Lafuente article in Madrid paper

Spanish architect Alvaro Leonardo has been instrumental in the rediscovery of Spanish architect in Shanghai, Abelardo Lafuente. While being in Shanghai, he researched his thesis on his forefather. He has been back in Madrid for a couple of years and his thesis is now completed, though only in spanish. His work is starting to get attention, like in this recent article in major Madrid daily Diaro ABC (in Spanish only).

Like for most Shanghai architects, their legacy was lost for many years and has only recently reappeared. It is then a struggle to find back information and an even bigger struggle to achieve recognition in their home country, so far away and after so many years. Congrats to Alvaro for this article!

The rise and fall of the Majestic Hotel

Shanghai has always been a city of fast paced life and constant change. One of the best example is the fate of grand hotel shooting star, the Majestic Hotel (大華飯店 or Dai Hua Jiu Dian in Chinese) on Bubbling Well Road (today Nanjing Xi Lu). As seen on a 1932 map below, the hotel was occupying an enormous plot, on what is today Nanjing Xi Lu, from Jiangning Lu all the way to Taixing lu.

The building and its park were originally the McBain residence, of a successful business man who represented Shell (among others) in China, and sold the property to Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels company.

Majestic Hotel Garden

Renovation and transformation of the building was given to Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente in 1924. The inside yard was covered to be converted into the dining room, modern sanitary and heating system was installed and the facade was covered with marble. The garden remained despite the addition of a winter garden and a massive ballroom that became the center of Shanghai Social life for the upper class for a few years.

Advertising leaflet for the Majestic hotel

The Majestic hotel was the best and most luxurious in Shanghai and one of the leading hotels in the World from it’s opening in 1924, being the jewel of the Hong Kong and Shanghai hotels company. The gigantic ballroom became the place for most important official parties to take place, including St Andrew’s and St George’s, the Washington and the Russian ball as it was the largest venue in Shanghai, able to host more than 1000 guests.

The majestic hotel ballroom

The ballroom was also one of the main point where Shanghai dancing craze started, with a jazz band featuring, local stars such as Serge Ermoll and Whitey Smith. In 1927, the Majestic Ballroom was the location of a major event, the wedding of Chiang Kai Shek, the ruler of China then, and Song Meiling (See the Soong Sister for more information). In 1929, Hollywood star Douglas Fairbank and his wife Mary Pickford visited Shanghai and stayed at the Majestic, underlining its success on Shanghai scene.

The winter garder shows the opulence of the place

With all its grandeur, the Majestic Hotel proved to big and too luxurious to be really profitable, and the hotel was sold to developers in 1930 (source: Hong Kong and Shanghai hotels official website). At the same period, the Cathay hotel (today’s Fairmont Peace Hotel) opened on the Bund. The Majestic hotel ballroom finally closed in 1931 and the building was destroyed in 1932. The massive land was separated in several lots, including the one where Majestic Theater was built in 1941. The former location of the hotel is similar to the one of today’s Westgate Mall on Nanjing Xi lu.

Corridors of the Majestic Hotel

Sasha’s bar

Sasha’s

Shasha’s, the bar and restaurant at the corner of Heng Shan Lu and Dong Ping Lu, was one of the first bar I visited in Shanghai, along with the now defunct Face Bar (see post “Timelessness” and “Intercontinental Ruijin“).  This was for the reopening of the bar after renovation… in January 2004. Although this time is now long gone, I still find myself coming to Sasha’s on a regular basis. It is now pretty much forgotten, but the original bar was really proud to be the former house of the famous Soong family (see post “The soong sisters”). There is even a painting (supposedly) of the family in the main room. I don’t think that anybody looks at this poster anymore. In any case, the Soong family story was mostly a marketing stunt, i.e. the story of the three sisters who took very different path in life with one (Soong Qinling) marrying Sun Yat Sen, and then becoming one of the communist party icon, one (Soong Mayling) marrying communist party enemy, Chiang Kai Shek and the third one (Soong Ailing) mostly famous because her husband ruined China as finance minister as well as filling his own pockets ludicrously. It was a great story to tell that the building that is now Sasha’s was once the family home, but it mostly fake.

The Soong family lived in Nanchi (now part of Yangpu district) and mostly in Hongkou. This is where Charly Soon printed Bibles during the day, and republican propaganda for his friend Sun Yat Sen during the night… before 1911. The methodist Soong family attended the church in HongKou district, off Zhapu Road, very close to what became known as little Tokyo, where Chiang Kai Shek and Soong Mayling Sasha’s building was only built in the early 30’s, once Chiang Kai Shek (now married with Soong Ailing), had recovered control of large parts of China as well as the money and might to build it in the French Concession, as well as building his own house next door. Similarly, Shasha’s building is supposed to be old, but there is not much old in it. The interior has suffered numerous “ruinovation”, so none of the original probably remains. Futhermore, the 1980’s renovation added a third floor, totally changing the shape from the original 1930’s design from spanish architect Alberado Lafuente (See post of Lafuente’s story). The attic (where I sometimes gave conferences about Old Shanghai history) is a new construction that did not exist back then, though I had to admit if fits nicely with the building. Despite all this, today’s Sasha’s has become a Shanghai institution. Long passed is the time when Sasha’s was one of the few terraces in town and the venue is not really fashionable anymore, but there are always customers. It is not the new kid on the block, but it is always there, and has been for a long time. As opposed to the early days of expat only attendance, the place is now crowed with a good mix of people, locals, newly arrived expats and old timers like me, making it really an interesting crowd. It’s a bit of melting pot really. In a city that is known for permanent change, a little bit of permanence is really welcome. This makes it and anchor of the nightlife, a place that has always been there and (hopefully) always will be.

Abelardo Lafuente, Shanghai Spanish architect

Old Shanghai was a place where people from many origins came to, including architects. Added with a long construction boom, this created the patchwork of architectural styles that is still visible today. The most famous architect firms of Old Shanghai were Brits Palmer & Turner, French Vesseyre, Leonard & Kruze and Hungarian Hudec Laszlo. Besides them smaller firms such Minutti (Switzerland), Gonda and Matrai (Hungary), Atkinson & Dallas (US). There was also a number of Chinese architects that designed buildings mostly from the 20s, including Poy Gum Lee.

A new one has recently got a lot of attention, Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente. Thanks to the research of Shanghai-based Spanish architect Alvaro Leonardo, Abelardo Lafuente’s work and story was uncovered, carefully stored in Spain within Lafuente’s personal stuff.

Alberado Lafuente

Abelardo Lafuente was born in Madrid in 1871. Following his father who became the municipal architect of Manilla, he moved to the Philippines with wife and kids. Abelardo also became an architect in Manilla but most of his work was done in Shanghai after moving in 1913. He quickly made a partnership with G.O. Wooten, introducing “Mozarabic” or Moorish-Andalusian style to Shanghai. Only few of those buildings still exist, including the former Star Garage on Nanjing Xi Lu (picture further down) and the former Jewish Club next door. The master piece of the style is surely the Andalusian villa on Du Lun Lu, that is still standing. 

Abelardo Lafuente then operated alone and was in great demand for interior design, creating the ball room of several hotels. This included the Astor House hotel on the North Bund that he did the design for one of the extension in 1917 and then renovated in 1923 (this can still be visited) and the Majestic Hotel on Bubbling Well Road in 1923 (around of the same place as current CITIC Square on Nanjing Xi Lu).

Astor House hotel ballroom

Being the only Spanish architect in town, he also made a design for the Jai Alai building in the French Concession at the corner of Avenue Joffre (Today corner of HuaiHai Lu and Shaanxi Lu, at the place of the Paris Spring shopping mall), although it is not confirmed if his design was finally constructed. Lafuente also created film theaters for the Spanish business man Antonio Ramos who introduced cinema to Shanghai and a few villas including the former Soong villa, today’s home to Sasha’s restaurant at the corner of Avenue Pétain and Rue Francis Garnier (today HengShan lu and Dong Ping lu). 

When Lafuente went to the USA in 1927, one of his draftman, Russian architect Alexander Yaron, was made partner and kept the office running. Although Lafuente designed buildings in the USA, the 1929 crisis stopped his effort there. Without much money, he tried to return to Shanghai, first stopping in Mexico and finally reaching Shanghai in 1931. He died only a few months later of pulmonary disease probably caught in Mexico.

Lafuente exhibition poster 2011

Abelardo Lafuente’s style was unique in Shanghai. An exhibition about him and his work in Shanghai was organised at South Bund 22 in December 2011. It was organised by Alvaro Leonardo and the Spanish Cultural Center in Shanghai. Details are provided in the invitation on the left hand side.

More recent information about Abelardo Lafuente can be found on the page of the Abelardo Lafuente research project page.