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Architect L.E. Hudec's own house is cozy, not trendy

When I first saw the Hudec House on Panyu Road, I felt like Alice, the girl who accidentally falls into another world as she chases a white rabbit.

This somewhat fanciful house designed by famed Hungarian architect L.E. Hudec as his own house is hidden from the often-jammed Panyu Road, behind an Italian restaurant and a white boutique hotel.

I visited on a recent humid dusty afternoon. This Tudorbethan villa and its untended garden comprise a small wonderland, so quiet and secluded from the hustle and bustle just dozens of meters away. As I entered, a row of birds immediately flew away from a layer of broad leaves on the ground.

The building is under renovation and cannot be entered at this time, but visitors can walk around outside.

The three-story villa was built in 1930 as the second residence for Hudec and his family in Shanghai. A former prisoner who escaped to Shanghai from a Russian labor camp in 1918, Hudec designed more than 60 buildings in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, including the Park Hotel.

This legendary architect earlier had designed a Spanish-style villa across the street for his family and later sold it to Sun Ke, son of Dr Sun Yat-sen.

Hudec then chose this plot on the other side of Columbia Road (now Panyu Road) for his new home on a smaller scale.

According to recent research by Shanghai Tongji University architecture major Feng Li, both residences were part of Columbia Circle, an up-scale residential area for foreigners seeking respite from the hectic city and a bit of tranquility.

Yesteryear is similar to today, in some respects. Despite the 1929 world financial crisis, Shanghai's real estate industry was unaffected and there was a building boom.

Columbia Circle was one of the famous projects for which Hudec served as the architect. Here he designed villas in a rainbow of styles, including Dutch, Italian, Spanish and even several American styles, which were probably inspired by his several trips overseas.

But for his own home, he chose the quite traditional Tudorbethan style, according to the preference of his German wife.

"Hudec is not the kind of architect who wants to surprise the world and he always respects his clients," says Tongji University Hudec researcher Hua Xiahong. "And frankly speaking, many architects won't make avant-garde houses for their own homes. Rather they choose comfortable traditional styles and practical functions. Even French architect Le Corbusier, one of the founders of contemporary architecture, chose a cozy house after his wife complained about their previous avant-garde residence."

And the Hudec House seems a pretty nice home - comfortable, functional and, most important, carrying an ambience of idyllic country life.

This is a white-wall building highlighted by contrasting dark-wood half timbering frames. Two towering red-brick chimneys stand at each end of the sloping roof that is covered by beautiful slate tiles. Three sets of Gothic windows and a round arched door are on the ground floor. A big garden lies to the south.

According to the book "Hudec's Architecture in Shanghai," the interior decorations were also original creation:

"A romantic and warm home life was enhanced by decorative elements, like exquisite cabinets, dining table, lamp shades, parquetry wooden floors, Western-style furniture and the moulded ceilings."

Hudec and his family lived in the villa from 1931 to 1936, according to researcher Feng. The family later moved to another Hudec building, Hubertus Court (today known as the Da Hua Hotel) on Yan'an Road W. because of poor drainage that made the house very humid and unhealthy.

After 1949 the house was used by a middle school and modern buildings mushroomed around this country villa. The current owner, the Changning District Education Bureau, is renovating the house but has not disclosed its use.

The exterior is well preserved but the original furnishings inside are gone. Only the white molded ceilings in lovely patterns are maintained.

"Our city has many British country-style buildings and there's even a modern version in the Times Town in Songjiang District," says Feng. "But this one is delicately designed and constructed. Even the former entrance in the north is adorned with exquisite carvings.

"However, the surrounding environment of this big-garden villa has changed completely," Feng adds. "Yesterday's quiet, peaceful suburbs have turned into a bustling downtown as our city has expanded during the past century. The idyllic atmosphere is gone forever."

And only this building survives. With its small unattended garden and peace-seeking avian residents, today it's a small wonderland where we urban dwellers can still smell grass and enjoy a fanciful Alice in Wonderland tour on a humid afternoon.


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