave contrast to the rocks and provided a mirrored image of the objects.

All the efforts to such a right sculptured effect are a main characteristic of the east philosophy that represents a reverence for time and continuity. The Fragrant Hill Hotel with the low-lying structure zigged and zagged across its natural site. Walking through the zigzag way one can noticed the windows and doors were arranged as if it is framed a painted version of the natural picture that lay beyond, which is better to provide much variety of the views, instead of a straight or level span.

The Elements in the Garden

Although the design of the buildings and garden were complete, the work of construction met a lot of problems. Pei wanted to utilize the traditional dark gray brick. They told him this kind of brick was no longer manufactured. With a good


  luck Pei finally found a craftsman who still knew the technique for making the brick and would happily to provide enough for the construction.

This Western firm was the first major one to design such a significant building in China since her openness to the whole world. The Pei’s office worked very hard and Pei had his own strong enthusiasm. With the motive of searching the truth for China, Pei worked in details with an excitement. Despite the restoration of normal diplomatic, and the cultural tie to the West, the reality of far behind technology. The project spent plenty of manpower to work, relying on the hand rather than machinery with the low quality material. Contrast to such a project in the United States, would have required 200 workers, but there were 3000 laborers at the Fragrant Hill Hotel project working on hand.

As the project progressed, it did not go better. The difficulties appeared between the architects and the laborers. After a meeting with the Chines official Pei got even totally angry because of the bureaucrats. The day before the opening of the Fragrant Hill Hotel, Pei and his wife Eileen had even to help with scrubbing the floor in last rooms. Unfortunately the Fragrant Hill Hotel was not taken care as the architect had thought. Because of the restriction of the historical condition, the Chinese were doing the things in their own way. As Pei said to an interviewer that, “It’s not like putting a child in an orphanage where he is beaten. They are not doing the wrong thing on purpose. They are taking care of the hotel their own way. But the people running it did not have the sensibility: they are once removed from farms and trenches. And the bureaucrats refuse to let it go, but they don’t know haw to do it.” Even though in the days to come Pei was several times invited to go back to the Fragrant Hill Hotel to visit, he turned down the invitation from the Chinese.

The reasons for the architect doesn\'t want to return to visit might be as follow: Besides the struggle, the difficulties he met on the project, it was more painful for him that what he made effort to conceive with extraordinary enthusiasm, actually did not attract the Chinese architects. The young architects were more interested in the Post-modernists like Michael Graves than the interest on Pei.


  The Shaping of an Architect

Impact from Childhood

Throughout his life before he returned to China, what became the Fragrant Hill Hotel might not only because of the childhood he experienced in Suzhou. The impact from his teachers in his early academic years in the United States devoted also to his search for the Chinese modern architecture.

“The record of our Family in Suzhou is six hundred years old... I remember particularly well playing with cousins of my age in the family garden known as Shizilin, the‚ Forest of Stone Lions, the particular place I remember in that garden, are the caves in the rocks, the stone bridges, the ponds and waterfalls... ” In contrast to French gardens, Chinese gardens are designed for the scholars, painters, poets.

As he was a child, Pei’s mother had twice taken him on religious retreats. Pei recalled,“ I could hear the bamboo growing in the groves nearby. ” Pei’s relationship with his mother was very close.

As a son of an archcapitalist banker Pei was followed his family from Canton to Hong Kong, because of the political influence they moved to Shanghai, where he had spent his academic year in Saint John’s Middle School, where so many young people wanted to study abroad and one day come back to improve China’s Modernization. Shanghai was really advanced even better than Hong Kong at that time and regarded as the metropolis in Asia. He can still remember the progress of construction of the twenty-three stories Park Hotel in Shanghai, which gave a deep impression to the young man. He recalled later, that it was one of the reasons why he chose architecture as his career.

During the time in Saint John’s Middle School, Pei was interested in Betty Grable’s pictures and Bing Crosby’s film. Through those images he could see the American university life. “As one of the better student, he started to read Bible and some of Dickens in English. In 1935, at the age of seventeen he prepared to leave for the United States.”


  Life in the United States

Pei was to start his architecture study in Philadelphia, the university of Pennsylvania. However, his experience there was quite short, because the basic system in Penn at that time like the most other American university is the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which “is a strict course of study that relied heavily on the great plaster casts of Greece and Classical orders.” He was frustrated when found that such drawing thins was not what he wanted and he was totally against. Later he decided to quit becoming an architect, but transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied engineering.

In the fall of 1935, he arrived at MIT. William Emerson, the dean of architecture school found Pei’s design talent and urged him to return to architecture. Nerveless, the study form in MIT is just like Penn’s- also based on the Beaux-Arts. “I still wasn’t excited by design, and there was something lacking in the teaching,” Pei said, “I spent most of my time in the library at the latest work from Europe, especially what Le Corbusier was doing. It was the library that saved me.” However, “MIT taught me something which I will always be grateful,” Pei told an interviewer in 1985, “ that is a real understanding of what technology stands for - to know really that what technologists and scientists are looking for is very much the same as what architects are looking for. ”

When Pei won a competition that held by MIT and Harvard, he realized something different in Harvard, but William Emerson was against for. There, Walter Gropius had arrived and recently as chairman of the architecture department. In December of 1942, Pei pursued for architecture master’s degree at the GSD in Harvard. During his whole time in the university Pei still intended to return to China after the war, but his father suggested him to go on his life in the United States. He did so.

In 1945 he returned to Harvard to resume his study. With the leading by Gropius and Marcel Breuer, the faculty, the Graduate School of Design offer the most innovative and forward-looking thinking of the European Modern movement, which “Walter Gropius in 1912 created an institution and intended to bring together artists, craftsman, and architecture as equal collaborators.” In the 1940s, under Gropius, young student like Pei was hopeful for the new design. “Only later did I


  begin to understand that you had to develop a plan spatially to create architecture. But it was a wonderful discipline to have to on the essentials.” During a discussion of the International Style with Gropius, Pei was being told, “I’m not disagreeing with you, but I want you to prove it.” Then he designed an art museum in Shanghai.

In an article published in Progress Architecture in February of 1948, Gropius wrote, “We tried then to find out how the character of Chinese architecture could be expressed without imitating such form motifs of former periods...” Pei’s Shanghai art museum showed the devices of form to combine the Chinese tradition and post- Bauhaus modernity. Gropius declared, “We decided the bare Chinese wall, so evident in various periods of Chinese architecture, and the small individual garden patio were two eternal features...” In Pei’s project, the two stories museum was sunk to a half layer to provide the central tea garden enclosed by the walls and a view from outside into it. This student project under Gropius demonstrated an early concern for combining architecture and nature in a mutually supportive way and prefigured Pei’s many later museum designs.

Contrast to the East Building of National Gallery. We can find the technique he used has been improved and subtle altered. The East Building of National Gallery might be regarded as an exercise for the student project under Gropius in Harvard, which involves the Chinese sensibility of light and space and gives visitors a place in atrium to orient. The courtyard was displayed subtly with the control of light and shadow.

Historical Critique of the Building

Criticality in China and the West

Throughout the new opening period in 1970s-1990s in China, the process of the modern architecture might regarded like other spheres as a process of learning, referring, transferring and absorbing. However, at the same the theme of Post-modern has already been fierce discussed in the United States, due to the different political, social and cultural situation, between the architect with his


  American educated and cultural background and his client - China with the first step into Modernization. Against this backdrop, the Fragrant Hill Hotel was discussed under a relative enclosed society and culture context as a pure architecture event.

Critical Context

When the Fragrant Hill Hotel opened in 1982, after four years constructed, there was considerable argument among some American Post-Modernism architects. They argued, “the foremost standard-bearer of Late Modern had finally seen the light and embraced their vision of an architecture based heavily on historical allusion.” At the same time, since the restriction of methods of the communication and information, the most Chinese architects had no idea about this fierce argument between Modern and Post-modern. That is the reason that critique in China to the Fragrant Hill Hotel were mainly under the context of national form and the combination of the modern manipulation and Chinese residential tradition. In their view, on the one hand, they admired Pei’s excellent design devices to the space and details, the variety and continuity of the form, the relationship between nature and architecture...On the other hand, they thought the choice of the site was totally wrong, where some of original trees were destroyed. In order to the rocks hill in the garden, the huge rocks were transferred from south China.


After a long time, the Chinese architects have always imitated the Fragrant Hill Hotel as an architectural model. Now the achievement of the Fragrant Hill Hotel might be regarded as a form of Art and the innovation of the architectural language.



Zhu, Jianfei, Architecture of Modern China: a Historical critique, London: Routledge, 2009

Boehm, Gero von, Conversations with I.M.Pei: Light is the key, Munich: Prestel, 2000

Wiseman, Carter, I.M.Pei: a Profile in American architecture, Schaffhausen: Stemmle, 1990

Strupkus, Jürgen and Ackermann, Ute, Bauhaus Global: gesammelte Beiträge der Konferenz Bauhaus Global vom 21. bis 26. September 2009, Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 2010

Zhu, Yimin, ‘Cong Xiangshan Fandian dao CCTV’ (From the Fragrant Hill Hotel to CCTV’, Jin Tian, Zhongguo Dangdai Jiangzhu Zhuanji (Chinese Modern Architecture), Volume 85, (Summer 2009): p. 37.

Jodidio, Strong and Janet, Adams, I.M.Pei: Complete Works, New York: Rizzoli, 2008

Colquhoun, Alan, Modern Architecture, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002

Wang, Joseph Cho, The Chinese Garden, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1998

Wang, Xin, An Architecture Towards Shanshui, Shanghai: Tongji Univiversity Press, 2015

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