The Story of Hungarian Architect László Hudec
László Ede Hugyecz (1893–1958) – later L. E. Hudec – was a Hungarian architect who ﬂed the vicissitudes of Europe in the early 20th century, taking with him the style and knowledge of European building design and construction. His body of work, spanning nearly 30 years of Shanghai’s economic and cultural “glory days”, includes the ﬁrst skyscraper between London and Tokyo. The 120th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated next year.
“Shanghai will always be the metropolis of the East.
Today it has 3 million inhabitants and each year it grows by 250,000 people.
The Chinese mentality is crucial for this
– their mainstay is trust, and the older a company is, the more trust they have in it.
This is my chance.”
(László Hudec, 1925.)
After 20 years of rampant economic growth in China, Shanghai, one of the largest metropolitan areas on the planet, has regained its former position as the feather in China’s cap. Its famous Pudong skyline, which arose from a rice paddy ﬁeld in less than a decade, is now deﬁned by sleek and shiny skyscrapers built for the new Chinese and foreign ﬁnancial elite. In 2010, the city’s success was showcased by its hosting of the largest ever World Expo fair.
The growth of Shanghai, now home to over 20 million inhabitants, carries on with breakneck speed, but the city has not completely forgotten its rich history. In fact, it is rediscovering one of its golden eras, the 1920s and 30s, a time when Shanghai was a free port and a magnet for people from around the globe who helped the city to prosper and thrive.
“Shanghai now is under going another golden age or renaissance and sees its roots in that period where the Chinese were exercising their power as wealthy people who have inﬂuence and who can communicate and deal with all these foreigners that are in their midst. Which is the same thing that is happening now except that now the Chinese have more control over what is going on. Because the government is recognizing the value of what’s going on in Shanghai and have granted it special economic status.” (Lenore Hietkamp, Hudec researcher, University of Victoria, Canada.)
For the World Expo in 2010, Chinese historians, students, architects, hotel managers and tour guides in different ways endeavoured to unearth long-buried traces of the glory days of the 1920s and 30s. One story that emerged was the remarkable life of a European architect whose buildings remain landmarks of Shanghai and integral parts of the history of the city.
The Hungarian architect László Hudec ended up in Shanghai, after having fought in the First World War, managing to escape from a POW camp in Siberia, and like other Hungarians, ﬂeeing East on foot. An immensely talented and resourceful man, Hudec would go on to design some of the ﬁrst modernist buildings in his adopted city, including the Park Hotel, the “ﬁrst sky scraper of the East” and the tallest building in Asia until 1982. He would also design Shanghai’s lagest theatre, the 2,500-seat Grand Theatre, as well as residences like the Green Villa, a signature piece of originality combining both European and Chinese styles.
The Shanghai that Hudec arrived in was a melting pot of nationalities and by extension architectural styles from around the world. A census in 1936 counted 56 nationalities living in the city, many of whom left their mark on the neighbourhoods where they made their home.
Entrepreneurs of the period, both foreign and Chinese, aspired to createa city of world-class stature, and modernism gradually appeared in Shanghai’s architecture. Hudec’s architectural education had given him a thorough training in the application of a variety of styles including modernism, as well as a solid background in technical materials and physical construction. He attended the Royal Technical Institute in Budapest from 1911 to 1914, when the echoes of the Viennese movements began to drive out the old Prussian academic system, and when the methods of the French Beaux-Arts school exerted a strong influence on architectural education across Europe and the United States.
In all, Hudec designed over 70 buildings in Shanghai, from family residences to churches, most of which are still in use today, albeit with completely different functions ranging from a disco to a hospital, and even a part of a zoo. These structures retain a common link, however; a distinctive mark of their creator, László Hudec.
A BRIDGE BETWEEN CULTURES: A EUROPEAN ARCHITECT IN CHINA
The impressive oeuvre of Hudec, who lived and worked in the city over 80 years ago, provides a link to today’s Shanghai and its people. From a Hungarian point of view, Hudec embodies the notion of winning over the Chinese – both economically and culturally, an effort currently being applied by the Hungarian government. Hudec, an architect, was able to spread European culture and building design by running a ﬂourishing construction business. As a testament to its respect for Hudec, in recent years, instead of tearing down his old buildings to make way for new skyscrapers, the city government has installed commemorative plaques on the buildings – each with his name inscribed in Mandarin and English.
His life, work, and personality also offer a stirring example of the healthy patriotism of Hungarians living abroad, their dedication to work, and last but not least – the unity and importance of the family, even when its members are separated by thousands of kilometres
The strength of Hudec’s feelings for his family as well as an ever-present homesickness while living in China was evident in letters he sent home almost every week, especially to his sister Jolán in Budapest. The correspondence produced a mountain of archive material, including over 250 letters, hundreds of photos and several photo albums of his architectural designs and writings. Fortunately, Jolán’s daughter Dr Eszter Jánossy, like many born during the Second World War, was reluctant to ever throw things away, and kept everything Uncle László ever sent. Piled in dusty boxes and stored on the veranda of her home in Budapest, she thought that “someone might make good use of them someday”.
Much of what we know today about László Hudec, the successful architect and inspiring personality, comes from those archives, now part of the Budapest-based Hudec Heritage Project.
FROM BESZTERCEBÁNYA TO SHANGHAI,
A STORY FIT FOR THE SILVER SCREEN
“I wasn’t sure if I should become a priest or an architect – but in today’s world people are more inﬂuenced by practical people – those who get results by doing, by their own hard work. These people’s deeds and words are quoted – and their lives become examples for others.”
What inspires a genius? Perhaps the work of another genius. At least that was the case for I. M. Pei, the brilliant Shanghai-born architect. In his memoirs, Pei tells of riding his bicycle in 1932 to the building site of Asia’s first skyscraper, the Park Hotel, and standing there in awe of the dimensions of the structure going up. The scene so impressed the young Pei that he decided at that very moment to become an architect instead of the lawyer his parents intended him to be. The architect responsible for Pei’s inspiration, László Ede Hugyecz, was born in 1893 in the Austro-Hungarian city of Besztercebánya, the oldest of six children. His father was György Hugyecz, the owner of a successful construction company that took part in building the ﬁrst underground railway on the European continent– the Millennium Underground in Budapest. Hugyecz ran the Besztercebánya-based company with Lajos Rosenauer, and their commissions included designs from famous Hungarian architects of the time, among others, Gyula Sándy, Ervin Ybl and Gyula Walder. Hugyecz’s mother, Paula Skultéty, came from a family of Lutheran ministers stretching back to the notable 16th century religious thinker, Severin Skultéty.
From the age of nine, the young Hugyecz spent his summers on construction projects with his father who made him sign his ﬁrst building contracts at the age of 13. Although daunted by the responsibility, he had no choice but to get the job done. Hugyecz wrote about this experience years later: “I had no idea how I was going to do it, but if Father expected me to get it done, then that’s how it had to be. This is how he raised us – that we shouldn’t be afraid of life. He just threw us in at the deep end and expected us to do the best we could.”
From 1905 on, the Hugyecz family lived in a Classicist villa designed by the head of the family in the centre of the city. They spoke Hungarian at home and all of their correspondence was in Hungarian, but they also spoke German and Slovak, and their national identity – at least until 1920 – was multi-layered.
Hudec wrote in a letter to a friend in 1952: “Whether I am Hungarian or Slovak, I don’t know, and I don’t wish to decide, because I can’t cut myself in two like they cut my homeland in two – I’ll always be what I was, no matter what my passport says. No one ever asked me in the old Hungary of St Stephen whether I was Hungarian or Slovak. I loved both because my mother was Hungarian and my father’s ancestors were Slovaks – therefore I was both.”
Before he enrolled at the Royal Hungarian Technical University (Királyi Magyar József Mûegyetem) in Budapest, Hudecz received his ﬁrst technical degrees in stone-masonry and carpentry in Besztercebánya. He graduated from the university as an architect in 1914. During his holidays he took numerous trips with his father and other students throughout Europe to study building design. Once he received his diploma, he was immediately offered a position in the architectural ﬁrm of Ervin Ybl. Soon after starting, however, the First World War broke out and Hudec was called up by the Hungarian Royal Army.
He trained in general infantry, ﬁeld artillery and cavalry, but as he was an architect, he was soon called upon for his map-drawing skills and technical knowledge in building anti-barrage shelters. According to the letters he wrote at the time, he was unimpressed by the war: “I’m not particularly proud of my military rank, what goes on here is more animalistic than human. I’m incredibly saddened because no one seems to really know what’s going on here.”
In June 1916, he was injured in battle and taken to Siberia as a prisoner of war. In 1918, however, using his knowledge of Russian and a fake passport, he made a daring escape from the prison camp and ﬂed south-east on foot all the way to the Sino-Russian border.
Hudec’s story of how he got to China resembles the plot of an action movie. “In May 1918, they loaded me up on the Danish Red Cross’s train with the wounded and the sick. This train advanced with great difﬁculty due to the shifting state of war between the retreating Reds and the advancing troops of Admiral Kolchak. We were held up for weeks and when news arrived that the invalids would be placed in the Berezovka prisoner-of-war camp with no hope of getting home, that is when I decided I would escape. I had missed the opportunity to go West, so I went East. After an adventurous trip, during which I was in danger of being discovered and shot on more than one occasion, I arrived in Harbin on the Russian- Chinese border in early October 1918, thanks to a false passport.” He continues: “I got to Shanghai by early November 1918. It was my intention to earn enough money here to get back home. I reported to the Russian consulate, because in the event of further travel, I would have to replace my internal pass to China and Japan with an external passport. Here they rewrote my name from Cyrillic to Latin letter by letter, and thus the spelling of my name became ’Hudec’ instead of Hugyecz.”
Once in Shanghai, he began to regularly write home to his family. “When I ﬁrst arrived in Shanghai, being ill, I decided that if I didn’t get a job as a draftsman, I would take a job as a bricklayer, street sweeper, or chauffeur. And that very nearly happened. For three days I went to all the architectural ofﬁces here and I was thrown out of each one. But I didn’t give up my desire to work.”
As it turned out, he did not have to work as a bricklayer or as a street sweeper, for in November 1918, he was offered a position as a draftsman at an American architectural ﬁrm, R. A. Curry. By now, he was signing his ofﬁcial drawings as L. E. Hudec. The beginning of Hudec’s career in Shanghai shows how adeptly he was able to apply different styles to speciﬁc functions. His ﬁrm constructed houses, ofﬁces, and schools in a self-consciously American style, clearly reﬂecting the typical foreign Shanghailander’s desire for a sense of national identiﬁcation. The American Club, built between 1922 and 1924 according to his plans, established Hudec’s reputation as a notable architect in Shanghai’s business circles, his photograph appearing in the local paper as that of the primary architect.
Hudec wrote in 1920, just before his father died: “They told me that I would be sorry if I went home to Hungary and saw the conditions there, that I wouldn’t last a month – but homesickness is the greatest sickness of all, and I had to go home. The good life is just a burden when you can’t share it with the ones you love.”
As a result of the Treaty of Trianon the same year, the Monarchy was dismembered and Besztercebánya became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia. The entire Hugyecz family was forced to move to Budapest, losing their house and most of their possessions and investments. Hudec himself was in an ex-lex situation with regard to his own citizenship. As he had been born in a city that was now part of Czechoslovakia, he ﬁrst received a Czechoslovak passport. He tried to renounce his Czechoslovak citizenship several times in favour of Hungarian citizenship, but his requests were refused by the Prague government on the grounds that his family had ongoing and costly lawsuits to settle, which Hudec now had to deal with as head of the family. He ﬁnally received Hungarian citizenship after 1938, when Hungary regained some of its former territories before and during the Second World War.
Though he was living thousands of kilometres away, Hudec had a perceptive vision of what was going on in Central Europe. In 1921 he wrote: “I don’t like national chauvinism. Either from the Hungarian side, or now from the Czech side. It always comes back to haunt you. Here I read the newspapers from Budapest, Vienna and Prague, and it seems they’re all lying. It would be best if I didn’t concern myself with politics.”
Hudec returned to Europe in 1921 to visit home and see his family and former teachers. Now the senior offspring of the family, he decided that he would be more able to help them ﬁnancially by working in Shanghai where the building industry was booming and where soon, he would be asked to run Curry‘s ofﬁce. Back in Shanghai, in 1922 he married Gisella Meyer, the daughter of a wealthy German trading family from Bremen with a vast network of business partners and friends. The couple would have three children together, two boys and a girl.
Work was by then ﬂowing in to the ofﬁce but Hudec decided he was ready to branch out on his own. In 1925 he opened his own architectural ofﬁce: L. E. Hudec Architecture and continued to design buildings that demonstrated an extraordinary versatility in handling styles. His career soared, on the back of his ability to satisfy all international tastes and expectations. His knowledge of European styles and trends enabled him to work for the British, French and Americans, but he also knew how to build, thanks to his engineering background and his study trips to Europe. Because of his extra-territorial status, he was also able to work for the new wealthy Chinese clients of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government. And not being a citizen of any of the colonial powers, he could thus be sued in Chinese courts if he did not fulﬁl his contracts.
Hudec’s son, Theo, gave the following reasons for his father’s success as an architect in Shanghai: “Well, when you think of the 30s in the States or anywhere else, it was the Great Depression. Shanghai was a boom town – that’s where my father made most of his money, when everyone else was ﬂat on their backs. And it really was a boom town and people from all over the world came there – Germans and Americans and Hungarians and you name it. My father was lucky and happened to be at the right time at the right place. Had he gone to other places in China, nothing would have happened.”
Although not impervious to Chinese architecture, Hudec was constantly looking outside his immediate environment for ideas. He travelled to Europe, and Germany in particular, in the late 1920s to learn about the latest developments in steel construction, and to the US around the same time to study 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 elements (for Chinese clients), the Moore Memorial Church in English brickwork, and the German Protestant Church in a modernist mode with an 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 sharply with the orientations of his colleagues in Europe.
Hudec’s children speak with admiration of how intensely their father worked throughout his life. His daughter Alessa, speaking from her home in Chandler, Arizona, said: “My father was on site every day when something was being built. He was always responsible for the end result. […] The Chinese wanted to outshine the Europeans because the Chinese were sort of looked down upon, you can’t deny that.”
Theo Hudec, speaking from Victoria Island in British Columbia, Canada, said: “My dad was so busy with his buildings and responsibilities – I’m always amazed at how he managed it all. These days an architect is just a small part of the process, just a cog in the wheel, but my father, he had to do everything from design to engineering, to statistics, to taking care of the workers.”
Hudec’s early work is clearly a set of eclectic styles responding to the various needs of clients who allowed him considerable artistic freedom of a sort that could be called “expressionistic”, or “ﬂamboyant”, amply demonstrated by one of his works, the Catholic Country Church.
After ﬁve years of working in his own ofﬁce, however, this ﬂamboyance began to ﬁnd expression in new buildingtypes 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 tendency towards modernist architectural expressions suitable for Shanghai’s cultural and climatic environment is particularly evident in the buildings he constructed for Chinese clients, of which the Park Hotel (1931–1934) is the prime example.
Several of the buildings Hudec constructed would become landmarks of Shanghai’s golden era: the dark Park Hotel towers above the very centre of the city (indeed, the city’s zero-point is in the lobby of the hotel), while the nearby art deco Grand Theatre was the epicentre of the city’s glamorous cultural life. The County Hospital, thanks to a generous donation by a wealthy foreigner, housed the city’s ﬁrst air-conditioned operating rooms. The Normandy Building, similar to New York’s Flat Iron building, was one of the symbols of the powerful French concession. Foreign tycoons and leading Chinese intellectuals lived in many of Hudec’s art deco villas, for example his Green Villa.
His daughter Alessa, reﬂecting on the signiﬁcance of her father’s oeuvre, said: “I think he was just plain brilliant. And one thing he told me was that unlike other architects he didn’t force his ideas and patterns on his clients. He listened to what they wanted and then he built it, all the time insisting on the proper engineering of the building. If someone wanted a Petit Trianon then he built it for them. If he wanted an English Tudor house then that’s what he built. The only thing he insisted on was good materials, good woods, good stone and good grillwork.”
“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”, Hudec said in a letter to his family in the mid-1920s.
Dark times, however, were closing in. After the Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1937, Hudec worked less as an architect and devoted most of his time to his activities as the head of the Central European community in Shanghai. He was named honorary Hungarian Consul in 1942, during the Second World War, after he ﬁnally received his Hungarian citizenship. When asked about his ambiguous citizenship and where he felt he belonged, he wrote: “Can I still be Hungarian after so many years away? How can you ever forget your parents – your father and mother? Just like you can’t forget your old homeland and nationality, rather you keep them with you always and think lovingly of them always, and you’re glad if you can somehow serve your country, and fulﬁl your duty towards your homeland.”
The Japanese, under pressure from Germany, then created a ghetto for the more than 20,000 European Jews who had ﬂed Europe during the war. Jews arriving to Shanghai without proper documents were settled in squalid conditions in the Hongkou District – one square mile in Japanese-controlled Shanghai – and were not allowed to work. As Hungarian Consul, Hudec issued passports to those who came from the successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and these people were then able to leave the ghetto. He also took an independent stand against the Hungarian Arrow-Cross (Nazi) government, which came to power in October 1944, by issuing a statement that the Hungarian Consulate no longer pledged allegiance to the government. It was a hugely risky move for which he was nearly arrested, but it was a step that brought him onto the right side of history.
Letters written on his behalf after 1945 attest to this independence:
“My boss behaved amazingly when, because of the Nazis, we had to fear the Japanese as well, and how dangerous it was for him to protect the Jews. He deserves our help in trying to ﬁnd his family in Hungary.” (Éva Dávid, Hudec’s secretary.)
“We Hungarian Jews have László Hudec, the Honorary Consul and also the president of the Hungarian relief organization, to thank for helping the Hungarians in Shanghai, without reference to religious difference. We are grateful to him for protecting us and so many other Central Europeans, despite the risk to his own personal safety, from the fate that awaited us in the Jewish ghetto. The pressure put on him was great to turn us in.” (Dr Imre Kocsárd, businessman, Shanghai.)
Despite Hudec’s position regarding the Hungarian Arrow Cross government after October 1944, he was still on the losing side of the war, along with the Japanese, and it was clear that he and his family had to leave Shanghai as quickly as possible. Alessa said of their departure in 1947: “We had to be so very careful. We couldn’t let anyone know that we were leaving, we all had to pretend. My mother even had a bridge party the day before we left. None of the people knew we were going apart from the contractor who was taking us to the boat.”
The family planned to return to China in 1949, but by then the Communist government had taken over and Hudec knew he would be arrested if he returned. All of his work and ﬁnances were seized, and only his investments abroad could be saved. His family spent the next year in Lugano, Switzerland, hoping for a chance to move to Hungary after so many years. When a Communist government took control the rein 1948, however, it was clear that he would never be able to move back “home”. Instead, in 1948, together with his wife and daughter Alessa, Hudec successfully applied for asylum in the US as Hungarian political refugees and lived in Berkeley, rarely designing or building, preferring instead to travel and write religious and archaeological works. Hudec died in 1958 of a sudden heart attack at the age of 65.
L. E. HUDEC IN CHINA TODAY
For the Chinese today, László Hudec’s name represents a relationship with Europe, and of course with Hungary in particular. The Hungarian government has not been slow to use Hudec’s legacy as a bridge between the two nations. Beginningin 2008, under the direction of the then-consul Tamás Hajbaand the cultural attaché Judit Hajba, the Hungarian consulate organized the Year of Hudec in Shanghai. Many old Hudec building swere “rediscovered” and the Budapest Hudec Heritage Project was launched by his family (including the authors of this article). Various exhibitions were also staged, supported by the research accomplished in the framework of the Hudec Heritage Project, including a joint exhibition in 2009 by the Hungarian Association of Architects (MÉSZ) and the Cultural Heritage Ofﬁce (Kulturális Örökségvédelmi Hivatal), and an exhibition and conference organized by the Hungarian Association of Architects during the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.
More recently, the Hudec Memorial Hall project, sponsored in part by the Balassi Bálint Institute, was launched in Shanghai in the recently renovated Hudec House (on Columbia Road, now known as Panyu Lu). The Hudec Heritage Project and the Hungarian Association of Architects are also actively involved in supplying material for a special exhibition on Hudec’s life and work scheduled for 2013. At a time when the Hungarian design and construction industry is ailing, China, once again, offers an outlet for Hungarian architects to demonstrate their rich heritage and knowledge.
The quotations are from László Hudec’s unpublished autobiography (1941) and personal letters to his family and friends. Hudec Heritage Project (HHP), Budapest (owned by Dr Eszter Jánossy).
Architectural notes by Júlia Csejdy, PhD: “Hugyecz László Sanghajban és Rómában” [László Hugyecz in Shanghai and Rome], 2009, epiteszforum.hu, (in Hungarian); “Besztercebányától Sanghajig” [From Besztercebánya to Shanghai], Kommentár, 2009/5, (in Hungarian); “Hudec László sanghaji modernizmusa” [The Shanghai modernism of László Hudec], Magyar Építőművészet, 2010/1, (in Hungarian); Luca Poncellini, PhD: “László Hudec in Shanghai”, PhD thesis, 2006, Technical University of Torino, (in Italian); “Hugyecz László Sanghajban”, Országépítő, 2007 (in Hungarian); “Park Hotel Opens Today”, Casabella 802, 2010 (in Italian and English); Lenore Hietkamp: “The Park Hotel, Shanghai (1931–1934) and Its Architect, László Hudec (1893–1958): ‘The Tallest Building in the Far East’ as Metaphor for Pre-Communist Shanghai”, 1998 (MA Thesis, University of Victoria).
Works produced by the The Hudec Heritage Project since 2008: two websites, one devoted to his life and personal writings, photos (www.hudecproject.com) and one site devoted to his architectural work (www.epiteszet.hudecproject. com), both in English and Hungarian. HHP also produced, in 2010, the Hudec Interactive Encyclopaedia, a multi-media computer application including 3-D models of his buildings designed by Graphisoft, historical background, and a short documentary of his life. The 26-minute documentary ﬁlm “The Life of László Hudec, in his own words” was also shown at the 43rd Hungarian Film Week in Budapest in 2012 (www.56ﬁlms.com). Members of HHP have also published what is today the authoritative book on Hudec’s work, both in English and Hungarian, “László Hudec” by Luca Poncellini and Júlia Csejdy (170 pp., 2010, Holnap publishing house). In 2011, Porfolio.hu organized a photo exhibition of Hudec’s buildings in today’s Shanghai, taken by Ábel Szalontai. HHP also has a feature-length documentary ﬁlm ready for production, pending funding.