Anomaly of Good Form: A Gothic Church in Shanghai, City of Modernity
The Western architecture of the Shanghai Bund, 1930s. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions SAM Collection
While Beijing is a city of traditional Chinese architecture, identified by its emphasis on horizontality and sloped roofs, Shanghai is a city of Western modernity, marked by bright neon lights that illuminate the heights of soaring skyscrapers and monumental Neoclassical banks. Shanghai is a tribute to progressive thinking and the aspirations of wealth and avant-gardism. Beijing harbors the vestiges of Chinese tradition and the tenacious ideal of a Confucian society.
Nestled within Shanghai’s grasp for tomorrow is an American Gothic church, an anomaly in its busy urban landscape, anchored to the past in the hyper-modern Huangpu district, an area of Shanghai now most famous for the Bund, high-end shopping, and rampant prostitution. Laszlo Hudec’s Moore Memorial Church (named for the donors) represents a sacred space that stands alone in new Shanghai.
Hudec had an abiding commitment to preserving traditional styles, especially Gothic, when designing ecclesial structures, despite his simultaneous aspiration to punctuate Shanghai’s cityscape with contemporary buildings that trumpet modernity and the dream of material prosperity. For him, secularism was best characterized by forms that embody the accomplishments of modern science and commerce, but for his sacred architecture he moored the forms in the styles of the past. His personal interests extended far beyond the modern styles he is best known to have designed.
He was quite prodigious during the third decade of the twentieth-century, designing several ecclesiastical buildings that were mostly inspired by, or entirely designed in, the Gothic style. He was in many ways a classicist who was commissioned to design avant-garde buildings that represented Shanghai’s hysteria for modernity and progress. When he was commissioned to design secular buildings he did so in alignment with secular ideals—unrestraint, forwardness, and ambition —while his church designs were entrenched in the principles of continuity, tradition, and sacredness.
An Architect of Contrasts
Hudec was born into a Lutheran family in the northern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Slovakia). (Much of the history that follows is taken from Lenore Hietkamp’s Laszlo Hudec and the Park Hotel in Shanghai.) His father was a builder who encouraged him to “work in all aspects of the trade,” until he began his training in architecture in Budapest.
His training was typical of the early-twentieth century; he was thoroughly irrigated with the waters of the academic architectural style of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His professors imparted to him an appreciation of the principles of French Neoclassicism, while also teaching the Gothic and Renaissance elements.
His Beaux-Arts training emphasized the use of modern materials such as glass and iron when building classically designed structures. Moore Memorial Church is an excellent example of his implementation of his education. It is entirely Gothic, but constructed with modern materials and with modern conveniences.
After he received his degree in 1914, he joined the Austro-Hungarian army during the advent of the First World War. In 1916, he was seized by the Russians and held as a prisoner of war in a grim Siberian camp. He escaped from a Russian military transport train in Siberia and travelled through Harbin into northern China, finally arriving at Shanghai in 1918 as the war was coming to an end.
Hudec’s architectural career was inaugurated after he had settled in Shanghai and he was hired by the American firm R. A. Curry. He adopted the Chinese name Lang Dake, which appeared on the seal affixed to the corner of his drawings.
Once his genius as a remarkable architect, as well as his ability to speak in several languages, had become known, his home “became a social center for Chinese, expatriate Hungarians,” and other Westerners in the city. He lived the “privileged, extensive social life prized by Shanghailanders.” He was as well-known and respected among the Christian community as he was among the much more influential community of wealthy businessmen.
His network of acquaintances garnered a wide sweep of commissions. By 1941, he had become one of the most celebrated architects in China, and had designed and supervised the construction of hundreds of buildings in Shanghai and surrounding areas.
A Mélange of Styles
Three of his buildings have received the most local and international attention—the distinctive ultra-modern Wu Residence, and two in the Art Deco style: the Park Hotel, once the tallest skyscraper in Asia, and the Grand Theater. After traveling to New York in 1927 and 1928, he returned to Shanghai with an admiration for the technical and aesthetic innovations of Art Deco, and his Park Hotel highlights both.
Hudec’s Art Deco Park Hotel beside the Grand Theater, c. 1935. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection
While Le Corbusier spurned the Manhattan Deco as a kind of “fairy catastrophe,” Hudec viewed it as the quintessential symbol of Western success, precisely the image that Shanghai’s well-heeled financiers wished to convey. His design emphasizes vertical motifs and characterizes the ambitions of affluence and confidence rather than historical continuity and tradition.
It cannot be overstated how out of place these modern Western buildings were in China. Art Deco is a transplant onto Chinese soil that few except Westerners and Westernized Shangailanders recognized.
Two other buildings commissioned in 1930 for Christian use deserve mention as I describe his contrasting styles. The China Baptist Publication Society Building and the China Christian Literature Society Building were built in a Deco Gothic style. They combine the rising streamline pattern of Art Deco with the pointed arch that was valorized by the “Gothicists” of the Gothic Revival Movement as the aesthetic representation of Christian architecture. He also built a Byzantine-style Catholic church on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Somewhat burrowed into the mélange of progressive styles—Art Deco, Bauhaus, and admixtures of both—lies his Moore Memorial Church. It reveals his sense that sacred space, especially space intended for religious worship, should avoid rupture from the past and draw the eyes and soul toward the unbroken history of faith and prayer. It discloses the heart of his sense of the sacred.
An Anomaly of Good Form
Many saw Shanghai as corrupt and degenerate. The few Gothic churches that punctuated the city served as alternative views of human purpose. The creation of sacred architecture within this context of seedy racketeers and meandering idlers was a challenge that Hudec confronted by turning to his long appreciation of Europe’s traditional forms of church design. The vertical nature of Gothic architecture points upward, away from the corruption that eddied through Shanghai’s main streets and alleys.
Such traditional styles of ecclesial architecture as Gothic or Romanesque were already the standard style of church design in greater China when Hudec made his way to Shanghai after his escape from Russian soldiers. Guangzhou’s new cathedral had been designed after Paris’s eminent Basilique Sainte-Clotilde. And Shanghai’s competitor city, Beijing, housed China’s most famous church, a Gothic design inspired by Notre-Dame de Paris. (See “Beijing’s ‘New’ Cathedral” in Issue 34 of Sacred Architecture.)
Gothic architecture in Shanghai represents one of two great exceptions to the city’s configuration and appearance within the greater context of imperial and Republican China. Elsewhere in China, Gothic Revival represented the norm in Western building design.
Shanghai’s most famous Gothic church was already standing when the Moore Memorial Church began construction in 1929. The Jesuit-commissioned Saint Ignatius Church expressed “the aspirations of the French Jesuits in Shanghai, who wanted the church … to exemplify a Gothic order of hierarchies.” (For more on this, see “Building for the Senses” in Issue 25 of Sacred Architecture.)
The dominance of Westerners and Western ambitions was the second great exception. Whereas elsewhere in China, Western diplomats and missionaries occupied the margins of cities and villages, Shanghai’s core was occupied and controlled by Westerners and their interests. Shanghai was perhaps China’s best example of a semi-colony, effectively controlled by Western legates and business elites.
Nordic and Streamline
While Hudec’s plan for his German Evangelical Church, finished in 1932, was not designed with the archetypal elements of Victorian Gothic Revival, it was nonetheless described in the Shanghai Sunday Times as a “Nordic type of Gothic.” It may be more appropriate, however, to simply refer to the design as Teutonic, as one must strain to locate anything remotely like a pointed arch anywhere in the building’s design.
He produced sets of proposal sketches that he hoped would result in two more Gothic Revival Christian buildings, the Roman Catholic Gonzaga College, founded by American Jesuits, and the Roman Catholic Aurora College for Women. His proposed campus for the first featured a dramatic Latin cross Gothic chapel for 1,000 people with a high Gothic tower adjoining the right side of the façade. This is one of the few proposals he was known to have lost to a competitor.
His proposal to design the new buildings for the Aurora College for Women, founded by American Sisters of the Sacred Heart, was selected, though his original plan to erect Gothic buildings was passed over in favor of another architectural style, Bauhaus. The college was at first intended to be named “Sacred Heart College,” and his initial plan designed the chapel as an admixture of Romanesque rounded windows on the tower and pointed arch Gothic windows along the side of the chapel’s nave.
The final appearance was a Streamline Moderne Bauhaus design that is more simple. When the new college was opened in 1939, visitors “were amazed at the beautiful and modern construction” of his final design.
The second commission Hudec received from the Catholic mission in Shanghai was to design a new cemetery chapel in the outskirts of Shanghai at Chapei. Like many of his works, it combined both Byzantine and Gothic. The exterior is clearly Byzantine in style, but the interior is characteristically Gothic with pointed arch windows and ribbed vaulting.
When he received the commission to design Moore Memorial Church for one of Shanghai’s most visible locations, Hudec was no doubt conscious of the pervasive modernism that had painted the canvas of the city, but he was designing a church and not a hotel, bank, hospital, or private club. For his non-religious commissions, he had designed according to the ideals of modernity and novelty, but for his ecclesial works he appears to have largely conformed to Pugin’s counsel to “seek antiquity” and to “revive” rather than “invent.”
In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin said of Gothic that, “Gothic is not only the best, but the only rational architecture, as being that which can fit itself most easily to all services, vulgar or noble.” One might add to this that the Gothic style has long been viewed as imminently functional across denominational divides. Thus, Hudec could employ Gothic elements when designing for Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Methodist congregations.
The commission to build the church came from missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The number of Chinese converts to Methodism was rising quickly, and the old Central Methodist Church, built in 1887, could no longer accommodate the large crowds of worshippers.
Construction began at the intersection of Tibet and Hankou Roads, across the racetrack from Hudec’s Park Hotel. The church was solemnly dedicated at a service on Sunday morning, March 15, 1931. It was advertised as the largest Protestant church in East Asia.
The Moore Memorial Chapel interior in 2016. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection
Keeping an overall English Gothic appearance, the church was quite large, occupying a land area of 4,419 square feet, with a total floor space of 10,295 square feet. Two aisles flank the main nave, and choir stalls were installed below what used to be a simple rood screen surmounted by a large wooden cross above the sanctuary. The cross is no longer present, probably removed during the destructive years of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976.
Moore Memorial Chapel, c. 1935. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection
Hudec was careful to design the church interior to accommodate the growing number of congregants. The downstairs provided room for 560, the upstairs allowed for 380, and the choir stalls could seat another 60 people. Attached buildings had offices, a dormitory, and classrooms.
In a booklet commemorating a Methodist gathering in the Moore Memorial Church in 1935, the new church’s architecture is praised for its conduciveness to Christian prayer: “The auditorium lent itself beautifully to such a gathering. The high-arching Gothic interior lighted by the sunshine-colored windows, the rich stained wood pews, and above the pulpit, the high wooden cross, called one to worship as in a cathedral.”
Both the church’s interior and exterior summoned the attention of those who observed its Gothic style in distinction from what stood around it. The Shanghai Evening Post & Mercury exclaimed about the new edifice: “This latest addition to the ecclesiastical architecture of the port stands out in striking contrast to its neighbors across the way from the race course.” Whatever people’s first impressions as they first saw the church within its larger architectural context, it was an anomaly that identified itself as a sacred space.
Hudec’s early sketches suggest that he first envisioned a non-Gothic exterior with a Gothic interior, similar to his Chapei chapel built in two distinct styles that were distinguished by the interior and exterior. An early drawing of the church tower includes no distinctively Gothic elements; even the main massing of the church as he rendered it in this sketch contains nothing Gothic. Another sketch of his vision of the church interior depicts the sanctuary with a simple rood screen and cross that is entirely in the Gothic style.
In the end, however, he decided that the entire church, interior and exterior, should reflect a harmonious whole that is Gothic in style from every view. Unlike the modern architecture that surrounded the church, architecture that celebrates human invention and human ambition, the Gothic style emulates the splendor and harmony of nature. The Scottish geologist Sir James Hall asserted in his Essay on the Origin, History, and Principles of Gothic Architecture that “the Gothic style is in all its parts nearly connected with nature, and has borrowed its forms from that beauty.”
Today, the Moore Memorial Church is largely enclosed within Shanghai’s twentieth and twenty-first century versions of modernity; its Gothic style is awkwardly framed between monoliths of glass and concrete. Even so, it visualizes something more than the passing trends of aesthetic fancy. It embodies Christopher Wren’s assertion in Of Architecture that “architecture aims at eternity.”
The Moore Memorial Chapel as seen today (c. 2016) stands as a testament to the sacred among its glass and concrete surroundings. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection
The Moore Memorial Church remains a testament to the enduring value of traditional architectural form when designing sacred space for religious use. Art Deco has been called “an architecture of soaring skyscrapers—the cathedrals of the modern age.” Hudec was an architect of many contrasts—a master of modern Art Deco and Bauhaus—but when he was tasked with designing churches, he chose the Gothic of the past rather than the “Gothic of the future.”
The Church a Microcosm
Hudec once wrote of himself, in his unpublished autobiography: “I wasn’t sure if I should become a priest or an architect,” and the designs he produced represent both sides of his personality. “Architecture is applied art; the exterior appearance is the consequence of the interior. It isn’t necessary to create something new, because the new challenges and the new materials are also going to bring new solutions with them.”
He saw no reason to reject traditional design simply because of the prevailing trends or the differences of available materials based on time and location, especially when what is being designed is a church. The English architectural historian William Lethaby wrote: “The perfect temple should stand at the center of the world, a microcosm of the universe fabric, its walls built foursquare with the walls of heaven.”
Laszlo Hudec was an architect who apprehended the special place of sacred architecture, even, or especially, if it emerges from such a fashionable cityscape as twentieth-century Shanghai. The Moore Memorial Church stands as a Gothic example of good design in China’s most modern city.
The author would like to thank the Pamela Parker Memorial Fellowship and the Whitworth University’s Weyerhaeuser Center for their generous support. He would like to thank several individuals for their kind assistance, among them: the director and staff of the University of Victoria’s Special Collections and Archives; Lenore Heitkamp, who shared her mastery of Hudec studies; and Alvin Hudec, who shared scanned images of Laszlo Hudec from the Hudec family’s private collection.