One of the key figures in Shanghai’s emergent Art Deco movement in the 1930s, Hungarian-born architect László Ede Hudec built a number of Shanghai’s most iconic buildings including the Shanghai Grand cinema and the Park Hotel at People’s Square, famously the city’s tallest structure until 1983. Captured by the Russian army during the First World War, Hudec reportedly arrived in China after escaping a Siberian prisoner of war camp and leaping onto a Shanghai-bound train. In addition to building a new life in the city and making his name as a renowned architect, he designed and constructed his family home in 1927 at 135 Panyu Lu. Now, following three years of restoration, based largely on analysis of photographs of the once crumbling three-storey residence, part of the villa house has been transformed into a museum of the architect’s life.
Hudec’s beautiful mock-Tudor rustic build has been restored, with dark timber beams contrasting with a white painted exterior, but disappointingly the once-green gardens at the back now take the form of a basketball court for a neighbouring school.
Walking through the front door the first thing you see is a Hudec bust, cast in bronze, eyeing up visitors. Edging past his fixed gaze, you pass through an open doorway leading into the museum, which occupies only the small former living room space. It features glass cases filled with photographs of his architectural works as well as several detailed floor plans of some of the Shanghai commercial buildings and residential homes that he designed.
Walls and cabinets are dotted with a variety of objects such as silk scarves and household items, which once belonged to the man himself, or at least that’s what we have to assume; there are few captions explaining the objects in any language, while the Hungarian handwritten letters on display are left largely untranslated. One letter, along with a medical diagram of a leg, sits next to the description, ‘Letter to his mother telling that the leg breaking incident saved his life in the war’. Sadly there is no further elaboration.
More in depth, however, is a fascinating 90-minute documentary (in English, with Chinese subtitles), entitled The Life of László Hudec. It screens on the museum’s television and leads viewers through the captivating story of Hudec’s life with some insightful snapshots from family members. It’s easily the highlight of a visit here.
Although this tribute to Hudec is touching and the building is magnificently renovated, informational content is limited with few Chinese captions, while the English text on offer could squeeze onto a single sheet of paper. This unfortunate lack of detail diminishes the tribute to ‘the man who changed Shanghai’.
By Benedict Wintour