Public Works Department and Architectural Modernism in Hong Kong

Dr Carmen C M Tsui1

1City University Of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

This paper 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 Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841, the PWD 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 some public buildings, 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 paper provides 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.


Carmen Tsui is an architect and assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley with a specialization in the history of architecture and urbanism. Her research interests include modern architecture, housing history, and built heritage conservation.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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