Béla Mátrai, Hungarian architect in Shanghai

Having lived for years in Budapest before coming to Shanghai, I still feel connected to Hungary after all those years (see post Budapest Old and New). As explained in post ” Looking for Hudec“, discovering about the Hungarian architect in 2008 was a big surprise and I could see the parallel with my own travel from Budapest to Shanghai, actually visiting Hudec alma mater during one of my trips there. At the same time, it was also an eye opener into the incredible vitality of Hungary’s architecture before and after WW1 (see post Budapest Art Deco for more details).

Thanks to the research of the Livia Szentmartoni Consul for Culture at Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai, it turns out that Hudec was not the only Hungarian architect in town. Her 2019 book as put Karoly Gonda’s work into light, and while both Hudec and Gonda came from Hungary, there was little connection beetween both. 2020 brought news of another Hungarian architect in Shanghai, Béla Mátrai.

Picture National Archives of Hungary / János Mátyás Balogh

Just like Hudec, Mátrai was a Hungarian trained architect, taken prisonner during WW1, sent to Siberia and finally arriving in Shanghai in the 1920s. It is unknown whether both men knew each other before Shanghai, but Mátrai worked a number of years for Lászlo Hudec firm. He is part of the team creating Park Hotel, a project that lasted from 1929 until completion of the building in 1934. Mátrai was listed as “field assistant to Laszlo Hudec” (source Poncellini 2007). Although unverified, it is very likely that he was also involved in other major Hudec projects before Park Hotel, including The Grand Theater and the Women College of Université Aurore.

In a similar way to Hudec a few years before, he left Hudec firm sometime in the early 1930s to create his own firm. One of his first design was the Modernist apartment building on 273 Route Culty (today Hunan Lu), completed in 1934. He had is office on 278 Route Culty, on the other side of the street.

273 Hunan Lu – Picture Livia Szentmartoni

Interestingly, I had recently visited an apartment in this building, while noticing the floor tile pattern (see post “More on tile pattern” for more details). Here is below a picture of the South garden side, that cannot be seen from the street.

The design of the apartment was very modern with 2 large bedrooms, a large combined dining and sitting room. Kitchen was very much in original condition, including the original wall mounted foldable ironing board. The apartments in this building also have an underground cellar, which is very rare in Shanghai.

The large South oriented windows gave a lot of light and a very modern feeling. I am not sure how it feels with the cold and damp Shanghai winter, though. It was definitely a modern apartment for a wealthy modern family in the 1930s.

According to official Hungarian sources, Mátrai married a Russian lady in 1924. They had 2 children, Margit & Jeno. They divorced in 1935 and Mátrai married Lucy (Ludmila) Dobrjansky. At the end of his time in Shanghai, he sent his children away in 1947 and left Shanghai on 13th March 1948. He settled with Lucy in Glen Ellen (Sonoma, California). Lászlo Hudec settled and died in Berkeley, California… about 80 km away. Somehow, Mátrai followed Hudec path for most of his life.

One thought on “Béla Mátrai, Hungarian architect in Shanghai”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.