08 April 2014

French Deco architecture in Shanghai between the wars

The first important modern European architect in Shanghai might have been László Hudec. After being a soldier in WW1, he moved to Shanghai in 1918 and opened his own practice in 1925. Hudec designed dozens of buildings in the inter-war era, including the beautiful Park Hotel which opened for business in 1934.

Paul Veysseyre (1896-1963) worked in Paris just before WW1. After his years as a soldier during the war, he was hired by Brossard-Mehdi institutions to work in China, and was soon appointed architect of the Shanghai Office. Veysseyre combined forces in 1922 with another French architect, Alexandre Léonard, focusing originally on small villa projects. One of their first big commissions was the Cercle Sportif French (today’s Okura Garden Hotel) in 1925. This was a sporting and social club, much loved by European ex-pats living in Shanghai. The third French partner, Arthur Kruze, joined them later.

Okura Garden Hotel, 1925-8
dining room

Why were French architects and others attracted to Shanghai? The French Concession had been established in the mid C19th when the mayor of Shanghai conceded territory for a French settlement to the French Consul. Although the borders of this Concession expanded and changed somewhat in the early C20th, the French Conces­s­ion became the premier residential area of Shanghai. In fact this part of the city became a heaven for European architects during the 1920s-30s.

The new style tentatively emerged in Shanghai before the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris but was soon warmly encouraged by the huge response to Deco around the world. From 1921-1937, Leonard, Veysseyre & Kruze received many remarkable commissions eg the chocolate-coloured Bearn Apartments, full of vertical and horizontal lines. And the Willow Court Apartments and Midget Apartments. These architectural treasures were perfectly designed for Old Shanghai.

Alfred Magy Apartments, 1937

Spencer Dodington believes the firm's best block of flats was the Gascogne. The building's design allows for lots of light and built-in storage, and the double-lounge floor plan was perfect for parties. In addition to the Gascogne, other impressive blocks were the Magy, the Boissezon, the Bearn and the Dauphine. But Dodington always comes back to the Okura Garden Hotel, especially its ballroom. While I didn’t realise who the architect was, I have seen the Magy, Midget and Okura Garden Apartments in the excellent blog called Art Deco Buildings

Sensing the difficulties that Europeans in China were going to meet, the architects left for Saigon in 1937. The good times for the French Concession ended in 1943, when the pro-German government of Vichy France gave up its concessions in Tianjin, Hankou, Guangzhou and finally Shanghai.

Willow Court Apartments, 1934

The book Shanghai Art Deco Master, by Spencer Dodington and Charles Lagrange, was published by Earnshaw Books in 2014. Dodington said the book was divided into 3 sections: a biography of the French architect Paul Veysseyre, chapters describing his buildings and style, and a section on the major events of the French Conces­sion. It will be launched at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, Saturday 19th of April 2014 at the Metropolo Dahua Hotel Café.

The book is based on family archives kept by two sons of Veysseyre in France, plus a complete advertisement in a 1934 local French news­paper, showcasing their best works and giving the profiles of the three name partners. Most of the Art Deco buildings that Paul Veysseyre and his architecture firm designed are still standing and can be visited; clearly arch­itecture and preservation in 1920s-1930s Shanghai are of great interest now. Even if you have to remortgage your house or put your small children in to the Labour Market to buy this book, it may still be worthwhile.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Shanghai was truly a cosmopolitan city in those days. This post resonated with me because of my own collecting interests. Many high-style Chinese antiques from that period are vested with the spirit of Art Deco, even when following traditional Chinese forms and designs.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:

Fascinating, as always. The Alfred Magy Apartment building is most striking and reminds us of similar architecture still to be found [but for how much longer?]in Montevideo.

columnist said...

I think the architecture in Shanghai including the earlier buildings on the Bund would be the overriding reason for visiting Shanghai. We have good friends who live there and who are forever berating us for not making the trip over, but I am much less enamoured of the high density of people, and the pollution, so thus far it is a city in China that remains elusive.

WeTravel said...

Husband and I went on a terrific tour of Old Shanghai, including The Peace Hotel, Ohel Moshe synagogue, the Bund etc. Next time I would like a better look at the Hongkou district.

Hels said...


nod... I think Deco was such an international art and design movement, it is inevitable that it would have crept into your Chinese antiques.

Do you think Shanghai was more vested with the modernism of Deco than other Chinese cities?

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

Sometimes you look at buildings designed in the Deco era, especially 1925-40, and you cannot tell if you are looking at Shanghai, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Napier NZ or Miami. There is a Look! I have never been to Montevideo, but I assume you love its Deco architecture.

Hels said...


absolutely agree. But I couldn't canvas the earlier era because it will not be covered by the The book Shanghai Art Deco Master by Spencer Dodington and Charles Lagrange. However the Shanghai International Literary Festival might cover the Bund etc.

Do go and visit your friends there... you will kick yourselves if you don't. Joe and I had a ball.

Hels said...

We Travel

you could not have found a more interesting tour... I should have put a link in the post:

Jewish Shanghai 1850-1950: safe haven

Ann ODyne said...

your link to he Gascogne is dead but I searched it and am glad I did. Art Deco is just wonderful. Napier NZ has a festival every February of clothes and cars to match the buildings.
I think Shanghai is where an amazing 'jazz' band of musicians who are from the state orchestra play brilliantly on Thursdays only. I first saw this on Clive James years ago and my friend went there and actually saw them.
Spencer Dodington is such an apt and lyrical name.

Hels said...


the wrap around verandas and square windows of Gascogne are very familiar and much loved Deco elements. That they were loved in Melbourne (see Stanhill Flats), Napier and Tel Aviv should alert us to how popular they were in Shanghai, in the same decades.

A yearly festival is a brilliant idea!