Few buildings are as significant to post-reform China, the subsequent development of contemporary Chinese architecture, and the broader debates about modernism’s relationship with tradition, as the Fragrant Hill Hotel, completed outside Beijing by the architect I.M. Pei in 1982.
The project was, in many ways, a homecoming for Pei. Having left China in 1935 to study in the United States, Pei only made his first return visit to the country of his birth nearly four decades later, in 1974, while leading a delegation of the American Institute of Architects. At the time, China was just beginning to reopen to the outside world, and its government soon saw it fit to invite the New York architect, a native son with a considerable reputation, to design a high-rise hotel in central Beijing.
But while such a project could showcase the country’s advancement, Pei quickly questioned the appropriateness of constructing a modern skyscraper in the heart of the ancient Chinese capital—especially one that would loom over the Forbidden City. ‘I didn’t want to commit [that] crime,’ Pei later recalled, and so he opted instead to explore a site on Fragrant Hill, in the former imperial hunting grounds twenty-five miles outside Beijing. (Pei’s entreaties can likely be given some credit for the height restrictions that would later be set for new construction around the Forbidden City.)
Set in a natural landscape, the Fragrant Hill Hotel is not a tower, but rather a low-slung building that marks a striking departure from the concrete geometries and shimmering glass forms for which Pei was until then known. Searching for a more culturally rooted architectural language, the architect borrowed the white walls and gray tiles of central Chinese vernacular buildings, and arranged the complex around courtyards. From the hotel’s central sky-lit atrium, the guest room wings zigzag asymmetrically across the site, both in order to preserve existing trees, including two 800-year-old gingkos, and to evoke the spatial relationships and sequences of classical Chinese gardens. ‘A Chinese garden is like a maze,’ Pei explained of the project. ‘You never see clear or straight to the end, never apprehend the whole . . . It’s a matter of scale, of multiple vanishing points and also of surprise—the delight of the unexpected.’
Despite construction and planning difficulties, the hotel was successfully inaugurated—complete with massive rocks relocated from the Stone Forest of Yunnan Province, more than 1,600 miles away—with guests including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for whom Pei had earlier designed the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.
But the project was also, to some extent, misunderstood. For Pei, the patterns of gray tiles on the facades very purposefully referenced tradition; they mitigated cracking by breaking the large walls into smaller segments while providing relief from the visual repetitiveness of the hotel rooms. However, these and other ‘decorative’ flourishes confused some Western observers, who were unaccustomed to seeing such gestures from Pei and wondered if he was entering a new postmodern phase of superficially embracing historical elements. Meanwhile, many in China, expecting something more ‘modern’, were equally perplexed. ‘The Fragrant Hill Hotel initially seems unimpressive. It even appears strange,’ the People’s Daily reported.
Indeed, Pei’s building was neither traditional nor conventionally modern, but rather a negotiation of the two. Nothing like it had been seen before in China. And thirty-five years on, the Fragrant Hill hotel has proven to be remarkably enduring and influential, informing generations of Chinese architects who have followed, and throwing a kink in orthodox architectural ideologies. Pei himself would go on to further explore the ideas he began at Fragrant Hill in such projects as his Suzhou Museum (completed 2006), making the hotel a critical milestone not just for China, but also for Pei himself.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories to coincide with Rethinking Pei: A Centenary Symposium, held to commemorate the architect's 100th birthday.
Aric Chen is Lead Curator, Design and Architecture at M+.