It is a great discovery when you come across your country’s heritage in a faraway land. Your precious find adds special dimension to the place you are visiting, bringing it closer to your heart.
This was exactly my experience when, not too long ago, I learnt that Hungarian architect, Laszlo Hudec designed some of Shanghai’s most iconic buildings – from hotels, churches and banks, to schools and hospitals.
I decided to venture on a journey on foot to uncover Hudec’s architectural treasures in China’s largest city; a stroll around Shanghai that would not only take me past this famed master builder’s landmark structures, but also allow me to discover some of the most fascinating neighbourhoods in this megalopolis.
The Man Who Built Shanghai
Laszlo Hudec’s name commands deep respect in Shanghai. The life story of the architect referred to as ‘The Man Who Built Shanghai’ is an exceptional one.
Born in 1893 in the Hungarian town of Besztercebanya (now in Slovakia), Hudec was the oldest child of successful architect György Hugyecz and Paula Skultéty, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. Hudec showed a keen interest in his father’s craft from an early age. Recognising the great potential in his son, Hugyecz took Hudec under his wing and taught him not only the tricks of the trade, but to also understand every aspect of architecture. So, Hudec learnt the architect’s craft from the ground up, even engaging in manual labour like bricklaying, carpentry and stonemasonry.
Despite a promising start in his childhood, life became difficult for the 21-year-old architect. Soon after graduating from the Királyi Magyar József Technical University in 1914, Hudec was drafted into the army and found himself in the midst of WWI. Then in 1916, he was captured by the Russians and held captive in a prison camp in Siberia for two years. In 1918, while being transported by train to another camp, Hudec and his comrades made a daring escape near the Chinese border, and made their way to Shanghai. Almost half a decade since he had graduated, Hudec was finally safe again, but penniless.
Hudec’s luck, however, was about to change. His arrival in Shanghai couldn’t have been timelier, as the city was in the midst of an unprecedented development boom. Hudec quickly found work with American architect Rowland A Curry, and in 1925, he opened his own architectural firm. The rest, as they say, is history.
Through the 1920s and 30s, Hudec went from one successful venture to another. Soon, buildings showcasing Hudec’s architectural genius decorated Shanghai’s skyline. Hudec’s designs portrayed versatile styles – neoclassical, Art Deco, eclectic – making him a much sought-after master builder in Shanghai. During his heyday, Hudec designed more than 100 buildings. And now, after almost a century, most of them still stand proud as some of Shanghai’s most iconic landmarks.
Jaunt on the West Bank
The Huangpu river that runs through Shanghai serves as an aquatic divider of the city, giving rise to two distinct regions: the ultra-modern Pudong (on the east riverbank) with its soaring skyscrapers; and Puxi (on the west riverbank), the historical centre of Shanghai.
Hudec’s buildings interlace Puxi, creating an interesting ‘walk’ through history – from the Bund, fringed with high-end hotels and restaurants overlooking the Huangpu, all the way to Hongqiao district in the outskirts to the west of the city.
I started my westward bound Hudec journey of discovery from the Huangpu just behind the Bund, where my first stop was the Christian Literature Society Building with its characteristic crenellated profile, combining both Gothic and Art Deco elements. Completed in 1932, the building façade on the west was formerly the entrance to the Christian Literature Society, while the doorway in the east led to the China Baptist Publication Building, both operating simultaneously. The prominent building also housed Hudec’s offices back in the day. Today, despite being in the midst of major refurbishment works, the building stands out amidst the high-end fashion boutiques surrounding it.
Before heading towards the bustling tourist centre of People’s Square, I could not resist taking a moment to explore the Union Building of the Joint Savings Society. Hudec designed this building for the then newly established Joint Savings Society, which represented four main Chinese banks, in 1928. The building’s Georgian style design, distinguishable by the symmetrical forms based on the classic architectures of Greece and Rome, is clearly apparent in its exterior. The place still functions as a bank today, and is considered one of Shanghai’s most unique commercial buildings.
I made my way along the busy Nanjing Road East and finally arrived at People’s Square, which boasts not one, not two, but three of the architect’s most well-known buildings. The Moore Memorial Methodist Church, remodelled by Hudec in 1929, is distinctly captivating among its modern-looking neighbours, while just a stone’s throw away are two of his Art Deco pearls – the Grand Theatre and the Park Hotel (considered Hudec’s masterpiece).
At this point, one needs to pause, just to take it all in, and marvel at the spellbinding structures. Hudec was the master of Art Deco, and he seemed to have especially emphasised the style here, expertly crafting geometrical shapes and using dark hues to make Park Hotel’s facade unforgettable. Inspired by his trip to Chicago and New York in the early 1920s, Hudec’s artistic creation portrays a sense of timelessness – the main reason why Park Hotel’s architecture is ageless.
Completed in 1934, the impressive 22-storey 84m-high hotel was, until 1983, the tallest building in Asia. And a year before Park Hotel rose to the skies, literally a few doors away, Hudec’s other famous Art Deco building, the Grand Theatre, opened its doors. With its 2,000-seating movie theatre and breathtaking decor, it was the most modern and popular cinema of its time.
Today, the People’s Square, which sprawls before the hotel, is filled with modern buildings. But in the first half of the twentieth century, this was an enormous open space with a racecourse in its centre – a fact that demonstrates the unparalleled progress and development Shanghai has gone through in the last hundred years.
Leaving Puxi’s more modern locales behind, I headed towards the Former French Concession (FFC), a treasure trove of Hudec’s versatile and unique architecture.
From 1849 to 1943, this vast area was the foreign concession, which spread out from the northeastern part of today’s Xuhui District and the western part of Huangpu District (the former Luwan District), and occupied the centre, south and west of the city. It is widely considered Shanghai’s best areas by both locals and foreign visitors, and is often the prime residential choice among expats. A peaceful neighbourhood with tree-lined streets and quaint dining venues that cater to the residents, the FFC offers a tranquil suburban environment for those who want to escape the bustle of Shanghai city centre.
As I walked in a westward direction along the FFC’s Beijing Road, I came across Hudec’s iconic Art Deco ‘Green House’, which is now home to the Shanghai Urban Planning and Design Research Institute. Hudec designed this truly magnificent building in 1935 for the famous paint industry tycoon D V Woo, who produced huge quantities of green paint for the Chinese military. The structure’s fine lines are covered with stylish green tiles, which alongside the vivid red floor tiles, provide a striking contrast. As the institute is a government organisation, the building can only be viewed from the outside. But once discovered, it leaves an unforgettable imprint on the mind, architectural enthusiast or not.
Just a few blocks away from the Green House to the south of the FFC and hidden behind quiet Julu Road, is another special building. Constructed in 1931, Liu Jisheng’s Residence (also known as the ‘Garden of Psyche’), bears both Italian and Greek building styles. It was designed by Hudec at the request of coal tycoon Liu Jisheng, who wanted to present the villa to his beloved wife as a gift for her 40th birthday.
The building’s most distinctive element is its butterfly-shaped fountain in the garden, with Psyche (the Greek goddess of the soul, and wife of Eros, the god of love), bathing in springs of water surrounded by four angels. The statue, carved from white Italian marble, was Hudec’s gift to the newlywed couple. And since 1952, the eye-catching garden villa has belonged to the Shanghai Writers’ Association.
The FFC offers a vast catalogue of Hudec’s buildings, which are the ideal showpieces for both architecture style and functionality. The Engineering Building of Jiatong University; the neo-classical Ho Tung’s Residence, a snow-white villa that now houses the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum; the Country Hospital; and the McTyeire Girls’ School that still functions today – I could go on and on. All these magnificent buildings showcase Hudec’s adaptability to any style and his unsurpassable talent in designing buildings that can stand the test of time.
One of the biggest draws in the FFC building scene is Normandie Apartments, at the corner of Huaihai and Wukang Road. This residential building, with its triangular shape, closely resembles New York’s famous Flatiron Building. Built in 1924 under the commission of the International Savings Society, this unusual structure is still a spectacular sight along Middle Huaihai Road. The neoclassical building was the first in the city to feature balconies, making it a particularly fashionable residence in its time.
The Final Curtain
If you still have some time left on your architectural tour and want to finish your walk in FFC with style, make your way to the 22 residences on Route Ratard, and the Garden Villas on Route Dufour and Route Sieyes, which were all built as complexes and serve as quiet lane houses today. These structures will not only satisfy your architectural curiosity, but leave you with a sense of nostalgia for what Shanghai must have been like during the 1930s, and how this Hungarian architect defined Shanghai for decades if not for centuries to come.
Despite the invaluable built heritage that he created, Hudec’s life took a downward turn again in his later years. Although he was appointed as honorary Hungarian Consul post-WWII, the constantly changing and ebullient ‘new’ China made it difficult for Hudec to continue the life he was accustomed to, and in 1947, he left Shanghai with his family. With time, he abandoned all hope of ever returning to China and the famed architect never saw his buildings ever again. Hudec died in 1958 in Berkeley, California, USA, at the age of 65.
Between 1918 and 1947, Laszlo Hudec designed more than a 100 buildings in Shanghai. From this distinguished list, 25 were recognised as Shanghai Heritage Architecture. Hudec’s work remains a hallmark of the city, his name inseparable from the history of Shanghai.
In 2014, Hudec (together with his Park Hotel and Normandie Apartments) was voted by netizens as one of the 99 Shanghai Symbols, a campaign organised by the Shanghai Municipal Administration. He was the only foreigner on the list.
The Architect’s Residence
Hudec’s Shanghai residence is located behind Panyu Road. The Tudor-style building served as his family home from 1931 to 1936. After he had graciously offered his first almost complete house (today known as Sun Ke’s Residence) to an influential political client Dr Sun Yat-sen, he designed the Panyu Road home for himself – a cosy villa with a sprawling garden. Today, the master builder’s home is the location for the Hudec Memorial Hall.
In 1947, Liu Jisheng left Shanghai for Hong Kong and never returned, and Liu Jisheng’s Residence was taken over by the government in 1952. During the Cultural Revolution, which took place between 1966 and 1976, the white marble statue of Psyche in the garden of the residence was hidden away in the basement due to its overt female form. The statue has since been restored to its former glory.
A BIG THANK YOU travel 3sixty° wishes to thank Park Hotel Shanghai, as well as Livia Szentmartoni, Consul for Culture and Education, Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai, for their support in producing this story.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Shanghai from various destinations. airasia.com