Storeys of Modern History

Storeys of Modern History

Docomomo Hong Kong exhibition, "Mapping Modern Architecture in Hong Kong", July 14-26, 2013 
Examples of architectural modernism in Hong Kong explained on

In 2011 debate was heating up in Hong Kong over plans to redevelop the Central Government Offices (CGO), which were built in the 1950s. To architecture aficionados, they represented a fine example of the modern movement that influenced much of 20th century design. But to some in the community, they were eyesores. How could the doubters be won over?

This question was pondered by a group of scholars from HKU, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and HKU SPACE as well as concerned residents, who decided to launch a Hong Kong chapter of the international organisation Docomomo (which stands for the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement) to raise awareness about surviving examples of architectural modernism in Hong Kong.

Members of the Faculty of Architecture have been central figures in Docomomo Hong Kong. Dr Cole Roskam explained why they were interested.

"Architectural modernism was designed to embody principles of rationalism – these buildings were intended to project an aura of efficiency and functionalism. The modern architectural movement's roots have historically been traced back to Europe but in many ways Hong Kong has developed its own history with respect to modern architecture.

"The 1920s to the 1970s was a critically important period in Hong Kong's history in terms of its rise as an industrial centre and the influx of Mainland Chinese refugees, and this ran parallel to the discourse on modernism, which aimed to improve people's lives through architecture. Whether this goal was achieved is another question, but those utopian ideals can be seen in relation to what was happening in Hong Kong at the time."

Many buildings from that period have been progressively demolished, but Docomomo Hong Kong has identified 21 examples - both existing and several no longer existing structures - that now form the foundation for a dialogue with the public about modernist architecture and its role in our lives.

The buildings include the CGO (a portion of which will be spared), Central Market, and Mei Ho House at the Shek Kip Mei public housing estate. Each captures what the group has identified as four basic themes emblematic of modern architectural design, including efficiency, public hygiene, technological rationalism, and mobility.

Docomomo Hong Kong has produced a booklet and website ( about these buildings for the public and staged a public exhibition at Central Market. It has also organised several activities for local school groups, and produced a bilingual teaching kit for secondary schools, which was tested in a project with 120 students.

In the future, the group hopes to hold another exhibition and develop a tour of Hong Kong's modern buildings for both local residents and tourists.

Dr Cole Roskam and team members, Ms Melissa Cate Christ, Dr Cecilia Chu, Professor Lynne DiStefano, Mr Nicholas Karklins, Dr Ho Yin Lee, Dr Eunice Seng and Mr H. Koon Wee, received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2014 of the Faculty of Architecture for 'Mapping Modern Architecture in Hong Kong'.