László Ede Hugyecz was born in 1893 in a small town of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, a master-builder, took an active part in constructing the first European subway in Budapest. His mother was one of the direct descendants of John Huss, forefather of the Protestant movement. Throughout his life, he would draw from both family backgrounds – both the architectural and the spiritual.
His life follows the upheavals of the 20th century: L.E. Hudec considered himself Hungarian, and his allegiances where to the Austro-Hungarian Empire - which would soon fall apart in 1920. He finished his studies in architecture and engineering in 1914 - and was immediately drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner of war in 1916 by the Russians and spent almost two years at a POW camp in Siberia.
In May of 1918, through an incredible act of cleverness and bravery, he escaped from his POW camp and headed East on foot through Russia. He worked for a number of months on the trans-Siberian railway under a false Russian passport, trying to make enough money to return to Hungary, but when Czech legionnaires came looking for Austro-Hungarian POWs, he was forced to flee again on foot into neighboring China. After a short stay in Harbin, he realized his best chance to find work was in the boomtown port of Shanghai to the South. Like today, China was then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the place to be for those who looked for fortune and a new kind of future.
Hugyecz arrived to Shanghai in late 1918. The spelling of his name became "Hudec" when the cyrillic was translated to English, and he kept it because it had a more ‘international’ feel. He joined the American architectural firm R.A. Curry & Co. as a draftsman. At that time, Shanghai had more than a million inhabitants. Curry and Co.’s firm was busy because of international concessions from the French, British and American sectors. Foreign architects played an important role in Shanghai at that time – which was prospering under its division into international zones and foreign investment. And L.E. Hudec would be one of the most famous of his time.
He married Gisela Meyer in 1922, the daughter of a wealthy German businessman in Shanghai. They had three children: Martin in 1923, Theo in 1925 and Alessa in 1928.
Hudec’sarchitectural work was extremely wide-ranging and his clients included not only the members of the international expatriate community, but also members of the Chinese National Government, which took power in 1927. Among his projects from this era was the Country Hospital(1925), which was in the European neo-classical style and featured air-conditioning and elevators (novelties in China at the time).
1925-1937 was the most interesting period of Hudec’s architectural work in Shanghai. It was during that time that he designed the first skyscraper and the tallest building in the Far East, a 22-story building on Shanghai’s marshy ground. He was also charged with designing and constructing the city’s largest theater, the 2,500-seat Grand Theater, in prime Art Deco style. Another major work by Hudec was Dr. Woo’s house, a signature piece of originality that combined both European and Chinese styles. In addition to these major projects, he designed some hundred buildings and supervised their construction. He was also active in the city’s French district, as well as the Chinese areas attached to the city.
Hudec’s success was based on his ability to work in all the international zones – he was able to work for the British, French and Americans because he knew European styles and trends and also knew how to actually build structures – because of his engineering background and his study trips to Europe. But he was also successful because he could work for the new wealthy Chinese clients of Chaing Kai Shek’s government, because of his extra-territorial citizenship – he didn’t belong to any of the colonial powers, and thus could be sued in Chinese courts if he didn’t fulfill his contracts. When working for the Chinese, he was often entrusted with the design – but it had to be modern and reflect the new wealth of the city’s new Chinese bourgeoisie. It was in these buildings, like Dr.Woo’s house, that his original style left a mark on Shanghai.
But soon, dark times loomed. After the Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1937, he built less and was more involved with helping and protecting the Austro-Hungarian community as well as the international community (his mother-in-law was half-British). He was named Hungarian Consul in 1942, during WWII. The Japanese, under pressure from Germany, created a ghetto for the more than 30,000 European Jews that Shanghai took in after the war began. Hudec took bold steps to save as many Jews as he could from having to live in the ghetto by issuing them Hungarian passports, and he also took an independent stand against the Hungarian Arrow-Cross (Nazi) government that came to power in 1944 – issuing a statement that the Hungarian consulate no longer pledged allegiance to Hungary in that time. A risky move for which he was nearly arrested himself, but it was a step that brought him on the right side of History.
After the war was over, he was again imprisoned, but through the help of an old Chinese colleague, he still managed to flee with his family in early 1947. The family was planning to return to China in 1949, but by then the Communist government had taken over and he knew hewould be arrested if he returned. All of his work and finances were seized (he had become quite wealthy in Shanghai himself) and only his investments abroad were saved.
His family spent the next year in Lugano, Switzerland -- hoping for a chance to move to Hungary after so many years. But when the communist government took control there in 1947, it became clear that he would never be able to move back ‘home.’ In the meantime, because he had built a number of churches pro bono for Jesuits in Shanghai, he was invited by the Pope to take part in the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – in order to verify the existence of St. Peter’s tomb.
Because of his work in Rome, he was invited by a religious archeological society in Berkeley, California, to hold seminars on the work being done in Rome. He and his family, as Hungarian political refugees, were granted asylum into the U.S. in 1948. For the next ten years, Hudec rarely designed or built anything; he lived in Berkeley, traveled and wrote religious and archeological works. He died in 1958, at the age of 65, of a sudden heart attack.
The Life of László Hudec is not just a story about an interesting and famous architect whose eye-catching Modernist and Art Deco buildings still reign over today’s Shanghai skyline. His story is also worth telling because it illustrates all the major political-historical and design-architectural events of the 20th century. His emblematic life story opens a window onto the previous century’s dramatic events – and through real-life, yet right out of Hollywood style scenes. From narrow escapes to creative success to wartime bravery (twice) to religious introspection, this film about L.E. Hudec will be about a man who was a multi-faceted artist and an inspiringly humble and principled human being. A life that gives rare insight into some of most fascinating times of the past century.