shilling for I M Pei


not that he needs it
I sat about 15 feet from I. M. Pei  last night, at a screening of a documentary about him that will be broadcast next Wednesday. It was one of those that‘s why I live in New York! moments. The documentary premiere was an hour, followed by a panel of the producer, the director/writer, and someone from the Architectural League.

The venue was The Paley Center For Media, with plush seats, wonderful sound and images, and a small (mostly?) invited audience — certainly an engaged and interested audience. It is a fascinating thing to experience a film that pretty much no one has seen before, in a small room with its creators and its subject. Given that I have been hearing about the film-in-production for a while and that I have a close second-hand relationship with one of the creators, part of the fascination comes from watching the film on two levels: for its content / impact as a film; and as the heart-felt work of someone I know, someone I have been hearing a lot about.

I will end any ‘suspense’: I loved the film and am proud to know a creator. The film is American Masters’ I. M. Pei   Building China Modern, part of the PBS series, and it will air on local Channel 13 WNET Wednesday, March 31 at 9 PM (as they say, check your listings for times on other PBS stations). It will then be available on-line for 90 days (that, and other information in the link).

The documentary is about I. M. Pei and his return to China to design an art museum in Suzhou, the 2,500 year-old city that his family had lived in for 600 years before his father brought him to America in the 1930s. Of course there are fascinating details about what the commission meant to him at this stage of his career (and to the local Chinese) and about his attempts to begin a new Chinese architecture while working within (sometimes very rigid) bounds of tradition and regulation ‘on the ground’ in China. But what interested me most was how much fun this 92 year-old man was having, and how humble he seems. Not so humble that his name isn’t on the firm, or that he won’t protect his vision or market his projects to the public, but humble about what he can accomplish and whether his ideas will work out.

We got a taste of the back-story to making this film from the panel, but there is more in the Inside This Episode section on the linked PBS page, with interviews with Producer Eugene Shirley and Director / Write Anne Makepeace. I will add one detail offered in the Q&A last night, which was offered by Didi Pei, architect son of Mr. Pei, in answer to an audience question about the ‘special’ entrance door to the new museum (which is mostly glass, with circular elements that split as the door opens). The premise of the question suggested that the door was an element created to use Chinese forms in this modern device and how fitting for this project. Didi Pei’s answer: we’ve used that door in a lot of projects, including here at [I am blanking on which local New York hospital].

Architecture aside, I found it interesting that the Chinese government reached out to a Chinese refugee for a high-profile project. With 3 articles in today’s NY Times about Google vs. China (one is here) as a battle by that government to control what the people are exposed to, it strikes me as odd to give Mr. Pei a platform (a stamp of approval, even) on an official project. The creators commented that traveling with Mr. Pei in China was like traveling with a rock star, which was a phenomenon you could see in the film. Plus, his warm manner, his fluent Chinese, his ease with everyone, from government officials to the worker who was responsible for ‘scarring the rock’ (see the film; you’ll understand), all had to have a beneficial propaganda effect that runs counter to official story lines. I guess one ‘answer’ is that ‘China’ is just too big for all of it to move in one direction at once.

high class friends in high places

I am not aware of any Pei-designed lofts, but I do have other interests. And it is surely nice to have friends who invite me to such events. Thank you, Charles; congratulations, Anne!

I need to shill more often
Long-time readers know that Manhattan Loft Guy sometimes shamelessly promotes people or efforts that are interesting, or engaging, or by friends, or (for some other reason). I tried to help a non-profit theater group find some free space on February 26, with theater group needs some FREE space short-term / anyone have some?, but so far as I know that did not work out. I promoted a friend’s art work on February 10, 2009 in diversion / art from a Manhattan loft neighborhood (do any loft building art committees need decorative art for walls or lobbies?? operators are still standing by). I linked to a fascinating collection of old-time Manhattan photos on September 25, 2008 in NYC photos / could not stop scrolling, which reminds me that I should do more linking to pictures and sites more often.

That collection indicates to me that it would take a very long-time reader to see this as a trend, and that I really should do this more often. That’s one reason I started today….

all thumbs up
You can watch a preview from the PBS link. To sum up: If you have any interest in architecture or in China, I highly recommend it. If you have little interest in China or in architecture, I highly recommend it.

My favorite part: seeing that the stone garden really did work. (Nice job, ‘scarring the rock’ guy!)

© Sandy Mattingly 2010



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