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Architecture Misfit #37: Luke Him Sau

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Many of the photographs in this post are owned by Edward Denison, co-author of the book that prompted this post, and where I first learned about Luke Him Sau. Many of the other photographs are from the family archive.

An architect like Luke Him Sau would have had to exist. He was born in Hong Kong in 1904. His father was a wealthy merchant and Luke had a private tutor between the ages of four and sixteen when he entered St. Joseph’s school in Hong Kong. There, he received an education typical for the families of wealthy Chinese, but it was also where he was introduced to this thing called architectural drawing. He graduated with top marks for Chinese and English, and his father subsequently paid for a four-year apprenticeship at Denison, Ram & Gibbs, a British firm of architects, civil engineers and surveyors, Ram being the architect to whom Luke was apprenticed.

Ram had worked for George Somers Clarke who had worked for Charles Barry on the Palace of Westminster. I’m more inclined to believe in the transmission of knowledge and skills from master to apprentice than I am in the modern teacher-student substitute.

Nevertheless, entering the field of architecture in this way would have been unusual at the time for the Chinese perception was that designing buildings was a task for tradesmen. Western buildings were designed by colonial practices such as Palmer & Bird that was formed in 1868. Clement Palmer designed the first Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building in 1883 and the firm took its current name of Palmer & Turner (a.k.a. P&T) in 1884. In 1900, there were as many as 15,000 Chinese students in Japan and the first Chinese architects learned about architecture there as engineering. Between 1910 and 1930, an increasing number of Chinese students studied architecture in the US, most notably at the University of Pennsylvania and were to become influential upon their return to a China less resistant to Western ideas.

Proficient in two languages and a product of two education systems meant Luke was one of a small group of professionals who could see both sides of the cultural divide between East and West. Luke Him Sau was to later grapple with the question of what a modern Chinese architecture should be. But first, in 1927 and after four years at Denison, Ram and Gibbs, he went off to study at London’s Architectural Association.

That sounds glib, as people just didn’t “go off” anywhere in 1927. Luke would most likely have travelled from Hong Kong to London by a P&O steamer on the way back to London from Shanghai or Yokohama, possibly stopping at Bombay, Aden [in Yemen], passing through the newly-completed Suez Canal and stopping once more at Marseilles before reaching Southampton. People exchanged pre-paid traveller’s cheques into local currencies to fund travel expenses. Telephone usage was becoming more widespread but all communications and reservations would have been made well in advance by letter.

Much of this post will be a summary of this book, the only book on Luke Him Sau you’re likely to find and for which we should be grateful. An Edward Denison is one of the authors.

Luke Him Sau stayed in London for three years at the YMCA in Tottenham Court Road, a couple of hundred metres from the AA in Bedford Square and the British Museum to the north-west and a 15-minute walk from London’s Chinatown to the south-east. Whether intentionally or not, he was midway between two cultures once again. We know little about what Luke studied at the AA but the period he was there was one where the question of “Modernism” was being considered for the first time.

Back in China, modernization was not only being considered but acted upon and one aspect of this was to overhaul the country’s banking system. In 1929 in his third and final year, Luke [as is the Asian way, Luke is the surname] met Zhang Jia Ao who was general manager of the Bank of China and in London for the opening of the banks first foreign branch. Zhang needed an architect to oversee his planned expansion of the bank’s operation and to head the bank’s architectural department at its Shanghai office.

The branch manager was Mr. Pei Tsuyee, (father of Ieoh Ming who we know as IM Pei). Charged with researching European bank architecture in preparation for his future position, Luke left London for Paris in March 1930. There, the bank had arranged people to act as guides and for the Chinese Legation to arrange letters of introduction to banks and bank architects across Europe. Luke began a personal diary as well as taking notes for his future report. The observations indicate someone conversant with The Orders but unimpressed with their use to contrived monumentality at the expense of “the scientific arrangement of units”. He stayed five days in Paris before travelling to Lyon and on to Geneva, and then Rome, noting it “astonishing how punctual continental trains are in comparison to English ones.” From there on to Venice and then to Zurich (where he was most impressed with the bank architecture) and then on to Stuttgart just in time for the Weissenhof Exhibition. He did not comment on the houses but remarked that he did find “a very pleasant modern church.”

Brenzkirche by Alfred Daiber is just down the road and fits the description but is unlikely to have been completed in 1930.

Next came Vienna, Berlin and Frankfurt followed by Budapest, Prague, Dresden and then back to Berlin where he toured the new housing developments and was impressed with what he saw. Then on to Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm, always meeting architects who were happy to show him around and provide him with drawings. No notes exist of a brief trip to the US before returning to Hong Kong briefly en-route to Shanghai.

Shanghai, 1930. The building with the pyramid-topped tower is Sassoon House, designed by architects Palmer & Turner and completed 1929.

Luke Him Sau had married shortly before leaving for London and, in addition to his responsibilities of designing the buildings for China’s new Bank of China, he designed a house, Dah Hsia Villa for himself and his wife. It could almost have been a proto-modernist 1930s villa in England. The rationality of the floor plan owes little to the AA.

The personal lives of architects are often veiled. Luke Him Sau was born into a wealthy family and had a privileged education, although his choice of the Architectural Association was unorthodox. He managed to meet the right people and had a career with significant responsibilities waiting for him in Shanghai before he even graduated. To have had a villa such as the one above built within two years of arriving in Shanghai suggests either significant income or significant parental support. He wouldn’t be the first architect to have either or both. What’s important is what he did with the opportunities he had.

Altogether about 130 projects are attributed to Luke Him Sau, with the first being the Xiamen branch of the Bank of China in 1930 and the last being a villa in 1963. The early years have many offices and other buildings for the Bank of China, the middle period spans the war years and includes factories, an arsenal and air raid shelters. The latter period features all types of housing. The early buildings are confident and accomplished. The first building is the Hongkou Branch from 1933 and the second is the Yates Road Branch from 1934. Both are mixed use buildings with public banking halls on the ground floor, a level of bank offices on the first floor and a mixture (bank worker) apartments above.

Hongkou is a very long and narrow building appearing less so by the curve and the emphasized verticals. This is a very educated response to an old problem but Yates Road, on the other hand, is an oddly shaped building with the curve emphasized by horizontal banding terminated by a tower feature at each end. The tower at the entrance end contains the elevator shaft and can be said to be a Modernist tower but the tower at the other end is a visual effect. To say it is evocative of a Chinese scroll is to view vestiges of pre-Modernism as consequences of Modernism which, in a weird timewarp kind of way, they did turn out to be.

Here I’ll include the Bank of China Residential Quarter (1934) in Jessfield Road as an example of a housing scheme. The organization and planning are typical of housing being built across Europe at the time to house workers. That it was company housing explains the level of detail and the swimming pool in the courtyard. That’s Luke Him Sau standing on the right, in front of the fountain.

Luke’s office was still small when, in September 1934, the Bank of China jointly commissioned Luke and Palmer & Turner to design their new headquarters on the site of the former German Club Cocordia. Whether the relationship was one of lead designer and architect-of-record we don’t know, but construction began in 1936 and construction of the seventeen storey building was completed eighteen months later.

It would be 1940 before the Bank of China moved into their new headquarters next to Sassoon House because the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1937. Whoever could escape to Hong Kong did, while the government relocated to Chongqing 950 kilometers inland. The Shanghai Bank of China was Luke’s 25th building since arriving in Shanghai seven years earlier.

I’m starting to see a bit of Edwin Lutyens in this Bank of China headquarters. Luke couldn’t not have known about Lutyens as Lutyens was the pre-eminent British architect in the late 1920s when Luke was in London. I hadn’t known about Lutyens’ Manchester Midland Bank Building from 1935. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #35: Edwin Lutyens]

As head architect for a major client, Luke was better placed than most to function in the de-facto capital. One of his first jobs was to design a new branch for the Bank of China. It’s austere yet dignified, something that could also be said about Lutyens’ buildings of the 1930s.

There’s much more than this to tell. Japan surrendered in 1945 soon after the world’s second atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki, and the people of Chongqing began to make their way back to Shanghai where the municipality formed the Shanghai City Planning Board to combine the previously distinct zones of international control into something more functionally coherent. Luke left the Bank of Shanghai after 17 years and began three years work on his 25 Years Redevelopment Plan for the City of Greater Shanghai. It was not to be. By 1949 China was to be thrown into turmoil again with the Nationalist government retreating to Taiwan and the Communists claiming power. Some like Luke and his family had the third choice of emigrating to Hong Kong or elsewhere. Luke left mainland China in 1950. He was now 46. The architectural and intellectual community that had sprung up in Shanghai 1945-1950 split into those that left and those that stayed.

The surge of people into Hong Kong greatly strained the city’s infrastructure and resources for housing, education, health, and police. It was a time of hardship for refugees. For two years, Luke and his family stayed in the surgery of his brother-in-law. Being fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English was a definite advantage and Luke was asked by Palmer & Turner to help with the design of the new Hong Kong branch of the Bank of China. That’s it on the left of the HSBC building. There’s a family resemblance with the Bank of China branch in Shanghai they both designed in 1934-36 but we don’t know whether this is due to Luke, P&T, the Bank of China or any combination of the three.

Luke registered as HS Luke and Associates in 1948g He was a foundation member of the Hong Kong Society of Architects in 1956 but work was scarce until he met a Dr. Chui who was a major landowner.Dr. Chui became a major client, first for a private residence (which led to another, as these things go) and then for apartment buildings at Repulse Bay that Dr. Chui and his brother were developing. This next image includes four of Luke’s buildings in Repulse Bay but I want to concentrate on the tall one at the rear, Repulse Bay Towers 1960-1964.

The building is organized as four attached towers having their own elevators and two access staircases, one being used as service stairs. This means that two apartments are accessed from each landing shared by an elevator and a stairwell behind the screens on the front of the building. Separate service stairs (in the image at left, below) access the kitchens and service rooms. It’s a very efficient arrangement that reduces corridor space to the minimum. Only the addition of elevators and service stairs makes it different from his apartments of 1934.

Internally, the apartments are planned on half levels but, without detailed plans, it’s not possible to tell if they are scissor apartments in the same sense as British ones such as Corringham (from 1965) were. Property sites list them as having four half-levels internally but, without more readable plans, I can’t see why this is necessary if there’s no access corridor shared across the entire building. The internal stairs may just be there to make the apartments seem larger than they are and, if so, that’s a very clever commercial decision. [c.f. The Inscrutable Apartment]

If so, and however clever it may have been, it does not seem like behaviour befitting an architecture misfit. The career of Luke Him Sau isn’t even over yet but already it’s a fascinating career case study at first in focussing, and then in survival. Usually, I decide whether an architect is a misfit architect or a career case study by looking at how they responded to the circumstances they found themselves in. Author Edward Denison voices the same sentiment.

The period 1950-1965 was not all spent designing luxury apartments for property speculators. Other projects included a church, a school, a hospital and public housing. As well as being lovely, his Chapel at Wah Yan College (1958-1960) is an example of passive design for the Hong Kong climate.

The So Uk Housing Estate (1957-1962) was a seminal high-density housing development by the newly formed Hong Kong Housing Authority. Luke’s contribution to the masterplan was the three T-shaped block in green, below, that accommodate the development’s community amenities that included two primary schools, a community hall and various sporting facilities.

The block design was highly modular, making use of standardized prefabricated components for ease and economy of construction and maintenance. This became the standard approach of the HKHA as the intense pressure on housing in Hong Kong was to never let up. [c.f. Plan B]

But what to make of all this?

  • Perhaps if Luke Him Sau had remained in London after graduating from the AA he would have been made an honorary British architect as Zaha Hadid was? This is unlikely, given that notions of empire and nationalism were to going to tear the world apart once again.
  • Perhaps if Luke Him Sau had gone to the US instead and stayed there, he would have become known as a successful American architect of Chinese origin, much like I.M. Pei?
  • Perhaps if Luke Him Sau had gone to either the US or the UK but returned to China and stayed there post-1949 he would be remembered in China as a Chinese modernist architect? Perhaps, but only in China.
  • Perhaps if Luke Him Sau had never left Hong Kong in the first place he would have not had to return to it and begin a new phase of life and career? Certainly, but this would then be an entirely different story. It’s pointless to speculate as choices were made and events unfolded the way they did.

During just the mainland China phase of Luke’s career over ten million Chinese of people died in China but Luke lived to design buildings for wherever he was. Being born into a wealthy family never hurt any architect’s career but l believe Luke’s apprenticeship at a firm comprising two engineers and an architect was responsible for his later output having the synergy of construction, design and economy I see. Being pointed in the right direction also helps and Luke did go on to London to study at the AA. The only thing left is an opportunity to start and Luke had that with one chance meeting that changed the course of his life. The offer would not have been made if he hadn’t conveyed the impression of competence, earnestness and an enthusiasm for architecture.

Luke Him Sau
[1904 – 1986]

for doing what had to be done,

misfits’ salutes you!

CODA: Luke had to escape his own country three times. The first was to Chongqing in 1937 when the Japanese invaded Shanghai. The second was to Hong Kong in 1949 when the Communist government came to power. And the third was in 1967 (at 63) when it looked like mainland China would invade Hong Kong. He and his wife moved to Houston to join their eldest son who was now teaching there. They couldn’t settle and nor could Luke find work in New York. After two years, the anticipated situation in Hong Kong never eventuated and they returned. Luke spent the last twenty years of his life writing poetry. He had never sought fame and admitted to being a loner.


I couldn’t find any reference to Mr. Pei and Mr. Luke ever meeting, despite Luke knowing Ieoh Ming’s father when he designed the first Bank of China headquarters in Shanghai. Ieoh Ming’ was born in 1917 and would have been 13 in 1930 when Luke began his busy period of work in Shanghai upon returning from the US. Ieoh Ming left China to study at the University of Pennsylvania in 1935 but transferred to MIT and gained a bachelor degree in 1940. There wasn’t much point returning to occupied China so Pei continued his studies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design during Gropius’ tenure. There was a break working for the National Defense Research Committee but Pei earned his master’s degree in 1946 the year after Japan’s surrender. He went on to become an assistant professor at Harvard, not returning to China or visiting until 1975. An obituary in the New York Times records IM Pei’s father’s death in Hong Kong in 1982. Luke died in 1986 so a respectful visit couldn’t not have occurred. In 1990 IM Pei was to design the Hong Kong headquarters of the Bank of China.