The True Light Buildings on Yuanmingyuan Road turned architect L.E. Hudec into a shining light of the 1930s. He made a breakthrough with the design, moved his office into the buildings and built his internationally recognized Park Hotel only two years later.
“True Light Buildings are my favorite Hudec architecture because I find them extremely striking and powerful, though they are not very big in size,” says Italian architectural professor Luca Poncellini, who authored the book “Laszlo Hudec in Shanghai.”
The twin buildings, the nine-floor Christian Literature Society Building and the eight-floor China Baptist Publication Building, were both completed in 1932. The U-shaped buildings were linked with each other and had a similar layout. They had their own entrances, elevators and bathrooms but shared fire stairs, a boiler house and a pump house.
Shanghai had gradually become a base for training new missionaries and for translating and printing religious publications starting in the mid-19th century, according to research on the city’s Christian architecture by Zhou Jin, a PhD-level expert.
Publishers affiliated with missionary organizations had contributed to the dissemination of Western religious thought in China. Their offices mushroomed around Yuanmingyuan Road, the “cultural Bund.”
The influential Christian Literature Society was started in Shanghai in 1887. Interestingly, theories from Karl Marx’s book “Capital” were first introduced to China in the religious periodical named Wan Kwoh Kung Pao, or Church News, published by the society in 1899.
The article was adapted from British philosopher Benjamin Kidd’s book “Social Revolution” and was one of a number of Western ideas introduced along with religion by such organizations.
The China Baptist Publication Society opened its Shanghai center in 1899, which was famous for publishing highly circulated religious periodicals, including the acclaimed monthly True Light, after which the buildings were named.
In the early 1930s, the two publishers planned to have a joint central office built in Shanghai.
Hudec received the commission to design the two adjacent buildings on the plot flanked by Yuanmingyuan Road and Museum Road (today’s Huqiu Road).
Though born in Besztercebanya in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1893, Hudec became a renowned architect in Shanghai who changed the city’s skyline.
He escaped to Shanghai in 1918 while being transported to a Siberian prison camp during World War I. With no money but an injured leg, Hudec made his fortune from his architectural talent and achieved great success.
In 1925 he founded his own firm at the Yokohama Specie Bank Building at No. 24 on the Bund. When the twin buildings were completed, his firm reached a peak, employing 64 people. He then moved the firm to the Baptist Building and occupied the whole eighth floor. Yuanmingyuan Road remained his address until he left China in 1947.
During her most recent Shanghai visit last January, Hudec’s 85-year-old daughter Alessa recalled she often waited for her father in front of the True Light Buildings. She also said the Bund looked “much more beautiful” than the one in her memory.
In this project, Hudec abandoned classic styles that he had adeptly used for a variety of buildings during his early Shanghai career, such as Jean Beudin’s Residence on Fenyang Road (today’s Ambrosia Restaurant).
The dark brown tiles on the facade and the horizontal lines and setback structure over the top showcased typical Art Deco elements, which were popular among American skyscrapers of the same period.
The facades were decorated by acute angle-shaped lines, rolled on the parapets. Hudec’s simplified treatment of Gothic pointed arches and pilasters revealed an influence from German Expressionist architecture.
“I love the sharp tips of the facade on Yuanmingyuan Road. I always found it controversial that such a strangely aggressive-looking building was to be the headquarters of enterprises related to Christianity and the main office of Hudec himself!” says Professor Poncellini.
“I also like the Museum Road facade, with the full-height ogival arch used as a huge symbolic icon. Pure architectural symbolism and urban-scale communication, many years ahead of Las Vegas and Robert Venturi’s theories about symbolism in architecture,” he adds.
According to the initial plans, the piers should have culminated with stone decorations in the shape of flower petals or wreathes, but in the final design all the vertical elements end with very sharp concrete tips. That can be seen as a reference to the characteristic decorative motif of the floral Renaissance architecture in Upper Hungary, Hudec’s hometown.
The Italian professor speculates that inspiration of this Central European tradition may date to Hudec’s studies at the Budapest Technical University because he chose this style as the theme of his dissertation.
Another Hudec researcher, Tongji University professor Hua Xiahong, treats the project as the maturity of Hudec’s own architectural style. She also believes his little brother Geza, who was 14 years younger than Hudec, may have contributed to this project.
“The masterful use of bricklaying during this period — on the facades of the twin buildings, the Moore Memorial Church and the Park Hotel — probably can be attributed to Geza,” Hua says. “The somewhat Bohemian Geza had been sent to study in the US for half a year and came to Shanghai to assist his big brother in June of 1930. He must have observed a lot of New York’s skyscrapers. Unfortunately Geza died of illness in Shanghai in 1933, at the age of only 26.”
A mirror of life
The True Light Buildings were special for the architect who knew during the process of design that he would move into them.
“This particular design must have a relationship with what Laszlo Hudec was feeling about his life at that moment, in the very early 1930s — lots of projects, lots of money, huge fame and celebrity, a skyscraper under construction,” Poncellini adds.
“But he also had health problems, exhaustion and a younger brother who came in from New York and almost seduced his wife, etc. I perceive that the aggressive outlook of the building may represent somehow the manifestation of the dark side of Hudec’s personality, or the expression of his anger and frustrations,” he says.
Dark manifestation or not, the True Light Buildings proved to be a good warm-up for the later, more modern masterpiece — the 83.8-meter-high Park Hotel, which dominated the city’s skyline for nearly half a century.
He not only attempted a new style with the twin buildings, he also found business partners within the building. Some suppliers for the Park Hotel project, such as Kow Kee Timber Co Ltd, were neighbors of Hudec’s firm in the Baptist Building.
The Christian Literature Building featured a bookstore on the ground floor, dormitories for employees on the seventh floor, offices on the eighth and a boardroom as well as a grand reading room on the top floor. Other floors were leased out.
The Baptist Building contained the publishing department and a retail shop on the ground floor and offices on the other floors.
After 1949, the Christian Building was transformed into the Shanghai Stationery and Sports Goods Import and Export Company and the Baptist Building was used by the state-owned China Light Industry Import and Export Company after China Baptist Publications moved to Hong Kong.
Since 2002, the twin buildings have been included in the Rockbund redevelopment project of the North Bund area. An ongoing renovation plans to turn the buildings into a mixture of high-end retail and offices.
With sharp tips and acute angle-shaped lines, the dark-tile True Light Buildings still shine as striking and powerful structures on Yuanmingyuan Road.
It’s rarely known that the twin buildings were the cradle for the Hudec brothers to create a more famous dark-tile architecture, the Park Hotel, soon after.
Yesterday: True Light Buildings
Today: True Light Buildings (renovating to be mixed-use retail and offices)
Address: 209 Yuanmingyuan Rd
Built: In 1932
Architectural style: Art Deco & Expressionism
Architect: L.E. Hudec
Tips: The buildings are undergoing a renovation and are scheduled to open later this year. However, you can compare the different facades on Yuanmingyuan and Huqiu roads. It’s also fun to arrange your own Hudec tour, visiting the Park Hotel, the Grand Theatre and the Moore Memorial Church. The three are located at the People’s Square.