How a Chinese influenced the New Objectivity movement in architecture German-Chinese architect Chen Kuen Lee

Left: Haus Audry, Steinfort, Luxemburg; Photo: M. Koch | Right: Chen Kuen Lee in his office, 1985
Left: Haus Audry, Steinfort, Luxemburg; Photo: M. Koch | Right: Chen Kuen Lee in his office, 1985 | Photo: M. Koch

Chen Kuen Lee spent most of his life in Germany, where he studied and trained in architecture and went on to influence the New Objectivity movement. He learned about the Chinese architectural tradition mostly from the German Sinologist Ernst Boerschmann.

Born in the province of Zhejiang in Wuxing (吴兴), Chen Kuen Lee (李承寬, 1914–2003) left Shanghai along with an uncle in late summer 1930. The uncle had dealings as a lawyer with the Siemens-Schuckert electrical engineering company and encouraged his nephew to go to college in Germany. Lee studied architecture in Braunschweig for a few years, then transferred to the Technische Hochschule (polytechnic) in Berlin, where he took his engineering degree in 1937. When the Japanese attacked China that year, he stayed on in Berlin to gain professional experience and wait and see how things developed back in the home country.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, nearly all the modernist architects emigrated from Germany, where they’d been execrated and persecuted by the new powers that be. Lee found a job in 1937 as assistant to Hans Scharoun, one of the last modernists left in Germany. Working in Scharoun’s office till 1942, he learned to rethink the concepts of the avant-garde in that bourgeois niche, in which a group of architects sought to sustain their own artistic world,  against the ideological pressure of the German National Socialists. Together with Scharoun and Hugo Häring, Lee discussed aspects of traditional Chinese architecture within a small private circle in the year 1941–43. At the time the Nazis demanded a traditional “German” steeply pitched roof, in contrast to the modernist penchant for the flat roof. Häring, Scharoun and Lee found the elegant solution of the “roofscape”, a characteristic of traditional Chinese design expounded in the writings of the eminent Sinologist Ernst Boerschmann. Boerschmann was of vital assistance to Chinese students in Germany at the time, providing them with money and petitioning the authorities to protect them from persecution.

 

  • Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Scharf, Oberstdorf, Deutschland, 1953 Foto: E. Deyhle, © Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Archiv
    Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Scharf, Oberstdorf, Deutschland, 1953
  • Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Kiekert, Heiligenhaus, Deutschland, 1960 Foto: M. Koch
    Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Kiekert, Heiligenhaus, Deutschland, 1960
  • Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, Deutschland, 1966-68 Foto: A. Körner, © bildhübsche Fotografie
    Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, Deutschland, 1966-68
  • Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, Deutschland, 1966-68 Foto: A. Körner, © bildhübsche Fotografie
    Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, Deutschland, 1966-68
  • Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, Deutschland, 1966-68 Foto: A. Körner, © bildhübsche Fotografie
    Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, Deutschland, 1966-68
  • Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, Deutschland, 1966-68 Foto: A. Körner, © bildhübsche Fotografie
    Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Dr. Gilliar, Nabburg, Deutschland, 1966-68
  • Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Audry, Steinfort, Luxemburg Foto: M. Koch
    Chen Kuen Lee, Haus Audry, Steinfort, Luxemburg
  • Chen Kuen Lee, Wohnanlage im märkischen Viertel Berlin, 1965-70 Foto: A. Körner, © bildhübsche Fotografie
    Chen Kuen Lee, Wohnanlage im märkischen Viertel Berlin, 1965-70

As war threatened to reach the capital in 1943, Boerschmann even helped young Lee obtain a scholarship to write his PhD thesis on traditional urban development in China, which he worked on in Bad Pyrmont (in Lower Saxony) and on the North Sea shore till 1949, but was unable to complete after Boerschmann’s death in 1949. And yet the years he’d spent working with Boerschmann had a lasting influence, for it was Boerschmann’s collection of historical documents and publications, photographs and illustrations, that familiarized Lee with the technical aspects of traditional architecture in his native country, knowledge Lee would later work into his conception of architecture in abstract form. After the Berlin Blockade was lifted in 1949, he returned to Hans Scharoun’s Berlin office before starting up his own firm in Stuttgart and Berlin in 1953.

Chinese restaurants, villas and social housing

Chen Kuen Lee’s first contracts were for the interior design of Chinese restaurants in Berlin, none of which has been preserved. With elegant arcs, abstract decoration and light furnishings, he succeeded in producing a contemporary rendition that gets away from all the usual hackneyed Chinese styles, and yet remains atmospherically beholden to the Far East. But his real vocation proved to be housing. In the late 1950s Lee made a name for himself far beyond the German borders with his free-standing villas in rural and urban locations. His crystalline constructions were written about in Germany and abroad and he was able to realize more than 60 different projects on various scales over the course of his career. His biggest complex contains more than 1200 units of social housing in Berlin’s Märkisches Viertel, which have recently been renovated.

Lee developed each project in its specific context, working the natural surroundings into the planning as a key element of design. He collaborated on a number of projects with landscape architects like the renowned Hermann Mattern or his pupil Hannes Haag as well as with his former colleagues at Scharoun’s office. German designer Günter Ssymmank, for example, worked on extravagant stairs, balustrades and furniture. The elegant interior design and the refined manner in which Lee integrated some of his buildings into the landscape showed ways of living in and with nature. The folded roofscapes on his buildings, their polygonal layouts and open common rooms starkly contrasted with the typical compartmentalized home in postwar West Germany.

Between China and Germany

Chen Kuen Lee saw himself as part of the tradition of the New Objectivity in Germany and his concept of space as a variety of the kind of organic architecture pioneered by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The foremost influences on his approach, however, were his first employer Hans Scharoun and the latter’s friend Hugo Häring: with them he discussed theoretical problems of a new conception of architecture during the war. As a young man, he had learned from Ernst Boerschmann about the conception of nature and traditional architectural models in his native country. His approach was reinforced by Polish philosopher Jean Gebser’s writings about an aperspectival world in which central or one-point perspective gives way to a fluid poly-focussed world view, analogous to old Chinese scroll paintings, which are experienced in a continuously flowing movement. The fusion of an abstract Chinese conception of nature with the possibilities of radical modernity yielded compelling and evocative spatial designs that remain striking to this day. Chen Kuen Lee’s architectural works in Germany are spectacular indeed and some of them are now protected cultural landmarks.

In the 1980s, after his architectural career in Germany, Lee taught as a visiting professor at Tunghai University in Taiwan, where he passed on his ideas and was even able to realize a few more projects till the mid-1990s. In 1981 he received a visit from Tongji University’s former dean of architecture, Feng Jizhong (冯纪忠), whom he’d known during his schooldays in Shanghai and during the latter’s student days in Vienna in the 1930s. In the mid-’80s, at Feng’s invitation, Lee made his only visit to Shanghai, where he gave a talk at the university. And then in the mid-’90s Lee returned to Berlin, where he died in 2003 in one of the flats he’d designed in Märkisches Viertel.