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7 June 2011
Cycles in the Life of Budapest Secession Buildings – A Plea
I first came to Budapest in February 1991. As an ardent student of architecture and design in the period 1880–1914, I used the little free time I had to study those secession buildings I already knew something about. The information I came with was minimal in those pre-internet days, when Hungarian art and design were little known elsewhere. I had read two short articles on the work of Ödön Lechner and Aladár Árkay in Pevsner and Richard’s ‘way-ahead-of-its-time’ collection of papers1 years before, but that was it.
In a bookshop in Vörösmarty Square in downtown Pest I found Pintér’s Budapest Architectura 1900 in English2. It was a revelation, a point of entry to a world I might otherwise never have seen on that brief trip. Most buildings seemed dull and unloved, despite their obvious underlying qualities of style and design. I hardly had cause to regret the fact that, as an avid photographer of Art Nouveau, my camera was out of action. The overall impression in the city was of unrelenting greyness.
I returned next in the summer of 1995, and my serious study of the secession architecture of Budapest could start in earnest. In the past fifteen years, I have built an archive of many thousands of photographs, which chronicle the cycles through which these buildings continue to pass. As elsewhere in Europe, the secession style came to be unloved, despised even, soon after the end of the First World War, as the new linear art deco and rationalist styles took over. Between the wars they suffered a long period of decline, and many were damaged in the Second World War. Many of the unrestored survivors still bear the bullet and shell marks of that conflict. A number of fine secession buildings were damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished. The appearance of others was altered as a result of the structural damage they sustained.
The post-war years all over Europe were marked by the construction of cheap functional building, followed by the brutalist architecture of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies. But parallel to what has become a deeply unpopular period in European architecture, in western Europe there was also a re-evaluation of Art Nouveau and its associated styles, and a reawakening of positive feelings towards it; what had remained from the long period of conflict and neglect was salvaged and restored. The works of Guimard (Paris), Mackintosh (Glasgow), Wagner (Vienna), Gaudi (Barcelona), Voysey (England), Behrens (Darmstadt), Basile (Italy) and Horta (Brussels), have become internationally prized for the beauty and innovation of their design. The buildings of Budapest, meanwhile, suffered further damage during the 1956 uprising, and a forty year period of neglect under the socialist regime.
Phase 1: dilapidation
The period from 1920 to 1990 (and, for many buildings, even up to the present) was a period of dilapidation. It was characterized by a failure to repaint, by the lack of restoration when plaster or structural elements fell off the buildings, by a gradual slide into shabbiness and the universal grey colour caused by traffic and heating pollution in the air. In many cases there were also ill-considered and unsympathetic changes. These included the removal of the original entrance doors and the fitting of poor-quality, often aluminium, replacements; the attachment of shop signs to facades; and the attachment of gas-heater ventilators which pierced key parts of the external plasterwork.
There were of course individuals in Hungary who appreciated and valued secession architecture from 1960 to 1990. The extensively illustrated 1979 book Style 1900: A szecesszió iparművészete Magyarországon (1900s Style: Secession Applied Arts in Hungary)3 blazed a lonely but vital trail, as did the later exhibition Lélek és forma: Magyar művészet 1896–1914 (Spirit and Form: Hungarian Art 1896–1914) at the National Gallery in 1986 and its catalogue4; and the book which is still the point of reference for all students of Hungarian secession architecture – A századforduló magyar építészete (Turn-of-the-Century Hungarian Architecture) – which was published in 1990, and was the result of many years of loving research by its three authors5. Also in 1990, there was an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, and later that year at the Center for Fine Arts, Miami and then in the San Diego Museum of Art, called A Golden Age: Art and Society in Hungary 1896–1914 with a well-produced catalogue6 which brought knowledge of Hungarian secession art to a much wider global audience. But these stirrings had little apparent impact on the active care of the buildings described.
Phase 2: restoration
From 1990 onwards, the regime change in Hungary brought with it a change in the treatment of secession buildings. The austere post-war period gave way to a time in which people felt freer to enjoy and express their feelings about everything, including secession architecture and design. Associated with this was a renewed sense of pride in things Hungarian, including artistic achievements. There was, perhaps even more importantly, a flood of money into the country, as international trade blossomed, and this turned slowly into the second phase of the cycle, of restoration. This began in the early 1990s and is still continuing (Photo 1) .
Phase 3: deterioration
Regrettably, there is also a third phase, of deterioration. This is what happens, rather too regularly, after dilapidated buildings have been restored. The work done on them starts to deteriorate. The renewed plasterwork drops off, the paint turns dull with traffic and heating pollution, and so we move towards a second period of dilapidation. The result is a cycle, of dilapidation, restoration, and deterioration.
I can offer seven main examples, accompanied by photographs, and passing references to other buildings.
1. The Post Office Savings Bank
(Ödön Lechner/Gyula Pártos, 1899–1901)
Hold utca 4.
Lechner is a major figure in the history of world architecture, and a giant of secession/art nouveau design. His buildings represent the high point of one of the main strands of Hungarian secession thinking – the use of folk and eastern motifs linking the buildings to the history of the Magyars. Budapest has three large-scale public buildings by Lechner: this one, the Museum of Applied Arts and the Geological Museum. In 1991, I was disappointed to find this centrally-located Post Office Savings Bank, in such a poor state. Paint was peeling, the whole colour-scheme of the façades was grey and pale; only the remarkable Zsolnay tiles on the roof had any sparkle about them. By 1995 it had been restored to its former glory. Since then, however, this has been a story of steady deterioration. At the time of writing, a wooden structure is in place along the Hold utca pavement to protect pedestrians from falling tiles and other masonry (Photo 2). Some of the ceramic roof parapets have plastic sheeting around them for protection purposes. It seems inconceivable to me that this sad state of affairs should continue on such an important and central building.
2. The Museum of Applied Arts and School
(Ödön Lechner/Gyula Pártos, 1891–1896),
Üllői út 33–37.
Another Lechner gem, in a state of dilapidation in 1995. The stonework and Zsolnay tiles on the façade were filthy, so that one could barely make out the patterns and colours, and the roof tiles were dull yellow and green (photo 3). Work was done in the mid-Nineties, and the façade and roof tiles were cleaned, though not the stonework, as the March 2010 photo shows (photo 4); it remains grey and badly stained, thereby considerably reducing the effect of cleaning the ceramics. The situation has clearly worsened recently, because in January 2011 the museum was closed, and fencing was erected to keep pedestrians off the pavement because of the danger of falling tiles (Photo 16).
In the case of hotels, foreign investment has on occasion been available for restoration work.
3. The Gresham Palace
(Zsigmond Quittner/József Vágó, 1905–1907)
Roosevelt tér 5.
In 1995 the Gresham Building was in a serious state of dilapidation (Photo 5). This was particularly distressing given the prominent location of this magnificent block at the end of the Chain Bridge. All was changed in the mid-Nineties when the building was taken over by the Four Seasons group and turned into an exclusive hotel. No expense was spared, and expert artisans were brought in to work on the stained glass, mosaics, ceramics and stone, to restore it to its former and rightful glory (Photo 6).
4. Hungaria Baths
(Emil Ágoston, 1906–1910),
Dohány utca 42–44.
In a 1996 photograph, this was a boarded-up, blackened façade with crumbling figurative sculptures (by Sándor Kristián, 1910–1913) over the doorway (Photo 7). The building was magnificently restored by 2010 as the Continental Hotel Zara, with the missing Zsolnay ceramics and copper fittings replaced (Photo 8).
Three other hotels should be mentioned here: the Gellért Hotel in Szent Gellért Square 1. (Artúr Sebestyén/Ármin Hegedűs/Izidor Sterk, 1909–1918) on which the north-facing side, including the entrance to the baths was restored in 2010; hopefully work will continue on the main Danube façade in the near future; the Palace Hotel at Rákóczi út 43. (Marcell Komor/Dezső Jakab, 1910), restored in the mid-Nineties; and the former Barabás House (Rezső Schütz, 1903–1904), now the City Hotel Mátyás, the façades of which were restored in 2010.
Private blocks of flats
Restoration of blocks of private flats takes place in a rather random manner.
A walk along Hegedűs Gyula utca in the inner 13th district, exemplifies how some secession buildings have been restored (numbers 10, 12, 14, 16, 20) and some are dilapidated (numbers 8, 15, 17, 23, 27). The same is true of most streets where turn-of-the-century blocks constitute the majority.
5. Bedő House
(Emil Vidor, 1903),
Honvéd utca 3
Vidor is one of Hungary’s great secession architects with an original and exciting style. The Bedő House is perhaps his most interesting façade, with its asymmetrical design, use of ceramics, and light and shade through different shaped terrace openings, marvellous wrought iron gates, and interior details such as ceramic tiles and stained glass. This wonderful building was allowed to fall into such dilapidation that it was difficult to understand what the architect intended (Photo 9). In the mid-Nineties, however, the building was lovingly transformed. The original shop windows, which had been blocked up, were replaced, and the whole ground floor was imaginatively opened up as a secession museum and café (Photo 10).
6. Block of flats
(Marcell Komor/Dezső Jakab, 1899),
Csengery utca, 76
This lovely corner block by the partnership of Komor and Jakab, who designed some of the best secession buildings by Hungarian architects ( the Town Hall and Palace of Culture in Tirgu-Mures in present-day Romania, for example, and the Town Hall and Synagogue in Subotica, in present-day Serbia) was restored in the early Nineties, but already shows signs of deterioration. The 2007 picture shows (photo 11) how a large piece of plaster had fallen from the left-hand side of the second floor corner bay window. Although this was patched up, by January 2011 the situation had grown worse, with plaster falling from the same bay window in several places (Photo 12).
7. Szedő House
(Béla Málnai/Miklós Román, 1903),
Hajós utca, 32
Some blocks of flats are in a state of complete dilapidation still. This one is a prime example of a wonderful building which desperately needs attention. The architects built many fine quality secession buildings around Budapest and beyond. Málnai was particularly modern in his use of metal windows, and Román usually worked with his brother to produce Lechner-influenced architecture. This building has marvellous plaster decoration on the façade, superb quality metalwork entrance gates and wood-and-metal doors, beautiful mosaic friezes and panels and stained glass windows inside. It is a jewel of secession architecture and design. Unfortunately the company which has taken over the ground floor facing the street has seen fit, as is frequently the case, only to restore the plasterwork around the part of the building which it uses, which only serves to emphasise the disastrous state of the upper floors (Photo 13 and 14).
Other examples of important blocks of flats in a similar state of dilapidation are: Semmelweis utca 9. (Emil Vidor, 1906); Benczúr utca 46. – Eisele Villa (Guido Hoepfner/Géza Györgyi, 1909); Wesselényi utca 36./Akácfa utca 30. (architect unknown); Visegrádi utca 19. – Hertzka-Mikó House (Gyula Kosztolányi Kann, 1904–5); Szinyei Merse utca 26. (Sámuel Révész/József Kollár, 1905–6)
In conclusion, the twenty years since 1990 have witnessed great strides in the restoration and preservation of some of Budapest’s remarkable collection of secession buildings. The sheer quantity of structures which need to be dealt with is overwhelming, and efforts have not been helped by the deteriorating economic climate since 2005. But there have also been what I believe to be failings. A major public building like the Post Office Savings Bank, should surely have been transformed into a star tourist attraction by the local government, just as the buildings of Horta and Gaudi have been treated in their respective cities (Photo 15).
Quite apart from the external state, at present one also has to fight with the guards to get inside, and photos are not allowed. The work of foreign investors who have restored major secession buildings and turned them into hotels should be applauded. One wonders how the owners of private flats in dilapidated blocks might be helped to restore them; local government grants would certainly be in order, based on a system of valuation of the artistic worth of the building to the city. It would be wonderful if the authorities could set up the equivalent of the Ruta del Modernisme in Barcelona, with information panels outside the buildings on the route, a map, and a fine descriptive book with maps and colour photos produced in several languages. This is an important part of Hungary’s cultural heritage, and should be a source of great pride. It would be a great shame and loss for Budapest if some of the more serious problems relating to the secession buildings are not addressed soon. Budapest should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Prague and Vienna as a regional centre for secession architecture. But that will need a more concerted effort on the part of the authorities.
(1) J. M. Richard – N. Pevsner: The Anti-Rationalists: Art Nouveau
Architecture and Design.
London: The Architectural Press. (1973)
(2) Pintér K. Tamás: Budapest Architectura 1900.
Hungary: Interart Stúdió (1987/90)
(3) Koós Judith: Style 1900: A szecesszió iparművészete Magyarországon.
Budapest: Képzőművészeti Alap Kiadóvállalata. (1979)
(4) Éri Gyöngyi – Jobbágyi Zsuzsa: Lélek és forma: Magyar művészet 1896–1914. Budapest: Kossuth Nyomda (1986)
(5) Gerle János – Kovács Attila – Makovecz Imre: A századforduló magyar építészete.
(1990) Hungary: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó – Bonex.
(6) Éri Gy. – Jobbágyi Zs.: A Golden Age: Art and Society in Hungary 1896–1914.
Budapest: Corvina (1990)