PROFESSOR Eric Lye Kum-chew is as far removed from the image of the stuffy academic in an ivory tower, as they come. The lively 58-year-old head of Hongkong University's architecture department has inspired a generation of Hongkong architects with his passion for his art, since he joined the faculty in 1976. His services to architectural education gained international recognition recently when he became the first Asian to be awarded the Jean Tschumi prize by the International Union of Architects. Professor Lye is no stranger to awards - one which brought him particular satisfaction was being elected Best Teacher by the Faculty of Architecture Students' Union in 1986. ''I was surprised because I'm quite a hard taskmaster, I'm very tough. I'm not a nice-guy teacher because I'm very disciplined, but it also means I get full-attendance in my classes.'' Professor Lye loves teaching almost as much as he loves architecture. He first discovered his gift for communicating ideas as a young man teaching Shakespeare to delinquent boys in Singapore. Born in Malaysia, educated in Singapore and America, Professor Lye has taught and practised architecture in Canada, Britain, Hongkong and more recently, China. His varied background has made him sensitive to cultural differences and acutely aware of local needs. He has, over the years, strived to impart his regional approach to students but this has not always been an easy task. ''Hongkong students are notoriously ignorant about the region,'' he said. They are often motivated by materialistic concerns because ''they do not see Hongkong as a country, as something permanent. Sometimes I feel they are ashamed of their own culture.'' He believes this sense of rootlessness is also apparent in the local architecture which he describes as ''almost having a global flavour''. Despite its cosmopolitan nature, Hongkong doesn't quite achieve a truly global outlook because of ''the speed at which buildings are built and the cost of land''. ''No one has built anything in Hongkong out of pride, except the Hongkong Bank and the Bank of China. These are the two cathedrals of Hongkong, they truly represent the Hongkong culture.'' IT is a culture that has evolved out of the Chinese culture yet is distinct from it. The Hongkong Chinese, the professor says, are ''as Irish as President Kennedy''. The professor himself, has no problems about his cultural identity. He is a man who's at ease being Chinese, yet feels no special need to prove his credentials as such. ''If you don't have pride in yourself, other people are not going to respect you. Respect is gained that way,'' he says. This is a principle he has adhered to throughout his distinguished career and one he hopes to instil in Chinese students on the Mainland. His message to them is: ''Be yourself. You can appreciate the West but you don't have to follow them all the way.'' Professor Lye is quick to praise the talents and motivation of Chinese students but warns them against merely imitating the West. ''I can understand why they would do that because they have been so starved of information. China must learn to trust and value its intellectuals if it wants to hang on to its wealth of human resources,'' he added. ''Staff are underpaid [in China]. They either leave or moonlight so much they cannot concentrate on teaching. It's almost obscene when they ask me how much I make in Hongkong, it's 100 times more . . .'' The professor becomes visibly excited when talking about the future of architecture in China. Here is a man with a vision for a land which he sees as teeming with infinite possibilities. But even this visionary has reservations. He accepts that in the rush for development, concerns for conservation and the environment will be overlooked. He also predicts that building and construction will be ''a mess for the next 20 to 30 years. And after that everything will be pulled down and built again.'' Architecture, according to Professor Lye, can only reflect life, not change it, and the job of an architect is to ''build and build well, to improve the environment, make people happier in the places they live and work''. The professor hopes that in China, at least, it might be possible to achieve this and provide a better-planned, greener environment. One that will incorporate the positive aspects of the Chinese way of life. Ask him to describe the hallmarks of Chinese architecture, and he will not mention a single pillar or courtyard. Instead, he offers ''birds, trees, flowers and greenery'' along with an emphasis on collectivity. ''The Chinese are basically a collective people, they never instinctively say 'I' . . .'' ''The problem with Hongkong,'' he says, ''is that we have over-commodified our urban space. You have to pay for everything, and there are no free spaces.'' Nor does he accept the excuse that the shortage of land in the territory is an obstacle to providing a better environment. ''In Hongkong nobody dares to articulate the word 'beauty'. . . but if beauty is a difficult concept to handle, awareness of a quality of life should not be a problem for anyone.'' Improving the quality of life would include making our cities greener, less noisy and free from air pollution, and Professor Lye believes that with proper planning and the will of government these are viable objectives. As a member of the Town Planning Board for six years, he says he was often frustrated by the lack of a ''cohesive vision'' on the part of a government with a structure dating from when Hongkong was a small colonial outpost instead of the metropolis it istoday. For the future, up to and beyond 1997 that is, he envisages that he will stay on to teach in Hongkong but with more trips across the border to advise on developments there. By choosing a career in education, Professor Lye knows he may be making less money than some of his former students but he has no regrets. ''I have my books, I go on holiday once or twice a year and occasionally, I go to a good restaurant,'' he said. ''Right now I want to concentrate my efforts on helping the Chinese architectural schools.''