Hudec delivers one of his best designs for the silver screen

The Grand Theater harks back to an era when Shanghai’s emerging middle class took delight in the “light, heat and power” inventions of the West.
Hudec delivers one of his best designs for the silver screen
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Architect Laszlo Hudec’s most difficult project in Shanghai has to be the Grand Theater. More than 70 years later it gave architects a challenge once again when they tasked with restoring it in 2007.

“Hudec showed the ultimate skills in handling this project, which almost seems impossible — to design a spacious, stylish cinema on a very unusual shaped plot of land. The draft was later added to the collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects,” says Tongji University associate professor Hua Xiahong, author of “Shanghai Hudec Architecture.”

In 1928, a cinema was built on the plot. It earned notoriety after screening the film “Welcome Danger,” a movie that humiliated Chinese by portraying them as drug dealers and robbers. The cinema was forced to close down in 1931 because the movie ignited anger among locals.

Chinese-British Lu Geng, co-founder of United Movies Co, demolished the cinema and hired Hudec to design a new one.

Lin Yun of Shanghai Zhang Ming Architectural Design Firm and chief architect of the theater’s 2007 renovation project says the plot was long, narrow and irregular, which made it extremely difficult to design a luxurious 2,000-seat cinema.

Hudec delivers one of his best designs for the silver screen
Shanghai Zhang Ming Architectural Design Firm / SHINE

This archive photo of the lobby on the second floor shows Hudec’s modern decorations including a fountain and a metal pillar. The floor was paved with carpet.

Hudec’s solution

He says Hudec’s solution was ingenious. Graced by fancy fountains, the lobbies on the first and second floors were shaped like cashews to fit with the shape of the land plot.

Two grand staircases led people from the entrance to the second floor. The artful use of a variety of curves created a free-flowing effect inside.

“Some famous cinemas built in that era like Nanking Theatre or the Cathay Theatre were on street corners, which were prominent locations. But the Nanjing Road facade of Grand Theatre was unfortunately sandwiched between tall shops,” Lin adds. “Therefore, Hudec designed a 30.5-meter-high glass lighting pillar atop the 3-story cinema, which immediately stood out from a line of shops. The cubic glass lighting pillar was particularly eye-catching at night as it contrasted with the vertical and horizontal lines on the facade — very modern.”

Hudec’s style changed significantly in the 1930s as new trends swept across the city. He first experimented with this change on the True Light Buildings on Yuanmingyuan Road in 1932. The Grand Theatre marked a complete transformation, which made him “the most noticeable architect in Shanghai’s new architectural movement,” according to renowned Tongji University professor Zheng Shiling’s book, “The Evolution of Shanghai Architecture in Modern Times.”

Zheng believes Hudec’s work is simpler, yet more chic than Palmer & Turner, which designed nine of the 23 waterfront buildings on the Bund to become the city’s most famous architectural firm during the 1920s and 1930s.

“If Palmer & Turner created ‘classic’ Art Deco then we can say Hudec showcased ‘modern’ Art Deco,” Zheng says. “The former firm spent a great deal of energy on crafting heavily decorative, sophisticated patterns while Hudec paid more attention to the geometric decoration of the overall appearance.”

As soon as Hudec’s tentative plan was released in 1931, English newspaper China Press gave a detailed report:

“Shanghai is as movie-mad as any city of its size in the world. The rest of China is oblivious to the energies of Hollywood, but this metropolis pays a huge annual toll cheerfully to feast its eyes on the antics of the silver screen. The theaters in Shanghai have improved in proportion to the interest shown in them, until today plans have just been announced for Shanghai’s first ‘Cathedral of the Moving Picture’ — the new Grand Theatre on Bubbling Well Road.”

Hudec delivers one of his best designs for the silver screen
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The second floor of today's Grand Theater after restoration

 ‘Light, heat and power’

Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences historian Jiang Wenjun, co-author of “Modern Shanghai Urban Public Spaces,” says: “The city’s middle class emerged in the 1920s. They were more educated and their lifestyle differed from the older generation. They loved the Western world’s ‘light, heat and power’ inventions from movies and radios to buses and cars. They were the ones going to the movies.”

The Grand Theatre opened its doors to the public on June 14, 1933, with the Hollywood movie “Hell Below.” It immediately became on the most popular entertainment venues in town, going on to screen movies produced by 20th Century Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as well as staging concerts. It was also the first cinema to offer simultaneous translation when foreign films were screened.

The building also had a dance hall, cafe and billiard rooms. The main auditorium was shaped like a big bell and seated nearly 2,000 people on two floors — the biggest capacity of any cinema in China at the time.

Jiang says he found a 1934 survey listing the world’s top 10 cities based on the most number of cinemas. Shanghai ranked No. 8 and was the only Asian city on the list with 53 cinemas.

Hudec delivers one of his best designs for the silver screen
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The original exterior brick columns of the 1928 cinema have been preserved and are now displayed in front of the No. 2 Hall.

A challenging renovation

Grand Theatre was renamed Grand Cinema in 1949 and continued screening movies through the 1990s (the name was changed back after the renovation). By this time, moviegoers started going to newer facilities with modern comforts and conveniences. Thus the 2007 renovation project was not just about reviving its original look, but also upgrading the facilities. Five small halls, a roof garden and a restaurant were added during the renovation project.

Architects used one of Hudec’s draft plans for the cinema to help with the restoration. Archival photos also helped. Lin says getting the original colors just right was the toughest task since they had to work with black-and-white photos. His team discovered seven layers of historical fragments from the ceiling of the main auditorium — silver in the innermost layer to various shades of green.

He says they chose a light green tone for the ceiling after speaking with former cinema employees and Shanghai architectural historian Luo Xiaowei.

The entrance hall’s ceiling had three layers of colors, buff, gentle green and gold. The restoration team finally decided to use a golden foil based on architect Zhang Ming’s impression that the theater had a “golden sunny atmosphere.”

“Hudec has depended largely upon a combination of lighting effects and beautiful materials to get the desired result,” Lin says. “In the old days the Grand Theatre looked even more ‘shiny’ than today because it was designed for the city’s ‘modern era’ — the 1930s.”

The team’s hard work has paid dividends. Since reopening on January 19, 2009, moviegoers have returned to the cinema in droves. It is once again one of the city’s top theaters — and also happens to be the most unique.

Hudec delivers one of his best designs for the silver screen
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

A recent photo of the Grand Theatre’s 2,000-seat auditorium after restoration. Architects finally chose a light green tone for the ceiling from seven layers of historical fragments in different colors.

Yesterday: The Grand Theater

Today: The Grand Theater

Built: In 1933

Architectural style: Art Deco

Address: 216 Nanjing Rd W.

Tips: Relics of the 1928 cinema have been preserved by both Hudec and architects in charge of the 2007 renovation, including exterior brick columns on the second floor (fronting No. 2 Cinema hall) and creamy white terrazzo staircase on the western side. It’s interesting to find them or decode the mysterious “Hudec symbols” used extensively on the floor. It’s open to the public from 10am to 11pm. Tickets are required to enter the auditorium.

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