Katya Knyazeva (avezink) wrote,
Katya Knyazeva

C. H. Gonda, the Shanghai architect

Charles Henry Gonda, aka C. H. Gonda (1889–1969)

Born Karol (Karoly) Goldstein, 22 June 1889 in Gyongyos, Kingdom of Hungary, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy – died 1 April 1969 in Lakewood, New Jersey, USA.

Professionally known as C. H. Gonda, or Charles Henry Gonda, the Hungarian architect was active in Shanghai in the 1920s–1940s and was famous for his modernist style of building. Among his largest extant works are the Capitol Theatre (光陆大戏院), Sun Sun Department Store (新新公司),Cathay Theatre (国泰电影院), the Bank of East Asia (东亚银行) and the Bank of Communications (交通银行).

Early life

Karoly (Karol) Goldstein, later known as C. H. Gonda, was the younger son in a family of the merchant Henrik Goldstein and the housewife Roza Balkanyi. In 1902, the Goldsteins changed their surname to Gonda to make it sound more Hungarian. Following the death of Henrik, the family moved to Vienna, where Karoly Gonda finished his secondary education and his older brother Aurel started working as a doctor. In 1908, Gonda enrolled at the Technical College of Vienna's School of Architecture, but dropped out during the summer semester of 1914. He made his way to Paris, where he (likely) received a diploma from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and later apprenticed in London for about a year. [1, 2]

When the First World War broke out, both brothers were drafted, and Karoly served in the 309th regiment of the national guard infantry, for which in 1917 he was awarded a silver medal for valor, second class. [2] He was captured by the Russians and assigned to a prisoners of war camp near Nikolsk-Ussuriysk. While in captivity, he met Evdokia, the daughter of the well-known architect Nikolay Vsevolodovich Dmitriev, who had moved to Vladivostok from Moscow to escape the tumult of the Russian revolution. Because Karoly Gonda spoke Hungarian, German, English, French and Russian, Evdokia hired him as the language teacher for her two sons, George and Vladimir. Karoly and Evdokia married in January 1919, and Gonda adopted Evdokia’s sons. [2]

Life in Shanghai

As Russia was getting entrenched in the civil war, the couple left the country and went China, arriving in Shanghai on September 15, 1920; the children followed soon after. Gonda found employment at the Property and Estate Department of the British firm Probst, Hanbury & Co., and the family settled on Dixwell Road (now Liyang Road). [2] Having soon attained a promotion, Gonda relocated to the more central Ferry Road (now Xikang Road), where they lived in an affluent colonial-style villa, with a private tennis court, driving a large green Packard and employing several servants. As he rose to be a renowned architect, Gonda started to revolve around the foreign elites, including Shanghai’s top British oligarch Victor Sassoon. The Gondas also socialized with the Hungarians, Austrians and Russians, many of whom were former prisoners of war. [2]

C. H. Gonda's architectural career spanned over 25 years. By some accounts, he designed more than forty buildings in Shanghai alone. [2] He was an avid proponent of modernist style, having published a eulogy for it entitled "Modern and Ancient Forms in Local Architecture," writing under the pseudonym Adnog (his surname reversed), in which he expressed his animosity towards historicism: “As an engineer would refuse to design an airship in Gothic or Renaissance style, an architect should refuse to design a bank building or an apartment house in Renaissance of Gothic. […] The pulse of our time has to be heard, and from the chaos of indescribable horrors of bad taste slowly but surely the new style is awakening.” [2, 3]

Gonda was among the first practitioners of the modernist style in Shanghai: “A new architecture has been born out of our mechanical age, and rightly or wrongly termed ‘modernistic,’ is the logical outcome of the tremendous social changes in our lives, in our methods of construction and in our needs and tastes.” [4] Consistent with his commitment to technological progress, Gonda considered cinema the most important of contemporary entertainments, and embraced its influence on modern architecture. Among the two dozen of his buildings in China that have been identified to this day, more than half are movie theatres.

Gonda was a proficient oil painter; his paintings were frequently exhibited at Shanghai art shows [5], and he was included in election committees. [6] Gonda was an active member of the Shanghai Jewish community and participated in its fund-raising campaigns, as well as in Russian relief charity events. [7, 8]

In 1938, the architect’s brother, Dr. Aurel Gonda, escaped the fascist Vienna together with his family and joined C. H. Gonda in Shanghai. After the Communist victory in China in 1949, the brothers and their families left for the USA and settled in Lakewood, New Jersey. Having retired from architecture, C. H. Gonda focused on landscape painting. He died in 1969, one year after his wife.

Bank of East Asia, architectural drawing by C. H. Gonda.

Architectural career

In the early months of 1922, the architectural studio of C. H. Gonda (Chinese name 鸿) opened at 4 Ezra Road. [9] Initially, it employed only one Russian assistant architect, N. N. Emanoff, and one Chinese agent, L. C. Mow, but as the practice grew, it employed other architects, engineers, interior designers and draftsmen, mostly from among the Eastern European and the Russian communities, as well as local Chinese specialists. A business listing of C. H. Gonda’s firm in July 1926 lists eleven persons on the staff, including a representative in Tianjin. [10]

Specializing in commercial buildings, Gonda’s studio won numerous design competitions and received major commissions in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Qifu, Tianjin and Beijing. Its earliest known project is the construction of the China and South Sea Bank 中南银行 in Tientsin (now Tianjin, 88 North Jiefang Road 解放北路88号), which Gonda supervised in the summer of 1923. [11] He traveled to Amoy (now Xiamen) several times, and in 1923 was elected honorary architect to the Amoy University. [12]

Gonda’s next project was the design of the Sun Sun Co. Department Store 新新公司 for the local businessmen S. K. Lau, sited on Shanghai’s main shopping promenade Nanking Road (now 720 East Nanjing Road 南京东路720号). The construction began in early 1924, and the building, which cost 4,000,000 tales, was inaugurated in January 1926. The seven-story department store, hotel and amusement center was topped with a tower, bringing the total height to 55 meters (180 feet). [13] The press called Sun Sun Co. “spacious, commodious and different department store […] constructed on the most modern lines, [with] plenty of windows and good indirect lighting, comfortable lifts and adequate display counters.” [14]

In April 1925, construction work started on the six-story Bank of East Asia (now 299 Middle Sichuan Road 四川中路299号). [15] When the bank was inaugurated in February 1926, it was called the C. H. Gonda’s “triumph in style of architecture new to Shanghai.” [16] The building boasted innovative structural decisions, such as the banking hall without a single column, on the ground floor. This project emphatically put forward the modernist aesthetic, still novel at that time, which would become Gonda’s signature.

In 1927, Gonda’s other project rose in the downtown – the Shahmoon Building 光陆大楼 at 21 Museum Road (today's 146 Huqiu Road 虎丘路146号), the property of S. E. Shahmoon & Co. Its architectural design was praised for its originality, simplicity and restrained ornamentation. [17] The curved facade featured three horizontal divisions topped by a classic stepped-back art deco pinnacle – a recurring element in Gonda’s buildings. The Shahmoon Building housed the Capitol Theatre 光陆大戏院 at the bottom and offices of major film studios on the five floors above. The 1,000-seat Capitol Theatre was Shanghai's first air-conditioned movie house, and the first to feature a pillar-less design, for unobstructed sight lines. The foyer was richly decorated with frescoes – the work of the Russian Victor Podgoursky – and twenty allegorical sculptures representing various arts, created by the Hungarian George Koppany. Concealed lighting fixtures and ornamental copper grills lent the space its theatrical and elevated atmosphere. [2]

In February 1928, C. H. Gonda relocated his practice to the Shahmoon Building and announced a partnership with the German architect E. Busch, under the name Gonda & Busch (鸿宝) [18] They produced the design of the Grand Theatre, on Bubbling Well Road opposite the Racecourse, which opened in December 1928. The movie house, constructed in the old Carlton Ballroom building, was called “the most luxurious in the Far East.” Beside a 1,200-seat auditorium, it had two tearooms decorated in jazz patterns. Gonda & Busch were said to have “achieved a noteworthy effect in combining the beautiful old circular staircases, spacious lounges and rotunda with the most advanced ideas in theatrical design.” [19] The walls and staircases were treated with filigree flat-oil stain in old gold – the first use of this technique in China – executed by the studio of the Russian artist Jacob Lehonos. Among other projects of Gonda & Busch was the construction of the 50,000 square-foot 5-story warehouse Melchers Godown 美最时洋行, owned by the German A. Widmann, which opened in May 1929 on East Broadway (now 713 Dongdaming Road 东大名路713号). At the end of the year, the Gonda & Busch partnership dissolved. [20]

In December 1929, C. H. Gonda publicized his design of the 21-story Grand Hotel, to stand next to his Grand Theatre and to face the Racecourse. It promised to become "the tallest building in the Orient." [21] The 560-room hotel was appointed to the top floors, while the lower floors provided ten lounges, ballrooms and concert rooms. [3] The construction, initiated by the Grand Realty Co., was scheduled to begin in the autumn of 1930. Later, the estimated cost of the building was raised from 900,000 taels to 2,500,000 taels [22]. Another project for the Grand Realty was publicized simultaneously, estimated to cost 200,000 taels – a four-story office building at the corner of Burkill and Park Roads, to host legal and medical professionals. [23] Neither of these projects was realized, because in February 1931 the Grand Realty sold the lot block, leaving Gonda's design unrealized. [24] The new Grand Theatre, built in 1933, was designed by the Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec, whose I. S. S. Building (Park Hotel) on the next block became the tallest building in the Orient.

Another unrealized Gonda's project from 1929 was a 7-story apartment house on the corner of Rue Lafayette and Route Pichon, in the French Concession. The building contained 28 apartments, garages and a roof garden; the cost of the construction was estimated at 200,000 taels. [3]

Sun Sun Co. Department Store.

Shahmoon Building / Capitol Theatre.

Projects of the Grand Hotel and the Grand Realty Co. office building. All drawings by C. H. Gonda.

The 1930s and the 1940s

The next decade saw the realization of multiple designs by C. H. Gonda. In August 1930, he took charge of the reconstruction of the Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. 惠罗公司 department store (now 100 East Nanjing Road 南京东路100号). The work intended to increase the amount of natural light and ventilation by adding steel casement windows and to visually update the facade by removing excess ornamentation. [25] When the building was still in scaffolding, in November 1930, a fire gutted the two top floors and erased much of the recently finished interiors. [26]

In September 1930, the Shanghai Jewish School 上海犹太学校 opened on Seymour Road (now 500 North Shaanxi Road 陕西北路500号), next to the Ohel Rachel Synagogue. The utilitarian two-story building with a capacity for 250 students was constructed at a low cost of 200,000 taels, financed largely by the donation of the entrepreneur S. Perry, recently deceased. [27] The building contained an auditorium and a school canteen and was modeled after the recently built schools in Holland and the USA. Its construction, devoid of “superfluous and meaningless ornaments,” prioritized the access of maximum daylight and air into the classrooms. [28]

Luna Park, the open-air amusement center in the port district of Yangtszepoo (now Yangpu), constructed after C. H. Gonda’s designs, opened in July 1931, in time for the first citywide beauty pageant Miss Shanghai. The architect himself called the Luna Park an “outstanding piece of outdoor construction and architectural work in Shanghai today.” [29] That year Gonda also designed the interior of the Russian-owned Restaurant Valencia, in the Hall & Holtz building on Szechuen Road. [30]

Commissioned by the China Theatres Ltd., the Cathay Theatre 国泰电影院 on Avenue Joffre, opened on the first day of 1932, to become yet another triumph for its architect (now 870 Middle Huaihai Road 淮海中路870号). The reinforced concrete corner structure clad in red brick was called “extra-super-modernistic,” while the “sumptuous interior” struck a viewer “dumb with excitement,” although some journalists called it “bizarrely decorated.” [31] The interior walls were painted bronze, orange, and gold, with opaque glass lampshades providing illumination. For the 1,080-seat auditorium Gonda designed a special chair, with added attention to “slope, height, comfort and appearance.” [27] Cathay Theatre introduced a number of innovations, such as the rooftop projector, to screen films al fresco.

In November 1932, after two years of construction, the 2,000-seat Ritz Theatre 融光大戏院 opened in Hongkew district, becoming the largest movie house in Shanghai (now 330 Haining Road 海宁路330号). [32] The facade with “severe constructional lines” was “naturally devoid of any superfluous ornamentation," reserving ample space for billboards. [33] The reinforced concrete single-story building had a large elliptical foyer with a domed ceiling on the ground floor, while the 2,000-seat auditorium was situated underground.

In 1934, Gonda publicized the plans for the Cosmopolitan Theatre on the border of the French Concession and the Chinese City. The six-story building was free not only from all the ornament, but also “from the faults of false modernism such as is often seen.” The movie house on the ground floor accommodated 1,100 seats, and there were two floors of offices and three floors of apartments above it. [34] The entrance was sheltered by a canopy, used for lighting and for advertising; three illuminated columns above it supported allegorical figures carrying globes of flood light. The wide proscenium arch extended over the entire front of the auditorium; the stage was used for theatrical performances as well as for movie screenings.

Gonda’s expertise in the construction of movie theatres and hotels ensured him commissions in other cities in China. Late in 1934, Gonda designed the 800-seat Capitol Theatre in Beijing (then called Peiping) and the 900-seat Victoria Theatre in Tianjin’s British Concession. The latter was sited on a corner lot and combined a vertical stepped structure in the center with horizontally banded wings. [35] The canopy over the entrance functioned as a lighting feature, and the interior was lit with concealed lamps. The Capitol Theatre in Chefoo (now Qifu) was also credited to C. H. Gonda. [36] Early in 1936, the Gonda-designed Grand Hotel 大华 opened in Hangzhou, built for the local magnate W. S. Tung on a site of a private villa. [37] The four-story building, overlooking the famous West Lake, contained 30 bedrooms, each with a bathroom and a deep-set concrete balcony. [34]

Back in Shanghai, Gonda helped his cousin, the entertainer Joe Farren, design a nightclub at the western end of the International Settlement, which opened in December 1937. The conversion of the garden residence into a ballroom and amusement center involved “structural alterations of a very complicated nature.” Gonda incorporated his usual indirect lighting scheme, minimalistic lines, spring dance floor and built-in air conditioning. [38]

In 1938, Gonda supervised the conversion of an indoor shopping arcade in the Bubbling Well Apartments into the 500-seat Uptown Theatre 平安电影院, owned by the Asia Theatres Inc. (now 991 West Nanjing Road 南京西路991号) [39] In December 1939, the Roxy Theatre opened on Bubbling Well Road, owned by the Far Eastern Theatres, Inc., reconstructed from the old Embassy Theatre. Retaining the original foundations and bearing walls, Gonda completely redesigned the building, adhering to “simplicity and grandeur instead of indulging in detailed finesse.” [40]

In 1941, Gonda designed the residential compound Hardoon Villas 哈同别墅 for the China Star Land Investment Co, comprised of 88 three-story buildings (now Lane 910 Weihai Road 威海路910弄). [41] That year also saw the construction of the Queen’s Theatre 皇后大戏院 on Yu Ya Ching Road, for the Queen’s Theatres Inc., which opened in February 1942. The theatre cost 3,000,000 tales to build and had 1,450 seats, which were unusually wide and arranged on a double incline. The architect departed from the usual ceiling design in theatres by bringing down the ceiling to the proscenium in gradual steps, to enhance the acoustics. [42]

In 1942, the 950-seat Royal Theatre 上海大戏院 was built in the French Concession, on Rue Lafayette (now 1186 Middle Fuxing Road 复兴中路1186号), for the Societe Francaise des Cinemas. The décor of the lobby was in rough-texture, multi-colored plaster, illuminated by decorative light fixtures, while the auditorium had concealed fluorescent light tubes. [42]

Gonda’s last project in Shanghai was the Bank of Communications 交通银行 (now 14 on the Bund 中山东一路14号), designed a decade earlier, but delayed because of the Japanese occupation. The building was finished in 1948, with the assistance of the Chinese firm Allied Architects. The bank’s architecture demonstrates the characteristic central axial symmetry, stepped silhouette and minimal ornamentation of the late art deco style. [43]

Design of the Luna Park.

Shanghai Jewish School on Seymour Road.

Victoria Theatre in Tianjin.

Roxy Theatre, on Bubbling Well Road. All drawings by C. H. Gonda.


[1] Magyam Nemzet, 2019; https://magyarnemzet.hu/kultura/fogolybol-sanghaji-epitesz-7582769/
[2] Baldavári, Eszter, Lívia Szentmártoni, András Krizsán (eds.), Shanghai's Ultramodern Hungarian Architect, Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai (2019).
[3] The Shanghai Sunday Times, 22 Dec 1929.
[4] The China Press, 2 Nov 1932.
[5] The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 30 Nov 1929; The China Press, 30 Nov 1935.
[6] The China Press, 26 Feb 26 1929.
[7] The China Press, 15 Nov 1929.
[8] The China Press, 24 Dec 1930.
[9] The North-China Desk Hong List and Directory, July 1922.
[10] The North-China Desk Hong List and Directory, July 1926.
[11] The North-China Daily News, 9 July 1923.
[12] The China Press, 24 Jan 1926.
[13] The China Weekly Review, 23 Jan, 1926.
[14] The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 30 Jan 1926.
[15] The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 25 Apri 1925.
[16] The Shanghai Times, 1 Feb 1926.
[17] The North - China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 11 Feb 1928.
[18] The China Press, 8 Feb 1928.
[19] The China Press, 16 Dec 1928.
[20] The North-China Desk Hong List and Directory, Jan 1930.
[21] The China Weekly Review, 14 Jun 1930.
[22] The China Weekly Review, 27 Sep 1930.
[23] The Shanghai Sunday Times, 15 Dec 1929.
[24] The China Weekly Review, 7 Feb 1931.
[25] The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 5 Aug 1930.
[26] The North-China Daily News, 5 Nov 1930.
[27] The China Press, 10 Sep 1931.
[28] The Shanghai Sunday Times, 10 Aug 1930.
[29] The China Press, 23 Jul 1931.
[30] The China Press, 27 May 1931.
[31] The China Press, 31 Dec 1931.
[32] The China Press, 2 Nov 1932.
[33] The China Press, 28 Jan 1932.
[34] The Shanghai Sunday Times, 9 Dec 1934.
[35] The Builder 建筑月刊, Vol 3. No. 1, 1935.
[36] The China Press, 26 Jun, 1938.
[37] The China Press, 30 Jun, 1937.
[38] Shanghai Sunday Times, 13 Dec 1936.
[39] The China Press, 24 Jun 1938.
[40] The China Press, 12 Dec 1939.
[41] 新闻报, 1941 年 10 月 24 日.
[42] Shanghai Times Industrial Supplement, June 1941.
[43] Anne Warr, Shanghai Architecture, Watermark Press, 2007.

This text is published under the license CC BY-SA. Greyed-out buildings no longer exist.

Tags: 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, architects, architecture, article, capitol building, cathay theatre, gonda, russians, shanghai

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