From Besztercebánya to Shanghai. The Life of Architect L. E. Hudec (1893-1958)

The career of L. E. Hudec (László Hugyecz) can be pieced together from all the letters he wrote between 1910 and 1958 about his achievements and travels, and from photographs and other documents. These have been preserved, except for 8 years (1922-1930), almost completely in the property of the family in Hungary. He kept the correspondence with his family in Besztercebánya (now Banska Bystrica, Slovakia) during his university years (1910-1914) and in his captivity from 1916 to 1918. After 1918 he regularly sent letters and photos, mostly to his father. From 1920 on, when his father died, he sent them to his siblings, most often to Jolán, and her husband István Jánossy, who was a Latin and History teacher. His letters from the European travels, and later from the USA have also been preserved completely.

In the planned book his architectural achievements will be discussed in detail in Luca Poncellini’s essay

1. Youth and University Years

This laconic portrayal of his origins illustrates the spiritual and cultural surroundings where László Hugyecz had started out, to become the objectively thinking, self-sacrificing, supporting, and still hard-working and creative architect, who is today one of the most recognized heroes of building design and construction in China.

“I was born on 3. January, 1893, in Besztecebánya (Zólyom county). I am the son of the master builder György Hugyecz and Paula Scultéty from “Alsólehota”, who was the daughter of the Lutheran minister  in Kassa (now Kosice, Slovakia). All of my paternal and maternal ancestors were Lutherans . My father’s forefathers were millers and farmers in the villages Cserény and Micsinye, which lay south of Besztercebánya. My mother’s ancestors were all Lutheran ministers, and can be traced back to Severin Scultéty, who was born in 1565. in “Alsólehota”, Zólyom county, and was a reknown author and preacher, fighting for the religious freedom at the Diet.
Wheter I am Hungarian or Slovakian, I do not know, and I am not wondering, because I can not tear myself apart, like my homeland was torn apart. I will always stay what I was before. Nobody asked me in the old Hungary if I was Hungarian or Slovakian. I loved them both, as my mother was from Hungarian origins, and my father was from Slovakian origins, and I was both, as well."

László Hugyecz’s father, György Hugyecz, a master builder had a prosperous building company in Besztercebánya, together with Lajos Rosenauer. Mostly they implemented the designs of Gyula Sándy, Lajos Ybl and Gyula Walder. Their company built the buildings of the Academy, the Lutheran grammar-school and the teacher's training-college in Selmecbánya, the Kamara-court in Besztercebánya, and they took part in the purist restoration of historic buildings as well (for example the parish church in “Besztercebánya”). László Hugyecz had worked on construction sites since he was nine years old, and when he was thirteen years old, he received his first assignment to sign a contract from his father, who was his role model both morally and intellectually.
In July and August 1910, László Hugyecz went on a trip on the ship István Tisza (Braila-Istanbul-Gibraltar-Rotterdam), and he wrote a diary of 400 pages, and took 60 photographs.
He registered at the Királyi Magyar József Technical University in 1910.  During his years at the university he wrote mostly about the antiquity classes, he transcribed the “Exposition of the Morphology of the Antiquity” by prof. Virgil Nagy. He also reported his designing assignments, for example: mausoleum in Ionic style, antique triumphal arch, roman bath, church plot “with German massing and layout, but Hungarian elements”. Gyula Walder, and Iván Kotsis, the assistant of Virgil Nagy both spoke very highly of his works, the plans for a vilage school, the architect’s house and a chapel in “Vihnye”. (Some of these drawings remained in the Hugyecz Heritage of Victoria University.)
He mastered in architecture and engineering in 1914, and he got a job in Lajos Ybl’s office straight away. Virgil Nagy also asked him to be his assistant at his department, but he was immediately drafted into the army.

2. War (1914-16) and PoW (from 1916 to 1918) and escape (in detail in his autobiography from 1941)

1. September 1914 he started his military training. He stayed at the 1st artillery regiment as a volunteer, thanks to the mediation of baron Albert Radvánszky. He had infantry, artillery and cavalry training (his notebook was preserved). He became a corporal. “I am not proud of my rank, because the things going on here are rather animal-like than human. I am deeply desperate, as nobody has any insight around here."
6. In June 1916 he was taken prisoner of war.
In 1918 he escaped, and ended up in Shanghai, using multiple names, nationalities, and languages, and his wide knowledge of his profession.
In November 1918, he arrived in Shanghai, and in the same month he already got a job as a draftsman, later as architect in the office of R. A. Curry. He started to use the name L. E. Hudec in official writings.

3. Between 1918 and 1924: the Years of Integration in Shanghai, in the Office of R. A. Curry

In the 1920s he had to design conventional buildings in different revival styles (for example Katz-house, International Saving Society Bank, etc.). He had nobody to learn from, because “the professionals around here have a conception of architecture like the average mason at home”. “The way they copy, they can not find the appropriate proportions, not even by mistake”. “You can only design traditional buildings, because anything modern is considered to be German, and that would be a suicide”. The technical publications available to him were out of date, and he felt like he was a novice again, drawing for Gyula Walder at the university.
He got married in the summer of 1922. His wife, Gizella Meyer was born in Shanghai; her father was a descendant of a Lutheran trading family from Bremen, and her mother of the English noble family Tisdall. The family had excellent social relations. Later on they had two sons and a daughter.
László Hugyecz subscribed the Hungarian periodicals Magyar Építőművészet (Hungarian Architecture), Iparművészet (Hungarian Arts and Crafts) and Magyar Művészet (Hungarian Art). His familiarity with classical styles, the practical experience he had from working with his father and from the war assured him a fast promotion, he soon became head of the office.

4. Between 1925 and 1939: independent architectural work in Shanghai

Architecture is applied art; the exterior appearance is the consequence of the interior.” “It isn’t necessary to create something new, because the new challenges and the new materials are also going to bring new solutions with them.

In January 1925, he opened his own architecture office. In addition to his customers from the international expatriate community (for example the Country Hospital), he also worked for the new Chinese administration and bourgeoisie. In his autobiography he wrote about hundreds of buildings, obviously including terraced houses.
He travelled to Europe and Hungary in 1927, 1928, 1931, 1935 and 1939. He also made longer study tours to Germany and the USA
In early 1930, he encouraged his brother, Géza to travel to the USA for a study trip. In the same year Géza arrived in Shanghai and joined the office (he died in 1933). There were 30 employees in the office, and 15 of them were Chinese.
László Hugyecz’s most fruitful period lasted approximately until 1937, this was the time he built his art deco and modern style public and private buildings. Not only did he design buildings, he also built them, and he invested part of his money in real estate. Numerous publications of his designs were issued in technical journals (he sent copies home of every single one). The Royal Institute of British Architects asked for the pictures and plans of the Grand Theatre for their archives.
The letters he wrote in 1937 contain brief vitriolic summaries about the international situation and the conflict between China and Japan. Amongst other things, he mentioned that he designed the house of Sun Jat Sen’s son. Throughout the year, he built five buildings simultaneously, and designed for the Catholics (he was the architect of the Jesuit mission).
His letters in 1938 were long sober historical discussions about the re-occupation of the Southern part of Slovakia by Hungarian troops. As a national liberal, he disapproved of both the Slovakian and the Hungarian chauvinists; he urged reconciliation and a Danube Confederacy as it was formulated by Lajos Kossuth in the 19th century.

5. 1940-1947 War; 1942- Hungarian consul of Shanghai (he writes about his work as a consul at length in his statement made at the United States Immigration Services and in  several letters)

The Lord doesn't want us to be judges in this life, but Good Samaritans.”

In January 1941 he received the long-awaited Hungarian citizenship and passport back. After the war, he wanted to retire, live for archaeological and historical research, and stay lengthy in Rome. He applied for the title of “Vitéz” (an order originally for military distinction in WWI).  He had been the president of the Hungarian Association in Shanghai.
From 1942 he was the honorary consul.
In 1943 he opened the Hungarian Consulate in Shanghai.
In October 1944 the Arrow Cross Party (the Hungarian Nazi Party) gained power in Hungary, and they closed the Consulate, but he managed the affairs of the Hungarian community over there as the president of the Hungarian Association. He highly disapproved of the persecuting of Jews (approximately half of the Hungarian community there was of Jewish origins) and of the cruelties of the Japanese. He saved Hungarian citizens who were Jewish from the ghettos. Thank-you-letters and testimonials from survivors: Lipót Kardos, Salamon Graf, Paul V. Schiller, Mrs. Dávid, Dr. Imre Kocsárd.
In 1947 he was planning to move to Switzerland, engage himself in archaeology, and have the family from Hungary visit them annually. They did travel to Switzerland, where he last met his siblings. László Hugyecz and Dr. István Jánossy travelled to Rome to pursue their scientific interests.  László Hugyecz was interested in the topography and the buildings in the city; he even contacted the Hungarian Jesuits. St. Peter’s Basilica and the exploration of the history of the necropolis were his long-time passion. He could visit the excavations, he took notes, too.
He was constantly trying to convince his nephew György Jánossy (who was an architect as well) to emigrate, so he can break away from his petty surroundings, and meet real architectural challenges.

6. Emigration to the USA

In 1948 they settled down in Berkeley, California.
In 1949 he was invited to give a lecture about Rome excavations, especially the St. Peter's grave in Vatican City at the University of San Fransisco, the Jesuit university. He published his article in the Journal of Bible and Religion in 1952. According to one of his letters, every conclusion he made concerning the grave he was just presuming from scientific publications, since the new results hadn’t been prevealed yet. He gave up his work as an architect, only designed his own house, and engaged himself in history and archaeology. In his correspondence with his nephew, István Jánossy, they discussed theological and religious issues, and he listed all the German and English authors he read.
In the 1950s, he still supported his siblings, who were living under hard circumstances in Hungary. He said about himself: “Although it was hard at first, but than I got used to being a stranger between the Chinese. It doesn’t matter where I go, I will always be a stranger, a guest, a Flying Dutchman, who is at home everywhere he goes, but still has no fatherland.” “And it is so, because my homeland is the beautiful “Tótország”, which is now called Slovakia, and the “tóts" (tót is the historical Hungarian name of people of Slovakian origin) suddenly became Slovakians – these things have helped me to feel like a lost person. I speak "tót" gladly and willingly. To quote Mikszáth again – it’s like my tongue is barefoot when I speak “tót" since my fathers ancestors were all “tóts".

He died in 1958 from a heart-attack, in Berkeley.

Júlia Csejdy
Art historian