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The Minimalist of Suzhou Museum

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The Minimalist of Suzhou Museum

EE3AH3 CN  Architectural Humanities 3 Critical Theory and Interpretation

AH-CHOON Clarence 6509878


The essay will look at how the Suzhou museum can be seen as a minimalist architecture with the use of the famous quote “less is more” by Mies Van Der Rohe. The definition of this quote will explain two important keywords which are the message and essential. This will be related to the 10 points of an architecture of critical regionalism by Kenneth Frampton by looking into the form, materiality, scenography, natural features and building typology which are identified by the culture and identity of the city of Suzhou as well as China. The essential of the essential will go further as to understand I.M Pei’s minimalist approach for the Suzhou Museum. This will demonstrate a relationship between minimalist architecture and critical regionalism.  

Building Introduction

The Suzhou Museum located in the Jiangsu province, China, is one of the architectural masterpieces for the city of Suzhou. Inaugurated in 6th October, 2006 the Museum opened its door to the public displaying a 30,000-piece collection of ancient Chinese Art in forms of paintings, calligraphies and handmade crafts. Behind its design stands the 1983 Pritzker Prize laureate, Ieoh Ming Pei, a Chinese American architect with a strong historical background. Pei spent part of his childhood along with his forebears who were locals of Suzhou, therefore making the place uniquely personal to him. In 2001, Pei was assigned by the mayor of Suzhou the task to design a $40 million modern building on 150,000-square-foot. This results in what is nowadays the Suzhou Museum.


  • What are the characteristics of the Suzhou Museum and how are they seen as minimalist?
  • Can Suzhou museum also be considered as critical regionalism if so, what is the role of I.M Pei’s minimalist approach in architecture contributes to the discussion?

In order to carry out the essay, it is primordial to define and explain what minimalist architecture and critical regionalism are. This will explain the quote “less is more” with the idea of the message and the essential. Therefore it will be possible to analyse and evaluate the features of the museum as what is minimalist in relation to critical regionalism. The essay will look at the main features which represent the identity of Suzhou as well as China in two ways. First it will look at how the feature can be assessed with the use of critical regionalism of Kenneth Frampton. Second, the essay will look as how the feature is put as simple as possible by I.M Pei’s minimalist approach with the theory of phenomenology looking into the human senses. The second part can be understood as the essential of the essential. Each feature will be approached by these 2 steps.


The term Minimalism was introduced in early 20th century in the field of visual art and music. In 1915, it was first used to describe an art composition “A Black Square on White Ground” by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich. Later this term became widely acceptable in response to the over decorated design of the previous time. Minimalist architecture therefore made its appearance in 1980s in New York and London. This popular movement began to achieve simplicity in the design of furniture and buildings by focusing on white colour, large space and cold lighting. However the definition of the term Minimalist in itself throughout the century remained quite unclear. Does using white colour, large plain space and cold lighting means minimalist?

Minimalist architecture has been widely associated with the famous quote of Mies Van Der Rohe : “Less is more” which carries the meaning that simplicity and clarity lead to good design. In other words this can be regarded as a subject will have a greater impact by limiting the presentation to the bare essentials needed to convey the message or idea. Bearing in mind that the key words are “essentials” and “message” for a definition of Minimalist architecture in this essay, the term Minimalist Architecture is therefore defined as “architecture reduced to its essentials to convey the message”.

The concept of minimalist architecture is to strip everything down to its essential quality and achieve simplicity [1]


Regarding the Suzhou Museum, what are the “essentials” and the “message” and how are they defined?

The design intention is the message

“The design of the museum takes its cues from the rich vocabulary of Suzhou’s traditional architecture, with its whitewashed plaster walls, dark grey clay tile roofs and intricate garden architecture. However these basic elements have been reinterpreted and synthesized into a new language and order, one that is contemporary and forward looking and hopefully one that is a possible direction for the future of Chinese Modern architecture”- I.M Pei

First it is fundamental to understand what the architect’s desire for the museum which is the “message”. As requested by the government officials, Pei’s idea for the Suzhou Museum was to establish an architecture that suited the context of the city of Suzhou i.e. a building which closely connects with the surrounding area as well as being modern. For this essay, the “message” is the design intention of the architect for the Suzhou Museum i.e. the museum should be in the Suzhou style as well as providing an impact on visitors. “We want to make a building that can cause sensations, not represent this or that idea”. The point here is that the “message” is to maximize the impact with the bear “essentials” through sensations.


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