Based in Shanghai from 2006 - and house photographer at That's Shanghai from 2009-2015 - Hungarian photographer and filmmaker Nicky
Almasy returned to the city for a month last year to
shoot the buildings designed by his countryman, architect Laszlo Hudec, who
was active in the city from 1918 to 1945. With the help of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary and the Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai, the result is the book Hudec. We caught up with Almasy to find out more about the project.
How did the book come about?
In February 2016, just before I moved away from Shanghai, I was talking to one of my acquaintances, the Consul for Culture and Education of the Consulate General of Hungary, Szentmartoni Livia. We discussed that what a great thing it would be to do a photo book on the remaining Hudec buildings. To shoot both the interior and exteriors of these buildings and collect them into an album.
We knew from the beginning that it was not going to be easy, some of these buildings have been closed, and even the ones that are open (functioning now as banks, hotels, residential buildings) are not easy to photograph from the inside; you can’t just walking into a bank in China and start snapping away, you need permits, which we all know, in China, are very difficult to get. There are a lot of questions asked and you need a good reason and more importantly, good contacts.
So how did you go about getting the permission?
I must say, I have to give credit here to the Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai, especially to Consul Szentmartoni. Although we did the book together, and I did most of the actual physical work, they were the ones who took care most of the research and the administrative part of the process. There were many people involved. We mostly relied on books, historic and architectural documents of the city. Again, there were a lot of questions about a few relatively unknown buildings: Is it really Hudec? How much of the original structure still standing etc.
How did you go about shooting all the locations?
I flew in from Bangkok to shoot the book two times; once I spent an entire month, and then an extra week for the remaining buildings. We started off on an insane schedule first, shooting six to seven buildings a day, and then I asked them to slow down a bit because I needed to know and study the buildings a bit, not just get in and snap around.
I was lucky because the Consulate General provided a car with a very helpful and patient driver, so I was almost living in that car for weeks. Also, I find using the drone a bit too fashionable for my taste these days, but I did drone shots of the buildings, which was fun. Whichever district I was taking photos in, every time we had the FAO representative of that actual district with us, so I was completely protected from the baoans. At one point for example, when we were doing the Normandie Apartments, I flew my drone literally over the parked police cars and the police officers. Lots of fun!
Which building was the the most difficult to shoot?
Definitely the American Club on Fuzhou Road. It’s never been shot before from the inside, since the time of digital photography, and it took five months of constant phone calls and emails until they let us in. They just grew tired of us I guess, so eventually they allowed us to shoot. I could even use the drone inside, which was amazing. There were some rooms where everything was untouched for decades, the carpets full of thick dust, and there were old computers from the 90s.
Do you have a favorite Hudec building?
Of course, and it’s the Park Hotel. Cliche or not, it’s the one. It has this gothic, art deco dignity, that is just irresistible. I remember back in the old days in 2006, when I moved to Shanghai and I didn’t know anything about the city or its architecture, that was the first building that I stopped and marveled at.
As I was shooting the book, I got to know the stories behind all the buildings. My second favorite would be the Green House on Tongren Lu. But there are also true treasure like the Liu Jisheng's Residence, hiding quietly behind Julu Lu.
Which of the buildings has found interesting modern uses?
Actually, the Green House now belongs to the Shanghai Urban Planning & Design Research Institute. The building has been beautifully restored.
Any building now lost you wish you could bring back?
All of them that have been knocked down! There was a church where the Hilton is today on the corner of Yanan Lu and Huashan Lu. I mean, of course, every city needs a Hilton, but why don’t you build it a block down if there’s a church in your way? Destroying old treasures will always be unforgivable, in any country.
What does it mean to you as a Hungarian that a countryman did so much to build the Shanghai?
It means a lot and it made Shanghai special to me from the very beginning. I’m proud of doing this book, but there are so many people and even friends behind this who have done so much more for the Hudec Heritage and they’ve been doing it for decades. So all respect to them. I have a photographer friend who shot the Hudec residence from the inside when it was left to ruins, those photos needs to be seen one day.
On my part, I always say, that I’m happy that a Hungarian workaholic got to document another workaholic Hungarian’s work. It really means a lot to me because I always loved Hudec’s architecture and it was the perfect full stop to my Shanghai years.
What made him so impressive as a person?
The fact that he never gave up; escaping from a prison camp even with an injury, making it all the way to unknown land, Shanghai, where he practically defined the city.
You met his daughter before too, correct?
Yes, it’s a funny story. When I was still working for That’s, just after the Xmas holidays in 2010, one of my colleagues was coming back from Boston and she got a seat on the plane next to this old lady. She was going on about her father: her father this, her father that, that Hungarian Shanghai architect, when my colleague asked her: ‘What’s his name?’ And she said ‘Hudec Laszlo’.
So immediately an interview was scheduled and we went to Park Hotel to talk to her. She doesn't speak Hungarian and it was just a brief meeting but certainly a memorable one. [You can read that right here].
And you made some video?
Yes, but this actually wasn’t in the original plans when I started to shoot the book. I just thought, once I had the opportunity to get into these buildings, why not shoot a few videos too? We didn’t have much time for this to be honest, but I did do a little video out of it, yeah.
Hudec by Nicky Almasy is out now with the help of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary and the Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai. For more details contact Hungarian Consul for Culture and Education Livia Szentmartoni at LSzentmarton