“The most important external reference point was the memorial to the 1956 Revolution, which for me is a sacred place. I felt that I had no right to cover it up; I couldn’t interrupt its connection with the heavens. So, it was clear that we wouldn’t build over it, but around it, in a way that complements this sacrosanct space.”

First it was named the best public building in Europe, then in December the Museum of Ethnography’s new building, designed by the Napur Architect studio headed by Marcel Ferencz, took the “World’s Best Architecture” award at the prestigious International Property Awards. We talked to the architect Marcel Ferencz about the award, and about the philosophy behind the building being constructed in the capital’s City Park (Városliget) as part of the Liget Budapest Project.

BB: This is the first time in the 25-year history of the award, founded in London, that a Hungarian building has been chosen as the World’s Best. What aspects did the eighty-strong judging committee of international experts consider?

MF: Perhaps the most important was that we had to show an emblematic building that attracts people with its memorable appearance. Of course, the building also had to contain numerous innovations, as separate groups examined criteria including, among others, quality and sustainability, what kind of energy it uses, and what new solutions it can offer for its given function.

BB: In other words, the Museum of Ethnography that is now being built will be the best of the best in the world?

MF: It would be false modesty to say no because this prestigious award was founded 25 years ago, and only 12 buildings globally have received the “World’s Best Architecture” award so far. Some 1,700 entries were received from 115 countries in ten categories, and the Museum of Ethnography was of course entered in the group of works in progress. The world’s best building in terms of its overall architecture is only chosen every two years from among the continent’s category winners. Both I and my fellow creator György Détári, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to carry this task through, are very proud of this award. Even today, we find it unbelievable that we’ve won it, beating major US, Japanese and Arab projects.

BB: When it won the invitation-only tender to design the Museum of Ethnography, Napur Architect also beat out the ten largest firms in the world, such as Rem Koolhaas, designer of the Acropolis Museum and the new Google headquarters in California, or the studio of Zaha Hadid, known for the National Museum of 21st Century Arts. When you accepted the invitation and bid in the tender, did you believe you were in with a chance of actually wining the contract?

MF: We knew that it was all or nothing. Opportunities like this come only once in a lifetime. At that time the construction of the Duna Arena was in progress; and in the meantime, we spent four and a half months drawing up the bid. We treated the whole thing as a kind of cultural sporting event. A sportsperson never gives up. Not even when it seems like ten Olympic champion swimmers have dived into a pool, with four local contestants allowed to join them as a gesture of goodwill. There were these massive firms with their legendary pasts, and there was us; but we were bolstered by the knowledge and philosophy passed on to us by our mentors. So, we weren’t intimidated; we knew that these great architects work incredibly hard too, searching for the secret of creation all day long, seeking out the space that reflects people’s desire for happiness in the most marvellous possible way. I continue to learn from them to this day, so I wouldn’t say that I’ve beaten them; simply that this time I’ve come out on top in this particular game. My father was right. He encouraged me throughout; and he believed that we have an advantage because we’re on home turf, so there’s a far greater force behind us.

BB: Your father István Ferencz, architect, is an Artist of the Nation and a university professor. Did you learn your profession from him?

MF: In reality, I inherited from him a wealth of knowledge that had been passed down from one master to the next. My father’s mentor was Antal Plesz, who studied under István Nyiri and László Lauber; while they in turn were initiated into the secrets of the profession by the greats from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Alajos Hauszmann, Imre Steindl, and their mentors Mihály Pollack and Miklós Ybl. My father shared these secrets with me, which comes with a great responsibility. Straight after my graduation, with the degree still in my hand, he gave me a choice: I could either start creating straight away; or wait 20 years and learn the profession while working alongside him. I chose the latter. The first 15 years were tough, but I survived. I have my father to thank for the fact that today I can design buildings like the Museum of Ethnography.

BB: Which, looking around this room, isn’t so far from your heart.

MF: This is true. My father’s ancestors were millers, and among other items I’ve surrounded myself with their traditional tools here, in my creative room.

BB: Besides those, there are architectural models, contemporary works of art, and even a canoe. On the other hand, I don’t see a computer.

MF: There isn’t a computer, only a laptop that I can use to read my email. Instead I have my mentors and their books of wisdom, and there are also good wines and cigars. The canoe suspended from the ceiling, apart from reminding me of one of my favourite summer pastimes, also happens to be the work of my father. At the Venice Architectural Biennale of 2002, instead of the Jesuit church in Miskolc, which was considered unique in Europe at the time, he presented this canoe. He’d started out in the profession as a boat builder, in compliance with his mentor’s instruction to learn the language of materials before starting to design buildings.

BB: When you found out that you would be designing the museum, did you start the work here in this room?

MF: Yes, and it’s no coincidence that I call it a creative room; I created it to help with my thinking. My thoughts only come through in a naturally lit space with thick walls, where the vibrations from outside are muted, and even the telephone can’t ring so loudly. In order to shed my everyday state of consciousness, I first need to filter out the dynamics of the bustling world, and to create harmony. Once you’ve achieved that, you forget to speak, and can enter the world where you can almost see the building taking shape in front of your eyes. This imagined world is like a moving picture, where the buildings are alive, constantly changing and conversing with one another. It’s in this altered state of consciousness, on the cusp of reality and irrationality, that the thought models and thought drawings are born. The poet sets his thoughts out in words, while the architect expresses his in drawings, or a spatial poem if you like. If I’m lucky enough to catch the moment when the thought becomes reality, then that is precisely what will be created, just like the first drawing of the Museum of Ethnography, which appeared on a tiny, five-by-five-centimetre thought drawing.

BB: What constraints were there? How much scope did you have to let your imagination run free?

MF: The most important external reference point was the memorial to the 1956 Revolution, which for me is a sacred place. I felt that I had no right to cover it up; I couldn’t interrupt its connection with the heavens. So, it was clear that we wouldn’t build over it, but around it, in a way that complements this sacrosanct space. But I was also certain that it wouldn’t be proper to spoil this generously proportioned open space with an overthought, overdesigned building: No, this needed a pure response, with a pure and simple gesture. This was how the idea of this massive, heavenly bird was born, with people sitting on its right and left wings, where they can relax peacefully and let their minds wander. This rising wing will be the building itself, from the roof of which not only the memorial, but the surrounding buildings will also be seen from an entirely new perspective. In this way, the two sides form not only an artificial valley, but also a deliberately lifted tectonic plate, a layer of the earth’s crust bent upwards, revealing the treasures of our ethnographic heritage stratum by stratum, civilisation by civilisation, just as the various cultures built upon one another. This is also reflected in the ornamentation, as I will be displaying the world’s ethnographic roots on the façade of the building as a kind of genetic pattern.

BB: What will this “ethnographic genetic pattern” look like?

MF: The façade of a museum of ethnography has to offer more than a schematic building front, because this building also needs to indicate subtly what you’ll be able to take away from it. This is why we have to find a common ground, a means of communication that is characteristic of every nation. What came to my mind was sewing, because everyone wears clothes and weaving is a fundamental aspect of being human. I asked the Museum of Ethnography to put together for me a collection of eighty memorable items from the different continents of the world. I redrew these, analysed them and picked out the most characterful elements. Over a period of nine months I condensed these into an essence that we will try and blend in with the façade. The individual pieces will not carry the pattern of a single specific region, but as you run your eyes across them thoughts  will be stimulated subconsciously and people of every nation will be able to invoke, from memory, which patterns are their own, and in this way they will have a sense that the building is theirs too. I wanted to return a little to the basic ideas of Lechner, and to restore the honour of the art of ornamentation. Because it’s not true that only bare is beautiful, emotionally we also have a need to see things that are truly beautiful.

BB: How does the museum itself – which is getting its first building, since its foundation in 1872, designed with the needs of its collection in mind – fit in with all this?

MF: Just as the tectonic tongue of land raises its two 150-metre arms, inside it also functions as a hollowed- out cave; and accordingly, the mysterious world of its ethnographic treasures can be explored like a cave. The building will have a quiet, eastern wing set aside primarily for researchers. This is where the archiving work will be performed, this part will house the research library, the film archive and the offices; but this is also where works will be sent for restoration, and it is from here that exhibitions will be organised. The noisier, western side, the direction from which visitors will be arriving, will offer conference rooms, a canteen, a children’s museum and interactive space. In this way, the building will effectively be a living creature with right and left cerebral hemispheres that meet and connect in the exhibition space housing the treasures. But since we are also creating a 150-metre system of steps inside, following the contours of the exterior, visitors will also be able to glimpse the exhibitions through glass walls, as they participate in a “walk of culture”. In other words, they only have to buy an entrance ticket to the museum if they like what they see. Fortunately, the technical requirements of the museum didn’t have to be shoehorned into the design, as they blended in seamlessly with the basic concept. What’s more, the museum’s management, and its general director Lajos Kemecsi, were very creative and prepared. He had a detailed design programme, so he knew exactly what he wanted, down to the last room. But László Baán was also just as positive, immediately stating his preference for the building and standing by us throughout the process. I believe that this building has a mission, and this is why it has to be built.

The Museum of Ethnography as the new gateway to City Park
The building’s upward-curving, green community space with the 1956 Revolution Monument in the centre right
Side view of the building with lace-like panels
Arial view of the City Park and its surroundings. Photos by György T. Szántó

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