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Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Luke Him Sau Architect: China’s Missing Modern

Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2014
Eduard Kögel
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Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Luke Him Sau Architect: China’s Missing Modern, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2014

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Asie, Asie de l’Est, Chine

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XXe siècle
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1This book by Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren is one of the first of its kind, focusing on the biography of a first-generation architect from twentieth-century China. Like his fellow architects of that period, Luke Him Sau (Lu Qianshou, 陸謙受, 1904-1991) belonged to a group of architects educated at a Western school with a formal academic tradition. In late 1930s this generation designed the curricula for the architectural education system in China according to their experience in the West.

2The book is divided into six chapters with an introduction. The first chapter, “A Complicated Birth,” introduces the circumstances around the turn of the century and Luke’s family background in Hong Kong. He started as an apprentice in the British architectural office Denison, Ram & Gibbs in Hong Kong, and remained there from 1923 to 1927 before moving to London, the capital of the empire, to receive a formal education. Besides presenting Luke’s first steps, the authors briefly introduce a few fellow architects educated in the United States, such as Liang Sicheng, Yang Tingbao, and others.

3The second chapter, “London Calling,” focuses on Luke’s education as an architect in London from 1927 to 1930. His studies at the Architectural Association (AA), of which few documents have survived, are described as adhering to the general educational model applied at the AA in this specific period. Rather, it is the atmosphere in London, characterized by a certain anti-Chinese sentiment, that defines the tone of the chapter. In the late 1920s a battle between conservative streams and more progressive approaches took place at the AA, and it seems likely that Luke was influenced by these debates in both directions.

4After graduation in 1930 Luke was hired directly by the Bank of China and sent on a Grand Tour of Europe, with visits to France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, among others. He visited bank buildings and sought after architectural models that could potentially be useful for the design of bank buildings in China. The account of the trip given in the book is based on Luke’s diary and on general information of the places visited. In Germany he saw the avant-garde Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart and the New Frankfurt public housing program, while in the Austrian capital of Vienna he visited the monumental social housing complex of Karl-Marx-Hof and others, which clearly impressed the young architect.

5For the authors, working with scant material from the private collection of the Luke family, it is a challenge to reconstruct a narrative that reflects the complexity of the time and the differences between the places visited. The diary gives a basic understanding of Luke’s itinerary and visits, as well as his interests, which were driven by a desire to learn about the architectural challenges of bank buildings. Luke then continued from Europe to the United States, where he investigated additional bank buildings before returning to Shanghai, his new headquarters.

6The third chapter is called “Bank Building” and discusses Luke’s role as a designer employed at the Bank of China from 1930 to 1937. During this time in Shanghai he was responsible for the design of new bank buildings in cities like Shanghai, Nanjing, Qingdao, Suzhou, and other places. But he was also charged with housing the bank’s employees. With interesting projects in Shanghai and Qingdao, both still extant, the idea of modern housing estates was brought to China.

7The most important Bank of China building in this period, the new high rise at the Bund in Shanghai, was realized in cooperation with the dominant British colonial firm Palmer & Turner. Unfortunately, the authors do not succeed in clearly determining authorship of the design by revealing the individual contributions of the two parties. Initially, Palmer & Turner had made a first design in a clear Art Deco style, but the client apparently demanded more “Chinese national characteristics.” Here it would be interesting to learn more about the internal debate and the client’s demands, as well as Luke’s contribution to the final version, which uses Chinese décor for the façade in the manner European architects used decoration in the than fashionable style of Art Deco in Shanghai. Additionally, the characteristic roof with a decorative traditional bracket set in stone, as well as up-turned eaves, was meant to ground the building in Chinese historic culture.

8Luke’s buildings for the Bank of China often have multiple functions, such as branch offices and employee housing. Some were built on small plots of leftover land that challenged the imagination of the architect. These constraints, and the pressure to use every piece of land for urban development, provoked unusual solutions, like the 1934 Bank of China building at Yates Road in Shanghai. Here rational layout and simple materials are used for a nine-story building with a horizontally subdivided façade, decorated with basic features of Art Deco.

9Luke was also active in the building up of professional bodies, like the Chinese Society of Architects, which published the international cross-disciplinary magazine The Builder (Jianzhu Yuekan) in 1932 and Zhongguo Jianzhu (The Chinese Architect) the following year, with a focus on development in China. Both magazines were published in Shanghai. Unfortunately, the authors do not address Luke’s role in the Society of Architects nor his contribution to the foundation of this young professional guild.

  • 1 Ni Ming, Li Hai-qing, “A Review on the Architectural Design of National Central Museum,” South-Eas (...)

10Moreover, at least one of the architect’s most important projects from this period is left out of the book: his 1936 competition entry for the National Central Museum in Nanjing. This is a pity, because the formal approach of the five prize-winning schemes by Xu Jingzhi (first prize), Luke Him Sau (second prize), Yang Tingbao (third prize), Xi Fuquan (fourth prize), and Tong Jun (fifth prize) offers a view into the discourse surrounding architectural style in Republican China just before the outbreak of war with Japan in 1937.1

  • 2 For the American advisors in China during the war see Norman J. Gordon, “China and the Neighbourho (...)
  • 3 The authors write that Wang Dahong’s date of death is unknown. However, Wang is still alive in Tai (...)
  • 4 For some aspects of the development from the perspective of another contributor to the Greater Sha (...)

11The fourth chapter, entitled “Architectural Retreat,” captures the period of the war, which Luke spent in the temporary capital of Chongqing, in Sichuan province. After the Japanese attacked the Chinese Republic and occupied the capital, Nanjing, the government relocated to Chongqing, where they established not only their headquarters but also some key industries and education facilities. The Japanese Air Force heavily bombed the city, and architects and urban planners had to prepare for shelters as well as damage repair. Additionally, the political and business elites needed new and safe homes at the periphery of the new capital. One of the buildings designed by Luke was for T. V. Soong, the brother-in-law of both the revolutionary icon Sun Yat-sen and the Chairman of the Nationalist Government Chiang Kai-shek. Luke was involved in Air Raid Shelter Committees as well as in the planning of arsenals and industrial infrastructure. He also became a member of the city planning board and gained experience in urban planning. It would have been interesting to learn more about the situation in Chongqing and the debates that took place during these years. For example the influence of American engineers and advisors, who brought the idea of neighbourhood units from the United States into the Chinese discourse, is not mentioned.2 When the war ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Luke left immediately for Shanghai. He became a professor at St. John’s University and formed, together with four colleagues, the firm Five United (Wu Lian). The other four, Henry Huang, Wang Dahong3, Chen Zhangxiang, and Chen Guanxuan, were later influential figures both in mainland Chinese development and in Taiwan. Luke also became head of the urban planning committee for Greater Shanghai between 1945 and 1948. His contribution to the discussion on the new concept of urban decentralisation for the region of Greater Shanghai, in particular, deserves more attention than the scant summery in the book. For unknown reasons the authors left this episode without further investigation.4

12The fifth chapter, with the title “Hong Kong,” continues with the next stage of Luke’s professional career, in his city of birth. He returned to the British colony in 1949 before the communist takeover in mainland China. Although the influential architect and architectural historian Liang Sicheng asked him to return to the mainland, he was there for only a brief period before permanently establishing his practice HS Luke & Associates in Hong Kong. The company was renamed in 1950 as papro—Progressive Architecture, Planning & Research Organisation—a name that reflected a new approach and focus. Like Luke, many other architects from Shanghai and other places in the new People’s Republic of China also exiled to colonial Hong Kong. As a Western enclave, the city of Hong Kong soon became a hub for global finance, with an increasing number of poor refugees from mainland China. In this climate the transformation of the former sleepy colony into a financial capital in the East occurred very fast. Given the need for social housing and new office towers in large numbers, the architecture soon adopted aspects of the International Style, with functionality and economic considerations as main aspects of architectural expression. Luke contributed to this development with elegant compositions and abstract decorations of high quality. While the chapter offers a basic outline of architectural development in Hong Kong, a more thorough study is needed to better understand the success and influence of this architecture in East Asia in the second half of the twentieth century. How developed architectural style in Hong Kong and why did it become a model to follow for so many other places? (Including urban and architectural development after 1980 in mainland China). Where did the designers come from and what was the driving force for architectural expression? These are questions that cannot be answered in a book with a single architect as its focus. However, it gives us an idea that further study is needed and relevant.

13The housing block Repulse Bay Towers with duplex apartments, designed by Luke for wealthy clients in the early 1960s, displays an impressive modern elegance within a powerful natural setting at Repulse Bay in the South of Hong Kong Island. But Luke also contributed to housing plans for the poor, for instance with his design for the So Uk housing estate in Kowloon, built between 1957 and 1962 and replaced by new high density housing in the last years. Three T-shaped, twelve-storey blocks for approximately 750 four-person units were based on standardized elements for the interior as well as the exterior. The aesthetic, characterized by the rational, horizontal lines of the façade, reflects the limited resources available. It is a pity that the authors did not provide a floor plan of this block in order to better demonstrate the arrangement of space under the given conditions.

14Other projects that Luke undertook during his active years in Hong Kong, until 1968, included a school, church facilities, and a hospital for missionary institutions. Here again—like in his early work in mainland China—he searched for a rational combination of functionality with abstract stylistic references to the ancient Chinese culture. Looking back on his Hong Kong period, it becomes clear that Luke was one of the important contributors to the development of functional modernism in the colonial city.

15The last short chapter is entitled “Luke’s Legacy” and reflects the architect’s development from education in an institution of the British Empire in London, first practice as an employee for an important state institution in the rising metropolis of Shanghai before the war, the retreat in Inland China during the war and his new private office in Hong Kong after the war. The difficulties encountered when reconstructing the oeuvre of Luke Him Sau are partly rooted in the political situation in mainland China. During the war many documents were lost. The politically and ideologically motivated writing of architectural history in the Peoples Republic of China focused for many years on the imperial and traditional development before 1911. The republican phase from 1911 to 1949 was left out for a long time and only in recent years first investigations describe parts of the development. Another difficult part is the so far unwritten architectural and urban history of colonial Hong Kong, which is until today a field with need for research. The situation in the case of Luke Him Sau is not unique, but simply outlines the challenges for research in this field. Limited access or the loss of archival material, multiple restarts of Luke’s career in different positions and locations, makes it difficult to show a consistent development of his architectural expressions. But the different situations and circumstances clearly allowed him to adopt new positions and approaches, which contributed to the overall architectural development in mainland China as well as in Hong Kong.

16The appendix includes a List of Works, comprising more than 125 projects between 1930 and 1963. A bibliography and an index close the book.

17The title Luke Him Sau Architect: China’s Missing Modern is somewhat misleading, as it gives the impression that Luke was the most important contributor to the development of modern architectural forms in Republican China and Hong Kong. But of course he was only one of many who contributed to a mosaic of approaches and solutions (as the authors write on p. 11 and p. 207). The characteristics of the “multiple modernities” mentioned by the authors (p. 207) are not discussed, and the reader is left to imagine what this could mean. This is a missed opportunity, and one can hope that the authors will use their obvious knowledge to go deeper into the subject in future publications.

18Nevertheless, the book covers an important figure of architectural development in twentieth-century Republican China and Hong Kong. His education in London and his search to find an appropriate expression for institution-building in the young republic give the reader a good understanding of the challenges and difficulties during turbulent times of political and social upheaval. The experience of material shortage and the need for efficiency during wartime from 1937 to 1945 left an obvious mark on Luke’s later development as an architect. Post-war rationalism and the search for economic solutions in Hong Kong raise the question of the evolution of modernity in the colony in relation to communist China. This part of history still needs more investigation if we are to understand the architectural discourse in Hong Kong and the contribution of Chinese as well as Western architects who fled Shanghai and settled in the British colony.

19Some of the images presented in the book are high-quality illustrations by Edward Denison of the remaining buildings in their current state. Other photos and plans are from historical publications and the archive of the Luke family, which is accessible online at the Hong Kong University Library.5 However, the book also illustrates, rather sadly, that it is still complicated to investigate the work of Chinese architects, whose foreign education, practice in the Republic of China until 1949, and emigration afterwards present difficulties. Many documents are lost or still not accessible. This publication represents a first important step toward better understanding the arrival of modern principles and their adaptation in light of political circumstances, emigration, and artistic autonomy in mainland China and the British colony of Hong Kong.

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1 Ni Ming, Li Hai-qing, “A Review on the Architectural Design of National Central Museum,” South-East Culture (Dongnan Wenhua), no. 5, 2001, p. 86-91.

2 For the American advisors in China during the war see Norman J. Gordon, “China and the Neighbourhood Unit,” The American City, October 1946, p. 112–113. Besides Gordon also Ralph Eberlin worked during World War II in China. He earlier worked as Civil Engineer for the first neighbourhood units in the USA in Sunnyside and Radburn. See Clearance S. Stein, Towards New Towns for America, New York, NY: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1957, p. 59.

3 The authors write that Wang Dahong’s date of death is unknown. However, Wang is still alive in Taiwan, where he went after 1949.

4 For some aspects of the development from the perspective of another contributor to the Greater Shanghai master plan after 1945, see German architect Richard Paulick, in Eduard Kögel, Zwei Poelzigschüler in der Emigration. Rudolf Hamburger und Richard Paulick zwischen Shanghai und Ost-Berlin, 1930-1955, Ph.D. dissertation, Bauhaus University Weimar, e-publication 2007, p. 252-312. URL: Accessed February 7, 2016.

5 Luke Estate at the Hong Kong University Library. URL: Accessed February 7, 2016.

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Eduard Kögel, « Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Luke Him Sau Architect: China’s Missing Modern »ABE Journal [En ligne], 8 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Eduard Kögel

Associate Professor, Technische Universität, Berlin, Germany

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