FAMOUS Beijing journalist Wang Jun recently read a biography of architect Laszlo Hudec and asked me, “Why does Shanghai love him and what’s behind ‘Hudec fever’?”
Renowned for his best-selling “Beijing Record” and long-time devotion to heritage preservation in the capital city, Wang took an interest in the European architect who is relatively unknown in Beijing but repeatedly mentioned by his Shanghai friends.
Earlier this year, Hudec was voted a “Shanghai Symbol” by millions of Chinese netizans. He was the only foreigner among a galaxy of Chinese celebrities.
His masterpieces, Park Hotel on Nanjing Road and the Normandie Apartments on Wukang Road, were also listed in “99 Shanghai Symbols,” a campaign launched by the Shanghai Tourism Administration to find “reasons for loving Shanghai.”
“Hudec’s old Shanghai,” a forum on China’s leading cultural website Douban.com, has attracted more than 2,600 “Hudec fans.” Known as “wu fen,” a Chinese abbreviation for Hudec fans, they visit his buildings regularly and exchange their findings. On Cultural Heritage Day in June, they flocked to “Green House” (333 Tongren Road), once tycoon D.V. Woo’s residence, as it was Hudec’s last big Shanghai project.
Unlike late Shanghai Mayor Chen Yi and writer Eileen Chang who were also on the list of “Shanghai Symbols,” Hudec was a strange foreign name to most locals just a few years ago.
Born in today’s Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1893, Hudec was enlisted to fight during World War I and was caught by the Russian army and sent to a Siberian prison. In 1918 while being transferred, Hudec jumped from a train near the Chinese border and fled to Shanghai.
Hudec had studied architecture at the Hungarian Royal Joseph Technical University in Budapest and once in Shanghai he began working at an American firm. He started his own architectural firm in 1925 and went on to design 53 projects including Park Hotel and the Grand Theatre.
But after he left for Switzerland in 1947, this once famous name was nearly forgotten until 2008, when the Hungarian Consulate General in Shanghai and local government launched the Year of Hudec. The widely reported, yearlong event fired public interest in this architect and the city’s architectural heritage. Hudec’s quickly soaring fame is regarded by local scholars as a cultural phenomenon and has been christened “Hudec fever.”
“It is impossible for your eyes to avoid his buildings. After he became popular, you realized Hudec’s works are all around the city. Hudec couldn’t have secured such a position in Shanghai’s architectural history if he had only done a few projects,” says Tongji University Vice President Wu Jiang.
“Hudec’s works represented the modern culture of the 1930s and strongly showcased the spirit of Shanghai at the time. After China reformed and opened up, people began to realize the beauty of that era,” Wu adds.
Tongji University cultural professor Ying Yuli, who often organizes salons about old Shanghai, says the interest in the architect also stems from the relatively good conditions of Hudec buildings. Only 10 of his 53 projects had been demolished during the massive construction that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.
“A nostalgic wave emerged among young people during the past decade. The soft things of old Shanghai, such as language and lifestyle, had long faded away. But these solid heritage buildings are there for them to see and touch,” Ying says.
Wang Lin, director of the City Planning Bureau’s Historic Conservation Department, attributes the good condition of Hudec buildings to excellent quality and modern design, which he says make them easy to renovate for modern uses.
Shanghai passed the country’s first law for preserving modern buildings in 1991, which also helped. Since then Shanghai has listed four groups of historic buildings for preservation. It covers 632 projects with 2,142 buildings. The new list is scheduled to come out later this year.
Among them, 28 Hudec projects have been listed. The Grand Theatre and Sun Ke’s Residence on Panyu Road were among the first group, along with most buildings on the Bund.
Famous scholar Zheng Shiling, who heads a municipal committee of experts to evaluate historic buildings, says “it has been a slow process to realize the value of heritage buildings.”
“During the massive construction in the 1980s and 1990s, our city paid a big price — two-thirds of the buildings built before 1949 were demolished and less than 1,000 of the 9,000 traditional lanes survived,” he says.
Hudec’s Union Brewery, for instance, was nearly demolished to make way for a park along Suzhou Creek. Although Wang says the main structure was saved, the original windows and a set of British brewery machines were lost forever.
By 2002, the city’s top officials started paying greater attention to protecting old buildings. Officials even issued a statement saying “preservation was also development” and “the strictest methods for preservation need to be adopted.”
Shanghai now has 12 downtown historical areas with another 32 in the suburbs. Hudec buildings are widely sprinkled in seven of the 12 downtown historical areas, which help ensure their preservation.
People’s Square is one of the 12 downtown areas where Hudec signature works can be found. Park Hotel, the Grand Theatre and Moore Memorial Church all proudly stand today in the area.
The city also has 64 historic streets that can not be widened. This helps to maintain the original look of the streets and preserve the buildings on both sides. Hudec buildings flank many of these streets.
Today nearly half of Hudec’s buildings are still used for their original function, which is also good for preservation.
Zheng says, “We have explored a ‘Shanghai model’ for preservation, which is to give heritage buildings multiple functions, for example, turning an old factory into a creative center. Many excellent cases have come up during the past decade.”
Tongji University Vice President Wu says heritage buildings are different than antiques, which can be displayed behind glass.
Sarah McLeod, chair of the UK’s Association of Preservation Trusts, agrees with Wu.
“Architecture is dead if it is not used,” she says. “A heritage building will only survive if it’s given a 21st century use that is relevant to the needs of people today.”
In Hudec’s buildings today, one can rent a room for a night, enjoy a movie or even pray. More Hudec works, including the “Green House,” will open to the public this year after renovations are completed.
As to journalist Wang’s question about the city’s love for Hudec, the answer is obvious. Hudec buildings have stood the test of time and are not dusty old museums. As time marches on and change is apparent for all to see, they remind us of the past. They contain many memories, and at the same time, create fresh ones every day.