Park Hotel represents Hudec’s crowning achievement
By Michelle Qiao
IN a 1933 cartoon by famous artist Zhang Guangyu, two country bumpkins were speaking against the backdrop of the Park Hotel, then still under construction. Bumpkin A asked, “Wow! Such a tall building, what’s it for?” Bumpkin B replied, “You sure know nothing, it’s for when the water in the Huangpu River swells up!”
Next Monday, the 83.8-meter building that dominated the city’s skyline from 1934 to 1983 will celebrate its 80th anniversary. The 22-story hotel is also architect Laszlo Hudec’s most famous work.
In 1930, the Joint Savings Society, founded by four Chinese banks, decided to invest in a tall modern hotel fronting the former race course. Hudec won the project after an open competition largely due to his previous work on the society’s Union Building near the Bund.
“In the early 1930s, at the peak of his career, Laszlo Hudec became the protagonist of the most ambitious and important architectural adventure in the history of Shanghai — the construction of the city’s first skyscraper,” Italian architectural historian Luca Poncellini wrote in his book “Laszlo Hudec.”
Inspired by New York
The Park Hotel, or J.S.S. Building, was the first step toward raising Shanghai from the level of a common city to a “leading” city, reported English paper China Press upon the hotel’s grand opening in 1934.
“A skyscraper today is the first sign of real modernity because it requires all the most up-to-date mechanical devices of man to perfect it. In other words, it is the quintessence of 20th century engineering and skill just as the Pyramids were to Egypt 2,500 years ago and the Great Wall was to China 2,000 years ago,” the paper reported.
Tongji University associate professor Liu Gang says Shanghai was in an atmosphere to grow higher since the 1920s under the influence of American skyscrapers and worldwide optimism before the 1929 Great Depression.
“Shanghai’s booming economy, China’s temporary political stability and cultural prosperity were all forces to push the city higher and higher. Some tall buildings had been erected since the late 1920s, such as the Sassoon House and Broadway Mansion. Park Hotel was one of them,” he says.
During a US trip in 1929, Hudec witnessed the architectural upheaval that left leading American cities dotted with skyscrapers and grand hotels.
“He spent a long time in New York, Chicago and other cities and made drawings of many skyscrapers and their decorative details. His trip to America must have had a decisive influence on the designs he later drew for the J.S.S. Building,” says architectural historian Poncellini.
Professor Liu says New York in the 1920s had a huge visual and psychological impact on newcomers, who would naturally feel a kind of power and ambition.
The facade of the Park Hotel is emphasized with vertical stripes, which shrink layer upon layer until the top, a typical American modern Art Deco style. Today its imposing but stable silhouette, as well as the staircase-like tower above the 15th floor provide a unique elegant look compared to the surrounding modern skyscrapers.
As a visiting scholar from University of Pennsylvania in the US years ago, professor Liu says Hudec may have been inspired by the Bryant Park Hotel in New York.
“Located close to the Public Library, the Bryant Park Hotel closely resembles Shanghai Park Hotel, from the architectural features to the unique facade covered by dark-brown tiles. New York’s version was a bit smaller in scale,” Liu says.
“But Hudec was so brilliant that he simplified the shape of the New York hotel to suit Shanghai’s context. His design highlighted architectural grandeur in a more intense way,” he adds.
“He captured the essence of this architectural form and made a cultural transplantation. I don’t think it was a copy. He was not obedient, instead he joined this trend with unprecedented confidence. Remember it was an era of internationalism rather than globalization.”
Fight for new height
It’s widely known that Park Hotel sits on a reinforced concrete raft base of 400 33-meter-long piles of Oregon pine, which is topped by light-weight alloy with great strength to prevent it from sinkage, a problem Shanghai architects had struggled with for decades.
Compared with the efforts to solve the foundations problem, Hudec expended more energy just to get approval to build the hotel.
According to a 1934 article in China Press, the then Shanghai Municipal Council had not allowed buildings over the height of the J.S.S. Building. Various excuses were offered such as fire hazards or danger of sinking.
“In addition to the opposition from the government, Mr Hudec had to convince the owners of the bank that a skyscraper was not only reasonable but highly advisable. At first they were disinclined to accept the reasoning but in the end Mr Hudec was able to convince the owners that a skyscraper on Bubbling Well Road would not only be most practical but one of the most unique ventures that have been undertaken in the Far East. With the consent of the owners in his pocket, Mr Hudec returned to the fray with the Council authorities.”
This took considerably more time. With promises of a fire look-out on the 22nd story and other guarantees with regard to fire sprinklers, the quality of steel and general structural materials, permission was finally given for the new skyscraper.
“It was a long and hard fight waged by architect Hudec, but eventually he won. Looking at this beautiful example of engineering skill, who today will not extend a hearty applause for the pioneering work of Mr. Hudec in fostering the first real skyscraper in the Far East. No doubt others will follow and when they do they must look back upon the Joint Savings Building as their rightful forebearer,” the report said.
Gazing into the future
On the morning of December 1, 1934, then Shanghai Mayor Wu Te-chen cut the ribbons at the entrance and officially opened the Park Hotel. Prominent Chinese and foreign guests attended the ceremony, which was followed by cocktails, refreshments and a tour of the building.
“In separate groups they were shown the smart grill-room, with its red and gold lacquered column; the comfortable and luxurious lounge and the bar on the third floor; the suites on the 15nth, 16th, 17th and 18th floors; the kitchens, bedrooms and bedroom suites,” reported another English paper, North China Daily News.
From the opening day, the hotel became a major venue of modern life and the first choice of international VIPs while in Shanghai. Renowned Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei has admitted it was the Park Hotel that greatly attracted him to architecture.
It’s noteworthy that the hotel was built by main contractor Voh Kee Co with various Chinese suppliers providing everything from black polished granite on the plinth of the external walls to dark brown Taishan tiles on the facades.
Hudec and his team enjoyed the highest honor of their career from this skyscraper. He received commissions for other skyscrapers one after another. Even the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company planned to erect a 40-story building on the Bund.
However within a year the 1935 world silver crisis had a devastating effect on Shanghai. The financial center of China fell into a depression, which was exacerbated after Japan invaded Shanghai in 1937. Construction came to an abrupt halt in the city.
After 1949, the Park Hotel became state-owned and one of only a few hotels to receive overseas guests. After two major renovations in 1988 and 1997, it now serves as a 4-star hotel of the Jinjiang Group and was listed as a national heritage building for preservation in 2006.
“The business was so good in the mid-1980s that sometimes it required guanxi (connection) to get a room. Even the grand hall once had over 100 beds to meet demand,” recalls Liang Jianzhou, who had worked in the hotel since 1979. “We are so proud that both the function and the name of our hotel hasn’t changed over the past 80 years.”
The Park Hotel remained the city’s only skyscraper for decades, until it was surpassed by the 26-story, 91.5-meter Shanghai Hotel in 1983.
“The Park Hotel was a major reference for us to survey when the Shanghai government decided to build a 600-room hotel to serve the growing number of tourists from overseas following the reform and opening-up policy in 1978,” recalls architect Zhang Jiezheng, principal expert of Shanghai Xian Dai Architectural Design Group and co-architect of Shanghai Hotel. “I was impressed by the compactness of the hotel’s guest rooms. They are only around 18 square meters each, but well designed.”
Once Shanghai Hotel was built, high-rise buildings began mushrooming around Shanghai, especially in the 1990s. According to the 2013 Shanghai statistical yearbook, the city had only about 100 buildings higher than 20 floors until 1990. This soared to 3,754 in 2000 and 7,402 in 2012.
The city will soon reach another milestone with Shanghai Tower, which will soar 632 meters into the air in Pudong’s Lujiazui area and be equal to more than seven Park Hotels.
The Chinese term for skyscrapers, mo tian lou, literally means magical building that reaches the sky. In his famous book “Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China 1930-1945,” Harvard University professor Ou-fan Lee describes skyscrapers as a visible sign of the rise of industrial capitalism and the most intrusive addition to the Shanghai landscape, which offered a sharp contrast to the general principles of low-rise Chinese architecture.
No wonder skyscrapers had elicited such heightened emotions about socioeconomic inequality — the high and the low, the rich and the poor — in 1930s cartoons and films such as the two country bumpkins talking about the Park Hotel.
“The Park Hotel connects our past to the future. Skyscrapers encourage us to strive for more, but now our city is filled with them like massive flower arrangements planted in a casual way,” says professor Liu.
“Owing to rebounding of accumulated historic energies (from the 1930s until the 1978 reform), we unconsciously have built Shanghai into a unique, prosperous but stunning city. What is the impact for the future? Skyscrapers like the Park Hotel are exclamatory points. But they are also question marks to urge us to think harder about how to achieve balanced development and build a truly better city.”
In a 1950 municipal survey, the flagpole of the Park Hotel was referred to as “Zero Center Point of Shanghai” because of its central location and height. Upon its 80th anniversary, perhaps the Park Hotel will once again become a starting point for us to ponder the city’s past and its future development.