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November 6, 2015

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Iconic buildings in Shanghai

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ART Deco experts visit the following structures this week

Cathay Hotel
(now Fairmont Peace Hotel)

Address: 20 Nanjing Rd E.

Built: In 1929

Architects: Palmer & Turner


Tongji University professor Chang Qing believes the hotel was “China’s first Art Deco building, but the original plan was for a neo-classical high-rise.” His research shows architect G.L. Wilson from Palmer & Turner was greatly inspired after attending the 1925 Exposition in Paris from which the Art Deco style is first dated. There he also met famous glass-maker Rene Lalique whose products he later used to adorn the Cathay Hotel. Wilson changed his plan to a much more avant garde building, combining the Commercial Gothic and Art Deco styles that we see today.

Divided by three classic sections, the building is not a pure Art Deco design but Wilson used a lot of Art Deco manners, including opalescent Lalique glass. The building also showcases commercial Gothic features which, interestingly, resonated with the neighboring Club Concordia (demolished in the 1930s to build Bank of China) in Gothic revival style. So Professor Chang calls No. 20 a “Shanghai Deco” building.

An advertisement in the North China Herald announced the opening of the Cathay Hotel in 1929, noting it was a “wonderful combination of art and luxury,” with Lalique glass and lighting and suites in the styles “of all nations.”

The advertising was honest. Despite its age and renovations, entering the hotel is like walking into a nostalgic dream.

In the 1930s, the first to the third floors were offices for owner Victor Sassoon’s company and other enterprises. The Cathay Hotel occupied the ground floor and the fourth to the ninth floors. Sassoon’s penthouse occupied the 10th and 11th floors. After a three-year renovation, the building re-opened in 2010 as the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Today it is again a hotel of art and luxury on the Bund.

True Light Buildings

Address: 209 Yuanmingyuan Rd

Built: In 1932

Architect: Laszlo Hudec

The True Light Buildings on Yuanmingyuan Road proved to be a good warm-up for Laszlo Hudec’s later, more famous, Art Deco creations — the Grand Theatre and the Park Hotel — which dominated the city’s skyline for nearly half a century.

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 structures are linked to each other and had a similar layout.

For the first time in this project, Hudec abandoned the classic styles he became so associated with in his early Shanghai career. The dark brown tiles on the façade, the horizontal lines and the setback structure over the top showcased typical Art Deco elements and, of course, the acute angel-shaped lines rolled upon the parapets.

It is believed Hudec’s brother Geza, 14 years his junior, may have contributed to the twin buildings. The Bohemian young man returned in June 1930 from a half-year study tour of New York, bringing back his observations of the city skyscrapers.

Laszlo Hudec, born in Besztercebanya in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1893, became a renowned architect in Shanghai and is widely regarded as having changed the city’s skyline.

He arrived in Shanghai in 1918 after fleeing transportation to a Siberian prison camp during World War I. Starting with no money and an injured leg, Hudec ultimately achieved great success and made a fortune from his architectural talent.

In 1925 he founded his own firm at the Yokohama Specie Bank Building at No. 24 The Bund. The completion of the twin buildings coincided with the firm’s peak at which time it employed 64 people. He moved the firm into the Baptist Building and occupied the whole eighth floor. Yuanmingyuan Road remained his address until he left China in 1947.

The Capitol Building

Address: 146 Huqiu Rd

Completed: In 1931

Architect: C H Gonda


Watching movies, drinking coffee and going dancing were the most popular leisure activities of Shanghai’s middle-class during the “golden era” of the 1920s and 30s. And undoubtedly they would visit the Capitol Theatre, one of the grand dames of Shanghai’s cinemas.

The building was characterized by the typical vertical elements of Art Deco and an Expressionist corner tower which Hungarian architect C. H. Gonda used in his later masterpiece, the Cathay Theatre, on Huaihai Road. The Capitol Theatre joined the later Cathay Theatre, Grand Theatre and Nanking Theatre as the city’s new-generation modern cinemas.

The Capitol’s amber-colored ceiling was decorated in a restrained modern way, featuring a dome and ornamental copper grills. The walls were adorned by 20 figures, sculpted to symbolize different expressions of harmony, beauty and grace.

To create the theater’s Art Deco look, Gonda abandoned without hesitation the classical style of bygone periods. Tongji University professor Wu Jiang has said “It seemed that Gonda had never belonged to the classic school.”

In 1929, Gonda expounded his modern architectural manifesto under the pen name “ADNOG” in the Shanghai Sunday Times.

“No one ever asked his motor car dealer for a motor car in Italian Renaissance style, the request for residences in that style are frequent … And people of our modern age do not think how utterly ridiculous it is to see the lady of the house in her drawing room Louis XIV, with shingled hair, boyish figure and short skirt, shaking a cocktail for a sun-burned, athletic gentleman in plus-fours and a tweed jacket over a chequered pullover.”

National YWCA Building

Address: 133 Yuanmingyuan Rd

Completed: In 1932

Architect: Poy Gum Lee


The National YWCA Building, originally built to house a society of “new Chinese women,” is the only edifice with a strong Chinese architectural character on Yuanmingyuan Road.

The eight-story structure was built in 1932 as the new bureau for the National Committee of the Young Women’s Christian Association of China, founded in 1923 after YWCA entered China in 1890.

The designer, US-born Chinese Poy Gum Lee, was a prolific architect who had designed many YMCA buildings and also took over construction of Dr Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum in Nanjing after chief architect Lu Yanzhi died in 1929.

Lee preferred to apply Chinese elements to modern buildings and did so extensively in this structure.

He adapted the ornamental architectural style of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, such as using stone-carved lotus petals, patterns of clouds and sea waves, and perforated windows, to name just a few.

It’s also an Art Deco building that recedes story-by-story upward from the fifth floor. The original caisson ceiling was painted in a traditional Chinese combination of dark red and soft green and the H-shaped layout maximized sunlight. The wooden doors and metal locks displayed cloud patterns designs.

The building was highlighted in a 1933 article in the Chinese Architecture journal which featured modern Chinese masterpieces. “The structure is purely Western while the decoration is adapted from Oriental architecture. The result is a beautiful mixture, unprecedentedly splendid,” the author noted.

The article defined the building style as “neo-Chinese architecture” created to combine the “grandness and elegance” of Oriental architecture with the advantageous functions of Western architecture. It was thus a “new style of modern architecture” and “an ultimate honor for the circle of Chinese architecture.”

The Green House
(D V Woo’s Residence)

Address: 333 Tongren Rd

Built: 1935-1938

Architect: Laszlo Hudec


D V Woo’s residence is a signature work of Laszlo Hudec in his prime. In its day it was one of the most luxurious residences in the Far East. The villa covered an area of 1,700 sqare meters and was nicknamed “green house” because of the green tiles on the façade and surrounding walls.

Woo was a famous Shanghai merchant who was also the son-in-law of Suzhou tycoon Bei Runsheng. Mr. Woo made his fortune by selling green pigments for military use and regarded green as his lucky color. Unfortunately Woo and his mistress committed suicide in their favorite “green house” at the start of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Hudec divided the building into two parts according to functions. The Western-style social space included a bar, billiard room, dining hall and main bedrooms which faced onto an open garden. The Chinese-style sitting hall, ancestral room and servants’ room on the northern side were more closed-in.

The southern façade is stylish. The cylinder-shaped sun parlor is four floors high and contrasts with the big balcony full of smooth curves that recede layer by layer. The cast iron patterns on the staircase and balcony are in Art Deco style. The sun parlor is made of imported curved glass, including the door.

Luxurious inside, gas heating and cooling systems service the villa and the unique lotus leaf-shaped elevator was the first to be installed in any private residence in Shanghai. Italian stone was imported for the walls and the dance room has sprung floors. The Buddhist room and ancestral room are in a pure Chinese style.

*A group of Hungarian and Chinese Art Deco experts host a two-day forum titled “Art Deco Shanghai-Budapest” organized in the Green House by the Consulate General of Hungary on Wednesday and Thursday.


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