Cultural Transfers #8

Chen Kuen Lee (1915–2003)

Housescapes. Organic Architecture in Stuttgart, Berlin and Taiwan

Hongkong Bar, Berlin, 1957, © Privat Archive Yu-Dembski
Hongkong Bar, Berlin, 1957, © Privat Archive Yu-Dembski

The architects of New Building looked for unconventional and ahistorical spatial ideas for design challenges. By exploring non-European cultures, these architects were able to question their own European origins and to gain new formal input. Lee‘s work with Hans Scharoun took place at a time when Chinese architecture was attracting great interest. Hugo Häring, Hans Scharoun and Chen Kuen Lee therefore founded a Chinese Werkbund, a group which analysed writing, publications and images from China, a lot of which had been made available in Berlin by the research of sinologist Ernst Boerschmann. Lee’s role as an intermediary was a key part of this process.

From what he found in western culture, his interest in traditional Chinese building, and his ability to find his own spatial solutions, Lee developed his own form of transcultural architecture. His knowledge of two discourses, European and Chinese, opened up intercultural exchange that took him beyond his own original traditions.

His designs for roofs show this very well. He created an architecture in which the roof is seen as a continuation of a landscape, with folded roof landscapes in elegant harmony with the building and its surroundings.

Lee’s interiors are highly detailed, with delicate and intricate staircases and balustrades. The centre of the house with an open fireplace and water basin reflects a balance of opposites and the traditional Chinese Book of Changes, I Ching. A quest for a balance between inside and outside, fire and water, landscape and architecture is a reflection of Lee’s east-western thought and work.

Inspired by Hans Schaourn’s school buildings: Chen Kuen Lees design for a detached house; © AdK
House of Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, 1966, winter garden with operable roof; Photo: A. Körner, © bildhübsche Fotografie
Hongkong Bar, Berlin, 1957; © Privat Archive Yu-Dembski
Chen Kuen Lee, House of Lin family, 1997, Taiwan; © AdK
House of Dr. Gärtner with garden design by Hannes Haag, Bretten-Sprantal, 1979-81; © H. Haag
Apartment house in Berlin-Schlachtensee, 1963-64; © A. Körner, bildhübsche Fotografie
Housing complex, Märkisches Viertel, Berlin, 1965-70, staggered roof (detail); © A. Körner, bildhübsche Fotografie