IMAGES of gold phoenixes and fire-breathing dragons are as exotic and stereotypically Chinese as Suzie Wong standing in Wan Chai. And when nailed against a red column or wall, they become a postcard-perfect picture opportunity for the benefit of tourists. But the essence of Chinese architecture is far more complex. While making vast profits remains the driving force behind architectural design, a debate on whether to incorporate traditional Chinese elements in modern buildings is gathering momentum. As high-rises penetrate the sky in Hong Kong, China and developing countries throughout Asia, people are demanding a mixture of modern conveniences and culturally rich settings. 'The debate surrounds how to copy, how to adapt, and how to employ the spirit of traditional Chinese elements into modern-day buildings,' said Dr Ho Puay Peng, a lecturer in the Chinese University's architecture department. 'If you transplant a building into China from the West, the building might fail to address the people and their culture. I'm not saying we should not build skyscrapers in China, but we have to be sensitive,' he added. Yet at the same time, it's difficult for architects to bypass modern demands. Escalators, air-conditioning, elevators and drainage systems are all essential for today's office buildings and shopping centres. In Hong Kong Dr Tao Ho is recognised among his peers for his attempts in China to harmonise traditional Chinese architecture with modern needs. He is currently working on a shopping complex in Suzhou and a vacation village with a health spa in Hangzhou, near the West Lake. Both cities boast a long history, with Suzhou, famed for being visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century. Dr Tao Ho compares projects in such historically rich areas to repairing a Rembrandt painting. 'One simply cannot insert a Mondrian painting within the damaged portion, regardless of how great the Mondrian is,' Dr Tao Ho said. 'In such a situation one has to try to paint within the damaged portion in the manner of Rembrandt both in form, colour, style and texture so that the repaired portion will be well integrated.' Employing this keenness between a structure and its natural surroundings is practically impossible in Hong Kong. 'I have done this in China, but not in Hong Kong,' Dr Tao Ho said. 'Those [projects] were shaped by a society who cared about their heritage and culture. But in a place like Hong Kong, the only thing appreciated is money-making. That's why there is no cultural identity.' But he has attempted to add some cultural awareness through major works in the territory. 'I tried in my design of the Hong Kong Arts Centre to express the inner meaning of Chinese architecture,' Dr Tao Ho said. The centre's triangle-shaped windows in this case are styles resembling the multi-shaped windows popular in ancient times. Dr Tao Ho's works in China and Hong Kong employ a modern-day approach to implementing traditional Chinese elements into new buildings. But he says that the final design of his projects are not literal elements of traditional architecture. The hallmarks of Chinese architecture extend beyond gluing a fan to the wall or building green slanted roofs, according to architects and experts who attended the International Conference on Chinese Architecture at the Chinese University this week. They say Chinese architecture is the opposite of the Western discipline. Traditionally, Chinese architects looked at spatial relationships. 'The Chinese believe it is not very good to look at a garden at first sight and see everything,' Dr Ho Puay Peng said. 'You have to show a garden bit by bit. There is a path that guides the eye. Every view is very contrived, very controlled.' This effect can also be seen in temples throughout Hong Kong. The popular Wong Tai Sin Temple is one of the more familiar examples of traditional Chinese architecture in Hong Kong, said Jeffrey Cody, the Chinese University's new lecturer in the architecture department. 'At Wong Tai Sin you have the feeling of moving from the interior to the exterior. There is an entry space into the courtyard and then you move into a religious worshipping space.' In the temple grounds worshippers can roam around specific spots designated for worshipping, fortune readings and the purchase of herbal medicines. The intricacies of Chinese traditions and culture also help to shape the forms that eventually become homes, workplaces and social gathering spots, said Professor Edward Lye Kum-chew, head of the architecture department at the University of Hong Kong. 'Architecture cannot just spring out of no base,' Mr Lye said. Instead, everything from how the extended Chinese family eats dinner to how they walk into a room affects the way a home is built. Prior to the Great Depression of the 20s, architects in the United States also started employing Asian elements, as well as forms from other parts of the world, in movie theatres and housing developments around San Francisco and Seattle, Mr Cody said. The random placing of elements may seem out of place and impractical, but architects agree that if their clients are happy with their homes, so be it. There have been praiseworthy attempts to use something from the past in commercial ventures, Mr Cody said. Recently in the course of demolishing the Kowloon Walled City, workers uncovered two ancient stone tablets bearing the Chinese characters for 'south gate' and 'Kowloon Walled City'. Developers have preserved the tablets to be placed in the new Kowloon Walled City Park, which is being built on the site. 'That's a good example of how a piece of Hong Kong's heritage is being used for inspiration for a new design,' Mr Cody said. 'It's not a pastiche which is being applied to the top of a building. Instead, it is restored and it becomes a centrepiece for landscape design.' But overall, the future of incorporating traditional designs in modern Hong Kong building appears to be bleak. Mr Lye said students of architecture, mostly trained in the West, find it difficult to understand traditional Chinese elements. 'Hong Kong is so eclectic,' he says. 'Most of us are bilingual. Most of us can communicate better intellectually in English than in Chinese. We subconsciously are thinking Western, although our habits are colloquial.' So, each year, architecture students at the University of Hong Kong make trips to China to see the traditional Chinese designs. These trips are aimed at bringing awareness to the students, but Mr Lye said students taking the knowledge into their potential careers is another story. 'They don't know how because Hong Kong, I'm afraid, is just not a Chinese place. Most of the students live in housing estates. How really Chinese is that? It's a rat cage.' Perhaps, the closest modern building representing the pride of being Chinese is I.M. Pei's Bank of China Building in Central, say local architects. It's not the tallest building in Hong Kong, but it commands as much attention as the eccentric orange, red and yellow decor of tea rooms in the territory. There are no superficial ornaments hanging around the Bank of China Building to show that it's Chinese. The structural element is big and grand, which makes the windows look smaller from the outside. Each row of windows doesn't designate a floor, like in most other skyscrapers; rather there are three to a floor. 'It's a visual illusion that makes the building seem bigger,' Dr Tao Ho said. 'The simplicity of the form, the way Mr Pei divided the facade makes it distinct.'