Shanghai’s little-known Spanish style
Shanghai is famous for what’s left of its European neoclassical and Art Deco architecture and Hungarian architect L.E. Hudec is virtually worshipped for his work in the 1930s.
But little is known about Shanghai’s Spanish and Moorish-style buildings and many others designed by Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente, who practiced in the city from 1913 to 1931. He was the only Spanish architect in Shanghai at the time.
Lafuente designed some magnificent buildings and projects, such as the mansion purchased by H.H. Kung, the ballroom of the Astor House Hotel (now the Pujiang Hotel) and the Sasha’s Restaurant and Bar, once home to Chiang kai-shek and his wife, Soong Mei-ling during the civil war.
He died in Shanghai in 1931 of lung disease, before the golden period of Shanghai’s Western architecture.
“There was a golden time for architects in the 1930s and Hudec was here, but Lafuente had already died,” says Alvaro Leonardo, a young Spanish architect who is studying Lafuente and hoping to resurrect his reputation.
Leonardo leads popular monthly Sunday afternoon tours of Shanghai’s Spanishstyle buildings. He is trying to investigate but says he does not have access to documents that are private property.
“Lafuente was in Shanghai when all the new buildings, ideas and creative situations were happening,” Leonardo says. But he says that Lafuente was not of “the correct nationality,” meaning non-Mediterranean Europeans, and most of the major works went to others.
“It is very startling to find buildings with a strong Spanish flavor here in China, and through Alvaro’s research, we are learning about other Spanish people in Shanghai in the early 19th century and their activities. One owned a magnificent garage, another opened the first cinema in the city, and all those buildings were made by A. Lafuente,” says Violeta Janeiro Alfageme from the Spanish Consulate General in Shanghai.
Leonardo’s Spanish-style architecture tour starts from Anfu Road, goes along Nanjing Road E. toward the Bund, and then proceeds north — the buildings span the geographical heart of Shanghai.
A century later, Lafuente and his architecture, some of them magnificent (and remaining only in photographs), were discovered accidentally by Leonardo. He came upon an old review of Lafuente’s work in a yellowed Spanish newspaper; he investigated and was allowed into the family archives in Madrid where he read some of Lafuente’s correspondence. His ongoing research began last May.
“These buildings are part of history and reflect a facet of 1920s Shanghai,” says Leonardo. “I came upon them by chance and they are part of the life of someone whom everyone forgot.”
The architect and entrepreneur was always trying to do advanced and difficult work, says Leonardo. In the 1920s, despite lagging telecommunications, Lafuente was running two offices simultaneously, one in China and one in the United States, bringing Spanish style to two continents.
According to Leonardo, Lafuente’s most important works included cinemas Ramos and hotel projects commissioned by Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd.
In 1923 Lafuente converted the former McBain family home into the Majestic Hotel. He also designed churches, mosques, garages, luxurious villas, office buildings and at least one public hospital. In 1917 he introduced the “Mozarab” architectural style, using modern concrete slabs.
Lafuente worked with American architect G.O. Wootten and in his later years was associated with renowned Russian architect A. J. Yaron.