19 September 2017

Motherland and Progress: Hungarian Architecture and Design 1800–1900

The title, and indeed the first words, of this magnificent book are “Motherland and Progress” (“Haza és haladás), which alerts readers to the fact that this is not just a dry tome for architectural specialists, but a work that places building in 19th century Hungary in its social and political context. Anyone with an interest in Hungarian history will derive enormous profit from reading it, while historians of art now have an unrivalled sourcebook to hand. Moreover its many aesthetic insights, and its generous-minded handling of the (often fierce) controversies that arose when buildings were being commissioned, allow us to grasp what was at stake as an increasingly confident and re-emergent Hungary sought, through its architecture, to reflect itself to itself and to the world. A proper appreciation of the architectural achievements of the age has, of course, been subject to fashion and perhaps even more to political prejudice and ideology. We now live in a more pluralist age where triumphalist institutional buildings of modernism and post-modernism may be appreciated in a society that also places great emphasis on conservation, rediscovery and contextual understanding. One of many happy quotations in the book comes from the turn of the century art historian, Julius Meier-Graefe, who wrote that “all art belongs to its own century, yet simultaneously extends beyond it, and it is through those works that belong not only to their own time, but also to eternity, that they reach out to other ages”. This is the spirit that informs this book.

József Sisa, the distinguished architectural historian whose life’s work this is, has written the major part of the text, but also assembled a formidable team of fifteen other contributors who are (or were, since some are sadly no longer with us) the leaders in their fields. They include István Bibó, Jr., Péter Farbaky, Dénes Komárik and Katalin Sinkó. The whole is a labour of love running to just under 1,000 pages and is liberally illustrated (almost on every page of the main text). A particularly helpful feature is the inserted essaylets with colour illustration of significant buildings, whether that significance is largely aesthetic or substantively political and monumental, though often it is both. Nor are utilitarian buildings ignored, whether they be spas, railway stations, factories or (described in a splendidly written passage) Miklós Ybl’s superb Customs House on the Danube bank now Corvinus University of Budapest. Both domestic architecture (particularly the country house) and ecclesiastical buildings are dealt with in extensive detail. There is even space for arguably more peripheral stuff like mausoleums or parks and each age is rounded off with a discussion of contemporary ornament and design. The Hungarian text was ably and elegantly translated by Stephen Kane.




A fundamental problem of such a comprehensive book is periodisation. Sisa has chosen to divide the century into three architectural phases: Neo-Classicism (1800–1840), Romanticism (1840 to 1870) and Historicism (1870 to 1900). It is not for a layman such as the present writer to question this choice, but purely from the consumer’s point of view, Romanticism is the least satisfactory categorisation. This is largely a semantic problem because of the often conspicuous overlap between “Romanticism” and “Historicism” – indeed Sisa himself at one point alludes to a rather unclear alternative definition of “Eclecticism” that might equally well refer to a “Romantic” building based on what is obviously a historical template, or a “Historicist” building that mixes up various facets of historical styles. Moreover there is hangover of Neo-Classicism as well – Mihály Pollack’s great Neo-Classical masterpiece of the National Museum was not completed until 1846.

However nit-picking about style nomenclature should be left to the experts; for the rest of us, Sisa’s explanation of Romanticism as occupying a transitional space between the Reform Era and the exciting expansion of political freedom and commerce following the 1867 Compromise (Ausgleich, which the Magyars – more positively – call the Kiegyezés or “Settlement”) is convincing. In mid-century Hungary was flexing its muscles, so ambitious schemes were hatched, only to be nullified by political events. A typical example is that of the project for a more autonomous Parliament to replace the aristocracy-dominated Diet. As Sisa puts it: “many grand schemes were developed, but many initiatives were thwarted by the failed freedom fight [the 1848 Revolution], while others barely made it off the drawing board. The magnitudinal disparity between the desires and the possibilities, along with their temporal dimensions, are perhaps best evoked by the turbulent destiny of the home for Hungary’s legislature” (p. 263). In fact the first rather modest House of Representatives, mooted in 1840, only materialised in the mid-1860s (it is now the Italian Institute in Bródy Sándor Street). Designed by the greatest 19th century Magyar architect, Miklós Ybl, its style is primarily Neo- Renaissance, so we are already well into the Historicism which so dramatically and vividly informs its successor designed by Imre Steindl forty years later.




Moving backwards in time from the taxonomically complex period of Romanticism, we have, in the first part of the book, a wonderfully clear and exhilarating evocation of Pest’s emergence as a modern urban environment. Under the benevolent eye of Archduke Joseph, the popular and liberal youngest brother of the sour and reactionary Austrian Emperor Francis I, a commission for the “beautification” of the city (Szépitő Bizottmány or Verschönerungs Commission), was set up in 1808 under the leadership of János Hild. Pest was largely a German city at this time and one might say its development was carried out with Germanic discipline, whereby the height of buildings was kept uniform, attempts were made to rationalise the street grid and all construction or alteration was very strictly controlled. József Hild, son of János, was one of the most prolific architects of Neo-Classicism both for sacred and profane projects.

Some time later a committee of public works was set up for dealing with urban planning on the Buda side, but this was never such a uniform solution as that for Pest, due to the hilly terrain. Politically, the elegant Neo-Classical city that arose on the east bank of the Danube represented a breakthrough, since a request to turn Pest into a metropolis had at first been refused by the Emperor. Francis – and especially his Chancellor, Metternich – were against urban development that might give Magyars ideas above their station. For example, Metternich initially impeded the project of a permanent bridge over the Danube precisely because he saw the economic upswing it would galvanise for Buda and Pest, and economic strength would soon generate political assertiveness.

Neo-Classicism had a major impact on the face of urban Hungary and even extended to rural projects such as the iconic “Nine-holed” Bridge at Hortobágy on the Great Plain. Even more iconic, of course, is the Chain Bridge between Pest and Buda, which eventually got the go-ahead despite Metternich’s misgivings, and was completed in what is really “Empire” style by 1849, but was nearly blown up by the Austrian Army in the War of Independence of that year. The bridge symbolised “modernisation” in more than one respect.

Firstly the nobility were not exempt from the toll (hitherto they had been tax exempt), a stipulation that reportedly caused the Lord Chief Justice to burst into tears on hearing about it. Secondly, the principle of open tender was clearly established by this project. The finance was provided the Viennese financier Baron Sina and the commission went to the English architect William Tierney Clark, the builder of Hammersmith and Marlow Bridges. True, the father of the project, Count István Széchenyi believed that the task was beyond the capacity of Hungarian architects and engineers (and in fact a Scottish Baumeister, Adam Clark, was brought in to supervise the construction); but the idea of throwing open architectural projects to international competition was now firmly on the table, even if Hungarian architects (mostly with a good deal of foreign experience or apprenticeship) still dominated the actual commissions awarded. Nevertheless we soon have some iconic contributions to the cityscape by foreign masters – for example, two synagogues in Pest, one by Ludwig Förster and one by Otto Wagner, and the pivotal commission of the Academy of Sciences that went to the Prussian Friedrich Stüler, of which more later.




During the age of Neo- Classicism ecclesiastical architecture did not much depart from the current preferred style, though it was later to take off on a trajectory rather different from profane architecture. Here again József Hild was a leading protagonist, designing fine cathedrals at Szatmárnémeti and Eger in the 1830s and taking over from Pál Kühnel and János Packh to complete the mighty Esztergom Cathedral in the 1850s. These buildings are ambitiously monumental rather than welcoming. The most striking of them is Esztergom, situated dramatically overlooking the Danube and originally conceived by Kühnel as part of a great archiepiscopal complex, the plan of which (1820) looks to be almost as imposing as that for St Peter’s and Bernini’s colonnade. The stylistic development of its architecture from Kühnel through to Hild gives us, says Sisa, “a virtual cross- section of Hungarian Neo-Classicism”. Its social and political context is perhaps of equal significance. It crowned the creation of three new archdioceses by Francis in 1804, a signal of the reversal of secularisation under his two predecessors and a boost for Catholic influence that was to be increasingly reflected both in the later papacy of Pio Nono and in the controversial, if brief, Concordat that Franz Joseph concluded with the latter in 1855.

Hungary, of course, was about one third Protestant (chiefly Calvinist), Protestantism exercising a somewhat disproportionate influence in politics due to its uncompromising stance against the Catholic Habsburgs (not for nothing was Calvinism known as “the Magyar creed”) and its role in literature and education. Most Protestant churches built after Joseph II’s Patent of Toleration (1782) had allowed them were rather simple and provincial, referring tomedieval models and to the line of development that progressed through folk architecture” (p. 177). Still, a more ambitious structure was Mihály Pollack’s Neo-Classical Lutheran church on Deák Square in Pest, one of his least elegant works, and Vince Hild’s plain Calvinist Church on Kálvin Square. Calvinism’s answer to the Esztergom Cathedral was the Neo-Classical Great Reformed Church (1822) in Debrecen, the creed’s power centre in eastern Hungary known popularly as “the Calvinist Rome”. “The imposing mass of the Debrecen building”, writes István Bibó, Jr. “ ... could almost have emerged from the very soil of the Great Plain, to stand as a model that would influence Calvinist ecclesiastical architecture across the entire eastern part of the country” (p. 194).

While the age of Romanticism is notable for the Gothic revival then sweeping Europe, its two most outstanding religious buildings are Miklós Ybl’s remarkable Neo-Romanesque memorial church for the Károlyi family at Fót, completed in 1855, and Ludwig Förster’s justly celebrated Synagogue (1859) built for the liberal or “Neolog” Jewish community in Pest. Both these structures may justly be described as “Romantic”, the one because it was envisaged as a Gesamtkunstwerk heavily influencedbytheNazarene aesthetic movement of the German-speaking lands, and the other because of its consciously exotic orientalism.

However, due to its associative power as the primary style of the religiously devout Middle Ages, the Gothic revival laid its mark on ecclesiastical architecture across Europe” (p. 317), and thus also on Hungary. This phenomenon represents a fork in the road, as the Historicist architects of profane buildings began experimenting with a variety of past styles to exploit their symbolic associations, while new ecclesiastical structures tended to stick to Neo- Gothic. As late as 1896 there is a remarkable example of the latter in Samu Pecz’s pentagonal Calvinist church on the Buda bank of the Danube which combined functionalist features of the interior appropriate to Calvinist practice with a somewhat idiosyncratic Neo-Gothic exterior. The art philosopher Lajos Fülep (himself a Calvinist pastor) condemned this building in no uncertain terms as “worthless and perverted”, evidently regarding it as a botched version of Gothic and unimpressed by its supposed functionalism. Reverence for Fülep has tended to leave his view unchallenged, but the text here enables us to see the church’s very real merits.

As in England, new churches were often needed in a hurry to accommodate expanding suburban populations, which accounts for some rather repetitive or dull Neo-Gothicism. The great British historian of taste, Kenneth Clark, chronicled a similar tendency in his first book, The Gothic Revival (1928). However, despite lambasting ‘these monsters, these unsightly wrecks stranded upon the mud flat of Victorian taste’, Clark also admired certain Neo-Gothic buildings and thus became a catalyst for the re-evaluation of Victorian architecture”. Sisa is performing a similar service for us here and moreover draws our attention to the fact that Hungarian architects took part in competitions abroad for ambitious Neo-Gothic projects like the Votivkirche in Vienna.

One significant aspect of church architecture in the Historicist period that is well covered is that of conservation and (highly interventionist) reconstruction. The most famous example of this is Frigyes Schulek’s imaginative remodelling of the Church of Our Lady (Matthias Church) on the Buda Várhegy (1874–1896). Although grounded in meticulous excavation and documentary research, this is basically a re-conjuring of the spirit of medieval Gothic in elegant Neo-Gothic form. To complete the Inszenierung of old Buda, Schulek removed the large Jesuit cloister and seminary that had hemmed in the church, opening out a space to the south that he decorated on the Danube side with his Neo-Romanesque “Fishermen’s Bastion”, so-called because a fish market allegedly occupied the site. A similarly uncompromising Gesamtkunstwerk, this time in Romanesque style, was undertaken by the Viennese architect Friedrich Schmidt, who revamped the Pécs Cathedral (1883–1891). These were new churches in all but name, combining a Historicist preoccupation with the appropriate features and motifs with a new- found concern for rediscovery, restoration and reconstruction, although of course accretions over the years (chiefly Baroque ones) that were considered irrelevant to the spirit of the age being celebrated were ruthlessly swept aside.




The Viennese term Gründerzeit or “Founders’ Period” refers to the period after Franz Joseph ordered the demolition of the Vienna city wall in 1857 and unleashed thereby several decades of urban expansion coupled with economic boom (and occasional bust). Sisa adopts the same term for Hungary, although he places the starting point in 1870, following the Ausgleich of 1867. In fact Historicism took hold from mid-century onwards and one could even argue that Neo-Classicism is itself simply one mode of Historicism. What becomes more important in the second half of the century is the discussions about what kind of style from the past might be appropriate for individual public buildings. As the Vienna Ringstrasse arose, it offered, through its buildings, a series of newly minted lieux de mémoire, each of which alluded to the historical ideal that the building aspired to express. Hansen’s Neo-Classical Parliament recalls the ur-democracy of Greece, the City Hall paraphrases the successful and free merchant cities of the Low Countries in the early modern period, the University and the Museum of Applied Arts are built in Renaissance style – and so on.

In Hungary things were neither so simple nor so schematic. The complicating factor was the need to express national identity, a need that had been substantively repressed in the universalist symbolism of the Ringstrasse, itself a reflection of the way that Austrian national identity was often subordinated to the political requirements of running a multinational empire. The history of the founding and building of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (pp. 307 ff.) illustrates this point very well). Founded by István Széchenyi in 1825, but not built till much later, the Academy was to symbolise Hungary’s determination to escape from the shadow of absolutism. As the tender progressed, arguments surged back and forth as to what sort of style should be chosen: on the one hand the building should represent universalist humanist values, while on the other there should be a “national” component marking Hungary’s particular contribution to them. Was this not opportunity to create an individual national style? Art historian Imre Henszlmann, the man initially in charge of proceedings, had a slightly different take on that idea, arguing for Gothic style on the grounds that this reflected the golden age of Hungarian history (e.g. the reign of Louis the Great). Opposition to this centred on the fact that Gothic was a German style (though Henszlmann argued for French Gothic to meet this objection). Attempts were made to conjure a “national style” out of diverse elements, citing the Munich Rundbogenstil (see Frigyes Feszl’s Vigadó/ Redoute) or the Arab-Byzantine” style of Venice, which appealed to patriots because of Hungary’s ancient liaisons with the Byzantine Empire.

In the event, and since nobody could agree, Henszlmann and his insistence on Gothic were dispensed with and the commission went to the Prussian Friedrich August Stüler, who offered a design (1862) informed by the Venetian Renaissance with Hellenising elements. As Sisa observes, “the chosen style reflected a universal rather than a national character” and acted as the overture to the great wave of Neo-Renaissance Historicism in Hungary that followed. The issue of a “national” style was however by no means a dead one and was later to be revived by its true founder, Ödön Lechner. Meanwhile the layman, bewildered by the intricacies of what is, or is not a “national” style, may take comfort, perhaps, from István Széchenyi’s observation that “whatever people may say, the rules of architecture are arbitrary”.

In the last decades of the 19th century, Hungary at last had the resources both to strengthen its infrastructure and institutions and to think about how this process might be represented in a national style. Contrary to much earlier (and ideologically biased) historiography, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was growing economically at a rate above the European average, and the Hungarian part faster than the Austrian half. Partly this reflected the fact that it started from a lower level, of course, but clearly there was now more money from the state to finance an array of representative or institutional buildings, as well as infrastructure and even domestic housing. Budapest was the main beneficiary of this – as Sisa puts it, developing cities elsewhere “tended to resemble miniature imprints” of the capital. Tenders for the design of major new projects, whether open or closed (neither of which precluded inviting foreign architects to participate) were run on a highly professional basis, despite the inevitable disputes and lobbying, just like today.

In regard to styles, Sisa points out that “mature” or “strict” Historicism lasted roughly from the 1860s to 1890, with a more Eclectic tendency thereafter. The (Italian) Neo-Renaissance style, largely thanks to Ybl, became the quintessential city style “suitable for every genre of architecture, and for creating unified street fronts [as for Andrássy Avenue] and even entire cityscapes” (p. 432). Not being “German”, this was not a style that jarred with national pride, being regarded as “universal” in the same way as Neo-Classicism had been. In fact Historicism may be seen as achieving its apotheosis in the architectural history park made for the Millennium Exhibition of 1896, where examples of all the historic styles of building in Hungarian history were featured in a Skanzen-type display. In the same year, the central cupola part of Imre Steindl’s massive Parliament [see below] was inaugurated, a monumentally Neo-Gothic building with Baroque features.

Yet 1896 was also the year when Ödön Lechner completed his unique Museum of Applied Arts bristling with exotic or oriental features, which demonstrated that there could be a Hungarian “national style” not dependent on Historicism. Lechner and his followers hit upon an idiosyncratic but coherent solution to the problem of “national style” that clearly owed something to the liberating influence of art nouveau and the Secession, the difference being once again that the Vienna Secession was philosophical and universalist, while Lechner’s style was consciously “national”. If the Vienna Secession liberated its practitioners from the stereotypes of Historicism and from the dynastic bombast to which late Habsburg architecture was tending, the Lechner style liberated its practitioners into a new way of expressing national identity and particularism. Lechner’s buildings (the Postal Savings Bank or the Geology Institute, the City Hall in Kecskemét), with their extraordinary decorative exuberance, represent a joyful adventure in national myth-making. They provide the same kind of irrational exhilaration in the viewer as a building by Gaudi, a bearable lightness of being.

Up until Lechner offered an imaginative solution to the problem, arguments continued concerning what was appropriate for nationally significant buildings. In 1882, the competition was held for the commission to design a new Parliament that would reflect Hungary’s equal status with Austria in the Dual Monarchy. Obviously the one thing it could not be was Neo-Classical, like Hansen’s Parliament in Vienna, and in the end Neo-Gothic was chosen in conscious emulation of the “Mother of Parliaments” on the Thames. The “Germanness” of Gothic seems to have been forgotten; anyway the building is somewhat eclectic, showing Baroque and Renaissance elements in the all-over masses and particularly in the interior arrangements. One of the largest buildings in the world when built, its construction used up 40 million bricks and 30,000 cubic metres of carved stone. However, just as the impressively reconstructed palace on Castle Hill did not persuade the King-Emperor to spend as much time there as the Magyars had hoped, so the massive Parliament looks, in retrospect, to be the triumph of hope over fate. Architecturally however it is one of the great achievements of Central Europe, dazzling, iconic, and defiantly assertive of Magyar survival.

Turning finally from the individual buildings to the broader perspective on Hungarian culture that is provided in the book, Katalin Sinkó’s two essays on “The Historical Background” and “Nineteenth-Century Art and Periodisation in Hungarian Art Historiography” repay careful study. Sinkó delineates how the development of a middle class (the Bildungsbürgertum based on culture and the Wirtschaftsbürgertum based on rising wealth) was reflected in changes in patronage formerly the preserve of the aristocracy or the ruler. While Miklós Ybl’s magnificent Neo-Renaissance Opera House (1875–84) was financed largely from the “cultural budget of the royal household” effectively Franz Joseph personally – Imre Steindl’s great Parliament completed at the end of the century was entirely a political initiative of the Magyar state. A parallel development of modernisation is observable in the professional basis on which commissions for public buildings came to be conducted, while architectural practice was itself transformed through the founding of influential professional associations served by new rigour in artistic education.

In regard to the historiography of architectural history in Hungary, Sinkó identifies the tension between theories of aesthetic universalism (particularly as espoused by the dogmatic but influential Lajos Fülep) and the conviction that there was, or could be, an aesthetic, a style, an approach that was distinctively “Hungarian”. This indeed reflects the ongoing fault-line in Hungarian identity (even today) whereby Magyar particularism is tempered by an insistence that Hungary is, and always has been, an integrated part of Western European culture, reflecting, with a slight time lag, all its characteristics and developments. In practice, distinctively Magyar architecture draws on the vernacular, typically in the work of the Transylvanian Károly Kós or our contemporary Imre Makovecz. These are, however, complex issues where politics and culture clash. The authors of this fine work are to be congratulated for laying them out for us so clearly and making us realise what an incredibly rich architecture survives in Hungary, despite the march of armies across its territory or the destruction due to ignorance, neglect or ideological bigotry.

(Edited by József Sisa. Translated by Stephen Kane. 996 pages, extensive b/w and colour illustrations. Birkhäuser, Basel – De Grujter, Berlin–Boston, 2016.)

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