Forms of Modernism in Shanghai: the work of hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec between the two World Wars

Introduction: Modern Architecture in China
Studying cities and countries that changed within their own time and cultures outside the mainstream of Western modernity reveals that the appearance of modern architecture is closely allied to local conditions where citizens aspired to particular standards of wealth, technology, and access to education. (Rowe, 2002; Cohen, 1995; Curtis, 1996) In Shanghai, the peculiar circumstances affecting its architecture comprised a diverse representation of nations among patrons of architectural design, the “golden age of a Chinese bourgeoisie” from 1911 to 1937 (Bergère, 1986), and the Western-influenced city physically distant from the West. Into this milieu in 1918 arrived the adaptable and talented Hungarian architect, Laszlo Hudec, who would design over 65 houses, office buildings, hotels, cinemas, and apartment houses by the time of his departure in 1945.
Hudec found a city in which the architectural traditions of the foreigners characterized the city’s foreign settlements; before 1949, over 56 nationalities represented in a 1936 census meant Shanghai was a melting pot of architectural styles from around the world. As new entrepreneurs, both foreign and Chinese, aspired to create a city of world-class stature, modernism became more fashionable, and Hudec is an important modernist champion, lauded today as one of the city’s major founders of its unique, exotic urban profile.

Laszlo Hudec: Background

Hudec’s architectural education gave him a thorough training in the application of a variety of styles (“eclecticism”) to formal massing around a ground plan. He attended the Royal Technical Institute in Budapest from 1911 to 1914, when the echoes of the Viennese movements began to dominate the old Prussian academic system, and when the methods of the French Beaux-Arts school were a strong influence on architectural education across Europe and the United States. (Moravanszky, 1998) Hudec’s father had been a well-respected builder, experienced in engineering and architecture. Hudec’s early work in Hungary, combined with the technical emphasis of the Budapest school, gave him the experience and knowledge that would come in very handy in Shanghai. After his graduation in 1914, he received a scholarship to pursue further studies in Italy, but was instead compelled to join the Austro-Hungarian army and to fight on the Russian front. Captured by the Russians in 1916, he was a prisoner of war for two years in distant Khabarovsk, escaping around 1917/18 to make his way south to Shanghai. (Hietkamp, 1998)  

Early '20s: Eclecticism

The beginning of Hudec’s career in Shanghai shows the architect adeptly utilizing his knowledge of how styles apply to specific functions. Shanghai in 1918 was a rapidly growing city, and Hudec easily found work with an American architecture, Rowland A. Curry, becoming Curry’s right-hand man and Associate within a few short years. They constructed houses, offices, and schools in a self-consciously American style, calling up types that could be quickly identified as American and undoubtedly reflecting the typical foreign Shanghailander’s desire for nation-identification. The American Club, of 1922-24, established Hudec’s reputation as an architect in Shanghai’s business circles, because it is his adept hand behind the conception drawings, his photograph in the local paper as primary architect. The Club is typically “American Colonial,” as the newspapers reported, with its Neo-classical references and tripartite division of façade; clearly, Hudec was quite familiar with the style.

After Hudec established his own office in 1925, he continued to design buildings that demonstrate an extraordinary versatility with styles. Versatility, while required of any late 19th century/early 20th European architect, enabled a creativity in the Hungarian Hudec in Shanghai that may not have been possible outside of that locale. Constantly looking outside his environment for ideas (though not impervious to Chinese architecture ), Hudec traveled to Europe, especially to Germany, in the late 1920s to learn about the latest developments in steel construction, and to the US around the same time to investigate modern skyscraper construction. Although raised a Lutheran, he built numerous churches in carefully studied national and denominational styles: the Catholic Country Church in an unusual rendering of Byzantine principles (for Chinese clients), the Moore Memorial Church in English brickwork, and the German Protestant Church in a modernist mode with asymmetrical plan and articulated massing clearly reminiscent of northern German church design in the post-World War I era. Hudec’s continued investment in eclecticism contrasts with the experiences of his colleagues in Europe. In Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian empire lands—on the war’s losing side—architects, observes William Curtis, oscillated “between despair at an internal collapse and hope in some radiant, new social edifice” (Curtis, 1996, 119). Curtis cites Gropius as the post-war figurehead for the new exploration of “Utopianism tinged with an underlying angst.” The possibility of an ideal architectural for a new society seemed portentous.

Late '20s, early '30s: “Expressionism”

Meanwhile, along with other architects in Shanghai, Hudec maintained a close connection with European trends, and for the rest of his life Hudec grieved the fall of the old order (Hietkamp, 1998), but the intense social and personal realities of social collapse and urgent need for new architectural forms simply did not exist for Shanghai’s foreign architects.  The romanticizing of Western life disconnected the city from the experience of life in struggling Europe, and indeed, from the rest of struggling China. (Abbas, 2002) However, Hudec’s architecture allows an alternative to the trajectory of modernist ideology in architecture that became so despised in the west in the 1970s because of its dislocation from meaning and location.
Hudec’s work in general is characterized by simple massing articulated by clean, geometric spaces. His early work is clearly a set of eclectic styles responding to the various needs of clients who seemed to allow him considerable artistic freedom of a sort that could be called “expressionistic,” or “flamboyant,” as Tess Johnston (1993) describes his Catholic Country Church. After five years of working in his own office, however, this flamboyance starts to find expression in new building types and experiments inspired by the ideas of contemporary architects in Europe and America who were trying to create an architectural form that responded to modern life in design and technology. This process towards a modernism expression suitable for Shanghai's cultural and climatic environment appears particularly evident in the works he realized for Chinese clients. Several buildings that can be paired together because of material, style, and time show Hudec’s interest in building tall, of which the Park Hotel is a prime example.

While height was a venue for showing status among Shanghai residents, and is especially significant given that the Park Hotel’s owners were Chinese, Hudec’s solution to that complex modern problem shows an architect both keenly aware of its developments in America and also of new building types in Germany after the war. The hotel, Hudec said, was inspired by Raymond Hood’s Chicago Tribune Tower of 1924, but the hotel lacks the Gothic aesthetic and does not fit with Hood’s later skyscrapers in New York, which Hudec saw when he visited in 1928, although the Art Deco detailing of interior design sets the hotel within the late 1920s aesthetic of streamlined decoration. In fact, the hotel and Hudec’s other buildings that share its style are dark, brooding buildings, with drawings of them emphasizing that character much like the work of early German Expressionists. These buildings, then, are a unique response to the tall building so integral to early modernist experimentation.

Late 30's: Maturing with Modernism

In the latter part of Hudec’s career, his personal style of cleanly articulated, simple massing ornamented with rich material and color transforms the likes of Le Corbusier’s machine-driven forms into a unique form of modernism. When the rest of the world was paring down architectural expense after the 1929 stock market crash, in Shanghai, reserves of silver kept the Depression at bay until the mid 1930s. The wealth of Shanghai’s Chinese entrepreneurs were reaching all-time highs, and it is no coincidence that during this period the majority of Hudec’s clients were Chinese. Thus the basic form of Hudec’s house for D. V. Wu, of 1935-48 (figure 4), with its covered driveway, shows a certain correspondence to Le Corbusier’s houses, but its round corner tower, exuberant grid designs in details, and turquoise facing tile do not. Hudec’s geometrical articulation of exterior massing to create structures similar is in some ways similar to European experiments of the early 1930s, but his buildings have an appealing individuality and flamboyance, much admired by Chinese and foreigners alike until the present day.

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