Building the New China
By I.M. Pei

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Born in 1917 in Guangzhou (then Canton), I.M. Pei came to the U.S. in 1935. The celebrated architect--the Louvre's glass pyramid, the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong--is completing his fourth major project in China, an art museum in Suzhou.

THERE ARE two Chinas: the China of Shanghai and the China of the farms. Architecturally, Shanghai is the new China--its entry into the world. Like my wearing a Western suit, it's appropriate. Shanghai has to suit up to do business with the world. When General Electric or IBM goes there, they want to move into a building not unlike a building here. Chinese architecture is not trying to convey a message or style. The skyscrapers are like ours because they are adapting to the Western way of business.

Today there are some young architects trying to search for a vernacular, but the wave of foreign-imported ideas is powerful; the force is difficult to resist. And so China imports talent. It seeks architects of great stature because they want to learn from us. Some of them are good, some are mediocre, but even the good ones aren't doing their best work in China because they don't feel challenged--the client is still immature. It takes two to make good architecture--a savvy client and a creative architect. But a savvy client is not yet in China. The client is open--they say, "New, good, I've never seen that before, let's do it." There's a can-do attitude that is very good right now in China. But it is also a bit reckless.

It's easy for me to work there because I am Chinese. It was meaningful for me to build Hong Kong's Bank of China tower because the bank is part of my family. My father worked there since 1910; the bank chairman had to come to America to ask my father for his permission. Can you imagine? I was 60 years old, and he had to ask my father, would he consent to let his son design this building for us? It's the Chinese way to pay respect.

Architecture is a very primitive need--China needs it to expand. But architecture is also an art form, a cultural phenomenon, and China needs to develop confidence again in its own culture. Out of confidence will come a new life, new culture, and a unique architecture. But not until then. -- Interview by Abrahm Lustgarten