BUDAPEST ILLUMINATED

During the height of the Communist era in the 1970s, whenever people were asked if Budapest was an attractive city or not, locals were fond of replying: Yes, most definitely, but only in the evening or from a distance. The breathtaking vista of the city bordered by the Buda Hills, and both riven and united by the majestic Danube, is indeed truly even more impressive when viewed from a lofty vantage point. And in the 1970s, the glory of the predominantly 19th century architecture could only be appreciated in the twilight hours when their shabby condition was not evident to the eye.

Budapest people always loved their city, but returning home from metropolises in Western Europe and overseas which were bathed in light, they had to face with a painful heart the old familiar greyness that greeted them at home, a greyness which enveloped almost all architecture in East Central Europe at the time. Generations growing up in Budapest after the Second World War became accustomed to the fact that light was a luxury and street lighting created only an unfriendly halo of light around lamps in the dusk. Important historical landmarks received some extra watts of illumination on major days and occasions, but even those fleeting hours of bonus light were intended to emphasise their daylight features, their particular architectural traits.

Soon after the new democracy was established in 1990, however, Budapest began to light up for the night, and show an entirely new and different face. The buildings of the Danube skyline and the major monuments themselves were also gradually restored to their original beauty one after the other. A remarkable new cluster of modern public buildings also sprang up to the South of the city centre along the Danube. These illuminated buildings, old and new, and counting in the hundreds, create an unexpected and fascinating magic even for the locals in the descending darkness of the early evening and the anthracite black sky of the night.

All this is the work of lighting effects created by a team of specialists who have been designing and re-imagining the illumination of the city over the last twenty years. Perhaps it is no accident that Hollywood’s greatest movie lighting expert for several decades was Leslie Kovács, a 1956 exile from Budapest, who managed to smuggle over the border and out to the West film newsreels of the Revolution with his friend Vilmos Zsigmond, another eminence-to-be of American cinema. Perhaps the rich lighting tradition of Hungarian movie art is being revived now as Budapest returns to, and even surpasses its previous glorious illumination heyday of the 1930s. The magnificence of the night view is arguably best enjoyed from the deck of a boat, or from the avenues and driveways running along the Danube quays, or simply by walking across the bridges, not to mention of course the night-sight delights to be found away from the quays deeper into the city neighbourhoods.


In many instances, the new lighting attempts to convey the familiar structural view of the buildings, as designed by their architects. In the case of the Parliament building, for instance, the rows of lights, designed and placed with the utmost refinement and precision, emphasise not only the structural elements but also the finer details of architectural ornamentation. In the case of the spires of 1920s churches, the emphasis on structure calls attention to the brave lean functionalism of that era. At the same time, Budapest by night is a different proposition from its daylight image: the huge Baroque mass of the former Royal Palace, now the National Gallery, sitting heavily on Castle Hill, is transformed into a palace of crystal hovering lightly in the dark. Old commercial and industrial buildings, like the Customs House (Corvinus University), the Market Hall, and the former textile works on Soroksári Road among others also gain an airy lightness. The lighting magicians of Budapest also showed courage and imagination to turn the flagship buildings of Budapest Art Nouveau into stage settings, emphasising their bizarre ornamentation rather than the structural elements. The question occurs, how much of this magic is engineering, and how much of it is art. And, how far can one go in transforming the daylight views of buildings into fantasies?

These effects have been designed and installed by the team called Lysis, headed by the engineer László Deme. In the following article for Hungarian Review, he describes some of the major considerations and details of his team’s work.

* * *

While I was interested in many different subjects at school, and later at the Kandó Kálmán Technical College, I found it quite difficult to settle on a career which included all of the things I was interested in. Only later, and due to what could be called fortunate circumstances, did I happen across a company and a manager where my interests, ambitions, and workplace could come together.

I began my career in 1970, at ELMŰ’s (Budapest Electricity Works) Public Lighting department where, with the help of an ambitious and very professional manager by the name of József Horváth, I soon became involved in the cutting edge of electrical lighting, Budapest’s public and decorative lighting systems, as well as in putting together medium and long term strategies for the company. There I learned that everything needs to be checked and tested in all its complexity, and that equipment should be evaluated in terms of its long-term suitability.

It was a revolutionary period for light source manufacturing. High pressure metal halide and sodium lamps – still competitive today – first appeared then, and created the possibility of replacing or even recycling obsolete equipment. Each week saw new plans or ideas build world class lighting systems for cities. And it was at that time that Budapest’s night time lighting was developed. By the mid-1990s, the city’s night time spectacle was more or less complete.


Joining Tungsram Works in 1978 opened up the world for me, as I was now part of a company whose mission was to bring high-value lighting to the world. There was a technical background to this as well, of course, as at that time high-performance metal halide lamps were being developed to more effectively illuminate sports stadiums and arenas as well as for use in the colour TV screens which were beginning to appear. In addition, high-performance and high- efficiency sodium lamps were by then being used to light factory spaces, ports, airports, motorway junctions etc.


Then Tungsram’s privatisation happened which created a new situation. Together with some colleagues we decided that in order to continue the independent creative work that we had been doing, we needed to set up a new company. So, on the cusp of the change of system in Hungary, in 1991 we founded Lisys, our commitment to lighting systems reflected on the company’s name.

Over the last 22 years, our team, in which everyone plays a crucial role, has managed to create and implement many large-scale lighting systems for both outdoors and indoors application, including theatres.

Anyone who has been to Budapest will not forget in a hurry the spectacle of the banks of the Danube. The view owes its peerless appeal not only to the rare natural conditions – not many cities boast a steep rock face rising boldly from the riverbank as Gellért Hill does, or a majestic elongated ridge running parallel to the river like the splendid Castle Hill on the right bank – but also to the rich and unique urban vista of buildings in the eclectic and art nouveau styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Large-scale regulation of the river bank was carried out during that period as was the staking out of the major thoroughfares that define to this day the layout of the city, with each avenue flanked by buildings designed by renowned architects. It is hardly surprising then that, even in those early days of electricity, the need was felt to bathe these wonderful structures in light at night.

The external illumination of buildings became a theoretical possibility in the early 1920s, soon after which the first systems were put in place. The great cities of Europe lit up one after another, Paris quickly earning the soubriquet “City of Light”.

Budapest did not have to wait long. In 1928, the Fisherman’s Bastion and the main spire of Matthias Church became the first structures to be illuminated at night, and were quickly followed by buildings and statues throughout the city. By the beginning of the Second World War, lighting systems were in place for nearly thirty structures. The illumination boom was to a great extent helped by the manufacture in Hungary of light sources and lamp bodies, especially at the famous Tungsram Works, which in those days ranked among the finest in Europe.

As a rule of thumb, an external illumination system has a lifetime of no more than twenty to twenty-five years. During this period, lighting materials wear out, research and development brings in new types of more cost-efficient equipment, while changes in public taste give rise to new demands and innovations. It is little wonder then that the eighty-year-long history of external illumination in Budapest has seen the passing of four or five generations of lighting schemes.

The light displays as we now see them have very few components that have remained unchanged since before 1990. Basically, all the illuminations we delight in today date from the last 20 or so years. Indeed, Budapest has never offered such impressive night-time vistas as it does now. In no small part, this is down to city most splendid avenue in the city. Hence, it makes sense that the most sophisticated illumination systems are installed in these two sites and their immediate vicinities.

Looking across the banks of the Danube in the evening, the stunning view clearly vies with the daytime vista of the city. Many would voucher indeed that the city shows a prettier, quainter face at night. The city’s illumination is dominated by a warm yellow hue. This is highly unusual, given the general preference for warm white light sources that offer a closer approximation of the spectrum of natural daylight. Many light fitting manufacturers do not even include high-pressure sodium-vapour lamps for external illumination purposes in their product lines, precisely because of the yellowish light these lamps emit.

Like so many other things in life though, the city’s love affair with the colour yellow is rooted in coincidence. It so happened that, by the late 1980s, the illumination of the Fisherman’s Bastion had become so run down that there was simply no way around building a new lighting system from the ground up. It was presumed that white light sources would be the fitting solution for the snow white monument but a series of lighting tests was carried out to determine the best way of doing it.

When 4000-Kelvin lamps were tested, they gave the building an unappealing grayish cast. Moving up to 6500-Kelvin made it look so cold and crisp so as to give anyone who looked on it the shivers even on a warm summer night.

Then some bright spark came up with the idea of mixing the lights. First, an equal ratio of the two different types of white was tried but did not work. Then the engineers varied the proportions, but still it did not do the trick until one of the technicians inadvertently screwed into the socket a sodium lamp that happened to be lying around. Lo and behold, the part of the building covered by the sodium light began to exude a warm and friendly glow.

The question then was whether the Fisherman’s Bastion – a “white” monument, at least during the day – would be recognisable or, rather, tolerable in yellow light after dusk. Finally, it was decided to make a blend of sodium lamps and metal- halide lamps in an effort to better approximate the daylight spectrum. At the inauguration ceremony, however, the sodium lamps completely dominated the light from their metal-halide twins, so, over time, the lighting for the Fisherman’s Bastion was converted into a fully-sodium system, which is still in operation to this day, also illuminating Matthias Church behind it.

The initial qualms about yellow light dissipated so rapidly that by the time plans were drawn up in the last years of the millennium for the Buda Castle illumination nobody dreamed of using any other colour scheme but warm yellow.

The largest public illumination system to date in Hungary, this lighting system, comprising almost a thousand lamps with a total power of 130 kW, became a veritable tourist attraction in its own right. The plan was to bathe the Castle, previously only illuminated from the Danube side and from the side facing Gellért Hill, in light from all directions, including the refurbished inner courtyards. This presented the engineers with a complex task involving the remote placement of reflectors and flood lights for a homogeneous view from a distance, combined with local light sources sited closer to the façade or mounted directly on the palace walls to illuminate architectural details from the more intimate perspective of visitors strolling along the building and through the courtyards.

A fine example of the latter solution is the group of statues known as King Matthias’s Well. In addition to the separate limelights throwing into relief the individual figures in the group, the courtyard façades are illuminated by sunken lamps flush with the flagstones. Reflectors are also placed at the feet of pilasters, and linear lamp fittings mounted against the balustrades over the cornice. The inner courtyards illumination system meanwhile is remarkably sophisticated in terms of its colour scheme as well, with yellow effects alternating with white to emphasise specific components of the façade.

The system is completed by the generous, soft lighting of the medieval fortification walls and battlements.

The complex illumination of the Royal Palace called for novel configurations and hidden solutions, with the aim of keeping the fittings as much as possible out of sight in order to prevent them spoiling the daytime view. The tricks employed included tucking lights away in embrasures, and small reflectors concealed inside antique-style street lamps.

The upgrading of the Castle Hill and Royal Palace illuminations formed part of an overall concept to realise the night-time panoramic potential of the city. One of the last phases of the project involved the Parliament building. The system provisionally completed in 2011 illuminates the Parliament from the side of the river only, asthe other façades are covered by scaffolding as the decade-long renovation project involving the replacement of the limestone blocks continues. Even in its partial form, however, the current Parliament lighting is an improvement on the previous situation when lighting was confined to the cupola.

Once again, yellow dominates – so much so that even the lower-power metal halide or LED lamps have been fitted with yellow colour screens made of glass or foil. The tiered lighting now covers the façades, the cupola, the majority of the spires and the roofing over the council chambers. Interestingly, the authorities this time gave the nod to plans to erect support poles that had been previously banned on the flooding- prone lower quay. This enabled the full-scale realisation of the illumination system, since it is only from such poles that the sides of the steeples facing the river and the upper tracts of the projections can be illuminated. These poles are remarkable in a number of ways. For one thing, they cannot stand taller than five metres, the height above the lower embankment where the building begins to rise, or they would cast a shadow on the façade. Also, they are of such a massive construction, and have such solid concrete foundations, that they can withstand the most vicious ice floes. Finally, their bulletproof design means all the electrical contacts in the upper section of the poles are safely out of reach of any water level.

Neither were aesthetic and ergonomic considerations neglected. The poles look lean and svelte despite their considerable girth – an impression bolstered by the cylindrical shape, small diameter, and tight placement of the reflectors mounted on them. Motorists passing by are protected from any dazzling effect by diffraction screens which disperse any stray direct light from the lamps, bouncing it towards the upper sections of the building. With its 680 reflectors and lamps, mounted on poles, parapets, façades and roofs together providing a whopping 100 kW of power, this lighting system – if it is extended further – looks set to overtake that of Castle Hill as the biggest in the country.

The illuminated Royal Palace on Castle Hill in Buda and the Parliament on the left bank undoubtedly provide a magnificent frame for the Danube. The vista is arguably best admired from Margit Bridge. Standing there by day or, now, by night as well, one thinks of the rumour – which may have a kernel of truth in it – that the architect Imre Steindl won the contract for building the Parliament because his vision emphasised the parallelism of the banks of the Danube. The main façades of the Parliament and of the Royal Palace complement each other, the cupola and stone turrets of the 268-metre-wide Parliament building reach almost as high as Matthias Church on the other side.

The three landmark elements of the Budapest Danube nightscape (Parliament, Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church, and Royal Palace) are augmented by several other illuminated important buildings. These include St Stephen’s Basilica, the nearly 100-metre-tall church where a 1000 W sodium reflector was first employed to illuminate the cupola, the Citadel on Gellért Hill with the Statue of Liberty, the University of Technology, the Downtown Church, the Gresham Palace and Hotel Gellért.

The various vistas of Budapest would be unthinkable without bridges. With a width of several hundred metres, the Danube was clearly perfect for spectacular bridge designs. As its name suggests, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the oldest among Budapest’s downtown bridges, was built in 1849 using an iron chain link suspended from two pillars. This was the first bridge in the city to be illuminated, between the two world wars, and ever since it has hung on to the original festoon arrangement of the lights through five generations of fittings. The contour of the bridge is traced by 1200 compact fluorescent lamps, while the stonework pillars are illuminated by metal-halide reflectors.

Szabadság (“Liberty”) Bridge presents an imposing sight during the daytime with its crowned portals ornamented with coats of arms and the turul, the mythical falcon of ancient Hungarians. At night, however, it comes into its own, and looks like it belongs in a fairy tale. Its lighting concept is radically different from that of the Chain Bridge. Here, it is the structure of the bridge that receives the luminous attention, courtesy of slanting light hitting the inner and outer vertical surfaces of the flanges. Unlike with the Chain Bridge, where the lamps mounted on top of the suspender chain are visible from all directions, the arrangement employed on Liberty Bridge emphasises the spatial dimensions of the structure. The light sources are linear LED lamps, the first such major application of this lighting technology in Budapest. The rest  of the bridge is lit up by metal-halide reflectors. Lengthy research identified the original colour of the bridge inaugurated in 1896 as greenweed green, so when the bridge was renovated, all structural elements and fittings, including lamps and consoles, were painted in this authentic colour. As the illumination design brief called for an approximation of the daylight spectrum, sources providing a warm white tone were chosen after a long period of deliberation and testing. The contrast between the yellow light on the buildings along the Danube and the whitish light illuminating the bridges is so pleasing that it is clearly central to a well-thought-out design concept.

An arch bridge without a superstructure, Margit Bridge has been fitted with an illumination system that highlights the piers with their ornamental statues of Nike and Heracles, and emphasises the rhythm of the arches connecting them, as shown on the cover photo of the magazine. The sources employed include linear and narrow-beam LED lamps and metal-halide reflectors. With a span of nearly 610 metres, the Y-shaped Margit Bridge is the longest bridge in the city, but its total illumination power of only 34 kW is the lowest, owing to the larger than usual proportion of LED sources. In an attempt to eschew protruding supports, all the lamps were mounted directly on the structural elements, except in the case of the central pier, where this was not possible due to the skewed geometry.

While there are many monuments along the Danube in Budapest with interesting lighting systems, I give special mention to the new National Theatre and the Palace of Arts. Built in the past decade on the southern periphery of the left bank, both buildings are highly idiosyncratic architecturally and continue to generate heated controversy in professional circles. However, they have elicited almost unanimous praise for their night-time lighting, which throws into relief the wildly contrasting styles of the two structures as well as forging a curious harmony between them. The tiered lights alternating between white and yellow successfully tone down the extravagant style of the National Theatre which many find overwhelming and irritating during the day. Conversely, the daytime monotony of the vast, unbroken surfaces of the Palace of Arts is redeemed by a colour-shifting illumination scheme that somehow manages to impart a sense of relaxation.

This motorised, light-show-capable colour-shifting system, predominantly using 600 W metal-halide reflectors with variable focus, was the first colour illumination system in the country. The established predilection for yellow did not come into from the river. As you leave the riverfront and head down Zrínyi Street, its monumental grandeur gradually opens up before you. The looming pile has a particular magic in December, when its approach is lit by the Christmas lights of the neighbouring streets.

The lighting system of the majestic church is nearly as imposing as its sheer size and complex architecture. Mounted on ornate, archaic candelabra behind the apse, the above mentioned 1 kilowatt reflectors are aimed at the rear of the cupola, while the other fronts are illuminated by smaller lamps installed on the roof and in the belfry bays.

The Basilica itself is in part the work of Miklós Ybl, one of the most celebrated and most versatile Hungarian architects of his day, who also created the nearby Danubius fountain. The details of this wonderful three-tray fountain, including its multiple stone figures, are illuminated by underwater lamps and spotlights.

This is as good a place as any to mention that countless statues of famous Hungarians and other notables around the city have also been graced with ornamental illumination, a boon for many of them that go unnoticed during the day, for example, the statue of the graceful, enthroned Queen Elizabeth close to Erzsébet Bridge on the Buda side. Another is the contemporary memorial to Péter Mansfeld, tucked away at the bottom of a flight of steps leading down from Castle Hill, which pays tribute to one of the heroes of the 1956 Revolution. Off the beaten track and not easy to find, the statue of Pope John Paul II illustrates the fact that you need not have dozens of floodlights for an effective display if you know where to put them.

Downtown Budapest has a place of worship for each of the major religions and denominations, and most are equipped with an illumination system. Aside from the Basilica, the Synagogue on Dohány Street is particularly noteworthy for its sheer size, for the Moorish style of its architecture that is very uncommon in Hungary, and of course, last but not least, for its colourful illumination scheme. I hasten to add that the designers of the lighting only had to trace the nooks and crannies of this impressive complex, which includes, in addition to the Synagogue proper, a museum, a chapel known as the Synagogue of the Heroes, a memorial garden and, near the street front, an arcade.

The influence of Moorish architecture is also in evidence on the façade of the Uránia Motion Picture Theatre, where the mixed use of direct and concealed lighting with alternating white and yellow colours throws into relief the distinctive beauty of this building.

The ornamental illumination systems discussed so far are all featured on the municipal list, which means that they were either commissioned or acquired by the city after they had been built. However, there are also buildings in Budapest with lighting systems built by their owners on contract. However, these buildings themselves enjoy protected monument status, and their lighting is subject to the same stringent regulations as those applicable to public property. Prominent among these invaluable buildings are some of the most well-known hotels in the city, such as the Gresham Palace by the Danube (Four Seasons), the Klotild Palace near Elizabeth Bridge (Buddha Bar Hotel), and the Corinthia Royal and New York Palace, both on the Nagykörút (Grand Boulevard). Fitted with high quality illumination systems after their respective renovations, these buildings now rightfully claim pride of place in the nightscape of Budapest.

A common feature of these lighting systems harks back to the solution first adopted at Hotel Gellért, which relies on the summation of many local spotlights for a combined effect, using low-power white lights, increasingly of the LED variety. Emphasising architectural details by façade-mounted lights has become very popular, although many find it theatrical and artificial, precisely because it creates excitement by diverging from the daytime sight. I myself am of the opinion that this method has the potential to positively rejuvenate the vision of the built environment at night, provided that it goes beyond self-serving, gratuitous light effects and focus on details ripped out of context.

Heroes’ Square, designed for the millenary of the original settlement of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin, is commonly regarded as the outer limit of the Pest- side downtown in the broader sense of the term. The impressive 36-metre tall Corinthian column, the centrepiece of the square, is topped with the statue of Archangel Gabriel, and is visible from afar as you approach via Andrássy Avenue. The Millennium Monument comprises a dual colonnade with statues of the seven tribal chiefs, kings and various outstanding figures of Hungarian history.

The splendid neo-classicist building of the Museum of Fine Arts overlooking the square boasts one of the largest illumination systems in the city. It provides a yellow basic tone augmented by white lights inside the porticoes and neutral light illuminating the balustrade.

Beyond Heroes’ Square, we come upon the romantic Castle of Vajdahunyad, a hodgepodge of a replica building concocted for the Millennium Exhibition in 1896, using motifs from various celebrated buildings of Hungarian history. Spared from demolition by popular demand and now bathed in warm yellow light at night, the Castle provides a particularly atmospheric contrast to the sparkling white of the nearby ice skating rink in the winter.

Speaking of winter, the management of the State Opera House entertained plans to have a permanent illumination system in place by the Christmas season of last year. In the end, due to time constraints, only a temporary ornamental lighting system was set up, a continuation of the troubled illumination history of the Opera House. The cornerstone of architect Miklós Ybl’s life’s work, the Opera House is now equipped with LED lamps mounted on the building itself, which could conceivably serve as a good starting point for developing a comprehensive illumination concept covering the entire building.

Despite the recent advances in illuminating the Hungarian capital and the popular success of the temporary Christmas lights, the case of the Opera House clearly shows how much remains to be done to further increase the splendour of Budapest at night.


Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel and Peter Murphy

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