Hong Kong: Uncertain(ci)ty

Principal Investigator: Cole Roskam
Project Funding: GRF


Hong Kong: Uncertain(ci)ty will be the first scholarly monograph focused on themes of risk, crisis, and vulnerability in relation to Hong Kong’s architectural and urban history. My research attends specifically to the tensions engendered by physical, environmental, financial, geopolitical, and viral destabilization within the city over time, and the ways these tensions have shaped architectural and urban design, practice, as well as discourse, in Hong Kong since its founding as a British colony in 1842.

Preexisting scholarship tends to depict Hong Kong’s built environment as little more than successful concretizations of the free market–an urbane “World City” best known for its dense urban form and unyielding efficiency. My research, by contrast, illuminates themes of precariousness underlying these well-worn characterizations. Through this work, I aim to demonstrate the historical relationship between architecture and the perception and reality of instability in Hong Kong.

My project is structured around several architectural case-studies, few of which have attracted any previous scholarly attention. Each building or site is grouped within a particular category of crisis; these include war, governance, immigration, natural disaster, financial panic, contagion, as well as anxieties of identity. Individually, each theme constitutes a chapter that illuminates how singular moments of crisis inscribed themselves within specific examples of architecture. Collectively, these themes reveal the history of architecture’s broader relationship to change.

An Improvised City: Architecture and Extraterritoriality in Shanghai, 1843-1937

Principal Investigator: Cole Roskam


An Improvised City is a book-length project, currently under contract with the University of Washington Press, that offers new architectural historical perspective on one of the most complex and influential urban environments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Relying upon a range of previously unpublished projects and infrastructural works built or imagined within each of Shanghai’s three municipalities, including the International Settlement, the French Concession, and the Chinese city, this book illuminates the interplay between the city’s renowned commercial raison d’être and the range of institutional architectural forms and practices designed to manage it.

Particular attention is paid to the city’s extraterritorial condition—the system of governance designed by Chinese and British authorities whereby all foreign nationals, left to their own capitalistic devices, remained subject to the legal codes of their own respective governments. Through a careful reading of town halls, post offices, municipal offices, war memorials, water works, as well as consulates, both imagined and realized, An Improvised City traces the complex series of cultural, political, and spatial negotiations responsible for much of Shanghai’s built environment. Architecture’s unique ability to create new environments and concretize the economic, political, as well as cultural forces behind them made it a vital instrument in demarcating and defining Shanghai’s extraterritorial terrain over time.

More generally, this book contributes to burgeoning academic interest in the history of modern and contemporary Chinese architecture and urbanism, ongoing discourse concerning capitalism’s relationship to political sovereignty and architecture, as well as the study of variegated forms of urban exceptionality—special economic zones, tax-free trading spheres, and commercial enclaves, among others—currently reshaping cities around the world.

Designing Reform: Post-Revolutionary Architectural Culture in the People’s Republic of China, 1973-1989

Project Title: Of Art and Science: Post-Revolutionary Architectural Culture in China, 1973-1989

Principal Investigator: Cole Roskam

Funding Body: Research Grants Council (RGC)


This project examines modern Chinese architectural education, exchange, and discourse between 1973 and 1989. It seeks to understand three significant but unexplored dimensions of the era: the international expansion of Chinese architectural construction and exchange beginning in 1973; the profound changes in architectural education following the advent of economic reform beginning in 1977; and the impact of this internationalization on Chinese architectural discourse over the course of the 1980s. Ultimately, this work aims to re-position the era as a vital moment in the history of China’s architectural and cultural production by providing new and critical insight into economic, political, and cultural change through architectural form, practice, and discourse. More generally, my work asserts China be considered a more active and international influence in architectural practice and study at the time than has been previously considered.


  • To move beyond a simple descriptive evaluation of the architecture’s collective aesthetic merits towards a more complete, complex, and conceptual intellectual history of China’s architectural development between 1973 and 1989.
  • To understand Chinese architecture’s rapid internationalization during this period of time and reposition the era as a vital moment in the history of China’s architectural and cultural production.
  • To insert Chinese architectural education, exchange and discourse within broader international histories of postmodernism.
  • To trace the conceptual and etymological roots of architectural discourse in China between 1973 and 1989.
  • To reassess China’s role as an earlier, more active, and more dynamic influence in the international architectural community between 1973 and 1989 than previously considered.


My work has helped illuminate post-Cultural Revolution architectural development and exchange, a previously under-examined period of time in China’s architectural history. I’ve expanded the scope of my own knowledge concerning this period, and through my three research outputs, I’ve also contributed to the field of Chinese architectural historical scholarship. Each of my three peer-reviewed articles offers a new perspective on China’s architecture in relation to economic liberalization and internationalization over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s.


  • Cole Roskam, “Non-Aligned Architecture: China’s Designs on and in Ghana and Guinea, 1955-92.” Architectural History 58 (2015): 261-91.
  • Cole Roskam, “Practicing Reform: Experiments in Post-Revolutionary Chinese Architectural Production, 1973-1989.” Journal of Architectural Education 69, no. 1 (March 2015): 27-38.
  • Cole Roskam, “Envisioning Reform: The International Hotel in Postrevolutionary China, 1974-1990.” Grey Room 58, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 84-111.

Anticipated Impact

I hope that this work illuminates a previously underexamined period in 20th century Chinese architecture and expands our understanding of China’s architectural development in relationship to other architectural movements around the world at the time. Each of my three peer-reviewed articles offers new perspective on China’s architecture in relation to the country’s economic liberalization and internationalization over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s. Each article maintains its own unique focus on a particular dimension of China’s architectural production at the time, including the rise of the international hotel in China over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s, the expansion of China’s architectural exchanges and transformations within the Chinese design institute, as well as China’s architectural engagement with numerous countries within the African continent.

Mapping Modern Architecture in Hong Kong

Dr Cole Roskam and his team members won the Faculty KE Awards 2014 for his project Mapping Modern Architecture in Hong Kong.  The main objective of this project was to expand and deepen the general public’s knowledge of the Modern Movement, an important era in Hong Kong’s architectural and cultural heritage. Docomomo Hong Kong was organized by a group of committed academics and local residents to identify, catalogue and map major examples of modern architecture in Hong Kong. This project also encourages The University of Hong Kong (HKU) students to explore the history of Hong Kong’s built environment and their urban contexts. The group has worked to identify, catalogue, and map major examples of modern architecture in Hong Kong so as to create a channel for knowledge exchange between the project team members and the greater Hong Kong community through the study of modern movement while raising public awareness with respect to Hong Kong’s architectural heritage. Encouraging HKU students to begin to explore the history of Hong Kong’s built environment and their urban contexts, too is a major project objective.

Through the launching of a public exhibition, website, and student outreach programme, the project has also endeavored to raise residents’ and visitors’ awareness concerning the significance of modern architecture to Hong Kong’s built environment and cultural heritage. It also constitutes a valuable tool in introducing the public into the key concepts behind modern architecture and the global connections it reveals between Hong Kong and the world.

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 School of Professional and Continuing Education (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.

羅坤博士(Dr Cole Roskam)及其團隊憑著「編目香港之現代主義建築」獲建築學院頒發2014年學院知識交流獎。該項目的主要目的是擴大和加深大眾對現代運動的認識,而現代運動是香港的建築和文化遺產的一個重要時代。

2011年本港各界就重建1950年代落成的中區政府合署展開熱烈討論。該建築群對建築學愛好者來說,彰顯着現代主義運動對許多20世紀設計的影 響;然而社會上也有人認為它們與現時的高樓大廈顯得格格不入。究竟應如何讓更多社會人士明白這些建築物的價值呢? 為此,來自香港大學、香港中文大學、香港大學專業進修學院的學者及關注該議題的市民決定建立國際組織Docomomo(即Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement的英文縮寫)-「記錄與保護現代建築運動」在香港的分會,以提高人們對香港碩果僅存的現代主義建築之認識。

香港作為前英國殖民地和活躍的國際轉口港,香港在十九世紀末和二十世紀初受到現代建築的影響,也對其產生了重要作用。Docomomo 香港不但製作小冊子和網站,還舉辦公眾展覽和學生推廣計劃,令市民和遊客意識到現代建築對香港建築環境和文化遺產的重要意義。該機構希望將來能再次舉辦展 覽,並為本地居民和遊客設計觀賞本港現代主義建築的行程