Shaping Architectural Modernism in Colonial Hong Kong: The Building Works of the Public Works Department from the 1930s to the 1970s

Project: Research

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This research explores the role of the Public Works Department (PWD), the official agency responsible for the design of governmental buildings, in shaping architectural modernism in colonial Hong Kong. Since its establishment in the 1870s, the PWD, led by architects from Britain, had built many impressive public buildings in the idiom of classical architecture. Notably, in the 1930s the PWD abandoned the classical style prevailing in not only governmental but also private buildings sponsored by Western businesspeople at that time. Instead, the PWD experimented with new design ideas in public buildings such as markets and schools, making them the earliest examples of modernist architecture in Hong Kong. What prompted the PWD to shift its architectural thinking? After World War II, civilian construction in Hong Kong ground to a halt due to a shortage of private funding. The PWD, the major patron of architecture during the postwar rehabilitation period, decided to embrace modernist design in almost all governmental buildings. How did this decision change the architectural culture of Hong Kong? Through the study of the buildings undertaken by the PWD, this research attempts to dismantle the two mainstream discourses that have prevented us from creating a critical historiography of modernist architecture in colonial Hong Kong. The “alien discourse” suggests that architectural modernism was not indigenous to non-Western societies, so modernist architecture in Hong Kong and other European colonies was simply the dissemination or mimicry of the colonizers’ architectural inventions. This discourse ignores the fact that the PWD started designing modernist buildings in Hong Kong in the 1930s, when architectural modernism was still a matter of significant debate among architects in Britain. On the other hand, the “progressive discourse” considers modernist architecture, with a philosophy based on rationality, efficiency, and functionality, as the natural choice for contemporary lives. Every city with a vigorous economy would eventually adopt modernist architecture, and Hong Kong was no exception. In fact, the rehabilitation of Hong Kong after the war imposed an enormous financial burden on the colonial government. The PWD’s decision to construct modernist buildings, which required modest capital expenditures, was a thoughtful response to postwar social conditions and financial realities. The significance of this research is that it will provide the historical contexts that explain the advent and rapid dominance of architectural modernism in Hong Kong and acknowledge the PWD’s contributions to this process. 


Project number9042778
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/20 → …