Shin­ing a light on an ar­chi­tec­tural star of old Shang­hai

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By SUN YE sunye@chi­

Beau­ti­ful build­ings were noth­ing new to Luca Pon­cellini, who was an Ital­ian doc­toral stu­dent in ar­chi­tec­ture when he de­cided to visit Shang­hai in 2003. But he said he was wideeyed when he first strolled around the city.

Pon­cellini, now an ar­chi­tect and re­searcher with Nuova Ac­cademia di Belle Arti Mi­lano, said he was puz­zled. None of the main­stream text­books he had seen on mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture built from the start of the 20th cen­tury to World War II had a chap­ter de­voted to Shang­hai. “Shang­hai was one of the most pop­u­lous and im­por­tant cities in the Far East,” he said. “To me it is strange that China and Shang­hai didn’t have a place in the books.

“I saw how much beau­ti­ful mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture there was in Shang­hai from that time,” he said. “And I re­al­ized how im­por­tant it was for me to cre­ate a con­nec­tion be­tween the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the Western world and the real sit­u­a­tion of Shang­hai.”

In the city’s rich mix, there is in­ge­nious mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture that ri­valed the best of its con­tem­po­raries in the West. Build­ings also bear the marks of in­cip­i­ent fea­tures of Chi­nese moder­nity, Pon­cellini said. And the master be­hind many of the most prom­i­nent struc­tures was to be­come Pon­cellini’s fo­cus.

Las­zlo Hudec was a Slo­vakHun­gar­ian ar­chi­tect who ar­rived in Shang­hai in 1918, at the age of 25. He had ended up in China af­ter be­ing cap­tured by the Rus­sian Army in 1916 dur­ing World War I and jump­ing from a train near the Chi­nese bor­der en route to a Siberian prison camp, ac­cord­ing to Ladislav Ka­bos’ film The Man Who Changed Shang­hai.

Dur­ing the nearly three decades that fol­lowed, he got a job, mar­ried, opened his own ar­chi­tec­tural of­fice, ac­cepted com­mis­sions from ex­pa­tri­ates and Chi­nese alike, and gave the city some of its most mem­o­rable land­marks.

These works were widely rec­og­nized, but the man was lit­tle known. “Hudec’s ar­chi­tec­ture was re­ported in Europe, but sadly, his name was al­most never men­tioned in world ar­chi­tec­tural history,” writes Zheng Shiling, honorary pres­i­dent of the Ar­chi­tec­tural So­ci­ety of Shang­hai. Zheng helped su­per­vise Pon­cellini’s dis­ser­ta­tion.

It took Pon­cellini five years, trav­el­ing to a dozen coun­tries, to fi­nally un­der­stand the man and give him his due.

Hudec’s name had been buried to the ex­tent that when Pon­cellini went to his de­scen­dants for ma­te­ri­als, some were sur­prised to learn of his ac­com­plish­ments. But Hudec’s achieve­ments go be­yond the build­ings cred­ited to him. He in Shang­hai’s mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture move­ment.”

Hudec suc­ceeded through work­ing for Chi­nese clients, while most for­eign ar­chi­tec­tural of­fices tended to work only for their own na­tion­als, ac­cord­ing to Pon­cellini.

“The Chi­nese clients were largely free of pre­con­ceived ideas,” he said. There had been al­most no way to trans­late tra­di­tional Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­tural lan­guage to what mod­ern cities needed, such as high-rises to ac­com­mo­date a denser pop­u­la­tion in a smaller space.

With few re­straints, Hudec re­sponded to their needs with bold build­ings that matched the times.

He was be­hind the iconic, 22-story Park Ho­tel, Asia’s first sky­scraper, and at 84 me­ters, its tallest un­til 1952. That build­ing has a Ger­man ex­pres­sion­is­tic top with art deco lower tiers. When art deco caught on, Hudec in­cor­po­rated it.

More­over, to tackle the peren­nial prob­lem of sink­ing foun­da­tions in Shang­hai’s soft, al­lu­vial soils along the Huangpu River, Hudec de­cided to use a Ger­man tech­nique that no lo­cals had tried be­fore. “Imag­ine if it should fail with such a big build­ing,” Pon­cellini said.

As Hudec em­ployed the latest ideas and tech­niques, he also un­veiled the Chi­nese zeit­geist. The 1920s and 30s were still echo­ing with the fall of im­pe­rial China in 1911. The coun­try was com­pelled to open to a world that played by un­fa­mil­iar rules.

“Hudec brought to China what­ever was hap­pen­ing with no de­lay. He did it with­out us­ing main­stream styles. He was try­ing to find an im­age of Chi­nese moder­nity un­like the for­eign ren­di­tion.”

Dis­till­ing this urge, many of Hudec’s works in Shang­hai stand wit­ness to their place in the history of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture.

They’ve also re­gained the at­ten­tion they de­served. Since Pon­cellini’s book, Las­zlo Hudec, was pub­lished in 2010 with Ju­lia Cse­jdy, sev­eral oth­ers have ap­peared. (His was trans­lated into Chi­nese in 2013.) The Year of Hudec was or­ga­nized in 2008 to com­mem­o­rate the ar­chi­tect, who died in 1958 in the United States. His build­ings are listed and pro­tected, and Hudec’s for­mer res­i­dence was ren­o­vated and re­opened to the public early in July.


Las­zlo Hudec’s work

The 22-story Park Ho­tel

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