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The English Rule of Law Ideal through Architecture and Symbolism

“Surpass all other structures in durability”: The English Rule of Law Ideal through the Architecture and Symbolism of the Former Supreme Court/ Legislative Council Building of Hong Kong

This was a presentation delivered in the symposium entitled "Legal Transplant: Technicalities, Language and Culture", co-sponsored by the Law and Society Focus Area, HKIAPS Chinese Law Programme, and the Universities Service Center for China Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as the Clarke Program in East Asian Culture and Law, Cornell University, on December 7-8, 2011 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Law is produced and reproduced in a context.  But the physical/ built aspect of this context is usually neglected.  This is a project about law and space, law and symbolism/ images.  It is about how images are being created and used and how meanings are being produced and reproduced.  I must say that this presentation is only a start and I have only done some preliminary work. 

Abstract of presentation

At the opening ceremony of the Supreme Court Building in 1912, Sir Frederick Lugard, the then Governor of Hong Kong, said, “[i]t seems to be a thoroughly British sentiment that our Courts of Justice shall always surpass all other structures in durability, firm set on their foundations and built four-square to all the winds that blow, as an outward symbol perhaps of the Justice which shall stand firm though the skies fall, and which we take pride in associating with the British flag.”

The Former Supreme Court Building of Hong Kong, designed by prominent architects at the time, Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930) and E. Ingress Bell (1837-1914), is a magnificent neo-classical two-storey granite building that combines Greek, Roman, English and Chinese architectural elements in an elegant way. Erected in 1912 on one of the earliest reclaimed lands in Hong Kong as part of the (Royal) Statue Square symbolizing the British imperial rule, the Building was the first purpose-built British court building in the Far East.  It's completion is more than twenty years earlier than that of the United States Supreme Court Building (built 1935).   And the United Kingdom's Supreme Court (established as a result of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to take over the judicial functions of the House of Lords) has only acquired its own building in 2009!  When the then Hong Kong Supreme Court was removed to a modern, functional, multi-storey building on Queensway, Admiralty in 1984, the Building was then used to house the Legislative Council.  It survived the Handover 1997 and had remained home for the legislature of the Special Administrative Region until October 2011.

Through the years, the layout of the Statue Square has changed much, but the Former Supreme Court/ Legislative Council Building still stands firm. With Hong Kong’s economic blooming, the surrounding landscape has largely been altered by the rise of commercial skyscrapers, but the Building, which will soon become the permanent home for the Court of Final Appeal, is still a strong symbolic expression of the English rule of law ideal. (Of course, how do the people conceive it is quite another matter.) The Building, a declared monument by law, deserves more attention in the study of the Hong Kong’s legal history and culture, as it has witnessed the constitutional and political history of Hong Kong. In this presentation, I attempt to examine and interpret the Building through the three-lens framework (i.e. the expressive lens, the behavioral lens and the societal lens) put forward by Charles T. Goodsell (2001) and to show how the English Rule of Law ideal is expressed in the language of architecture in the context of Hong Kong.


Charles T. Goodsell. 2001. The American Statehouse: Interpreting Democracy's Temples. University Press of Kansas.

Chris Miele. ed. 2010. The Supreme Court of The United Kingdom: History, Art, Architecture. London, NY: Merrell.

Costa Douzinas and Lynda Nead ed. Law and the Image: The Authority of Art and the Aesthetics of Law