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13 July 2020

An Indefatigable American Scholar of Central Europe’s Architecture – In Memory of Dora Wiebenson

 

Dora Wiebenson, the distinguished American architectural historian, is not unknown to Hungarian experts. She devoted several years of her active life to edit and publish a book on Hungarian architecture, then a journal covering the whole East Central European region. She may well have been so far the only American, or Briton, for that matter, to pay so much attention to this part of the world as far as her chosen discipline is concerned. It was therefore with great sadness that we learned that she had died in New York on 20 August 2019; she had just turned 93 on 29 July. She had outlived most of her friends and colleagues and her name may have faded from collective memory, but her achievement remains intact in our profession. At first she taught at Columbia University, then at the University of Maryland, and finally at the University of Virginia, from which she retired in 1992. She was director of the Society of Architectural Historians between 1974 and 1977. Professor Dora Wiebenson was a pioneer of 18th-century visual studies in America, the focus of her interest being French art and garden design as attested by her magisterial book, The Picturesque Garden in France (1978). It was she who inspired the idea to establish the Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art and Architecture, affiliate group of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies; in 1999 the HECAA’s Wiebenson Prize was named in her honour. Her other major books indicate the wider range of her interests, from The Sources of Greek Revival Architecture (1969) to the Architectural Theory and Practice from Alberti to Ledoux (1982).

The Architecture of Historic Hungary got published by the prestigious MIT Press in 1998, a major effort to popularise Hungarian architecture in the English-speaking world. In all, the book took ten years to complete, and I had the good fortune to be Wiebenson’s collaborator in the project and the volume’s co-editor. Subsequently, she turned to the art and architecture of the whole East Central European region, and in 2001 she launched a journal entitled Centropa. As she pointed out, it was a logical continuation of our Hungarian book. She invited me to be on the advisory panel of the journal, which turned out to be another channel to reach an international audience and promote the cause of Hungarian and Central European art and architecture through numerous articles on the subject.


Leopoldina Temple, Kismarton (Eisenstadt). Charles Moreau, 1822. © József Sisa

After her death, one of Wiebenson’s relatives asked me to write my “remembrances” of her, and I gladly complied. Also I thought it might be a good idea to share these memories with the readers of Hungarian Review with additional passages on the book itself, thus paying tribute to a fine scholar, who did a remarkable service to Hungarian culture.

* * *

First impressions are strong. I remember well when I first met Dora. My professor Anna Zádor called me one day asking me to accompany her friend, Professor Dora Wiebenson, the internationally acknowledged architectural historian, on a trip to the town of Eger. At the time, in the summer of 1988, there was an important international conference in Budapest on the Enlightenment, which Dora was attending. At Anna Zádor’s instructions I called her at the hotel to set a time for our departure. I asked her over the phone, “How shall we recognise each other?”. “I am tall and look very American”, came the answer. And so it was. On our trip (she had hired a car) we were discussing many things, both architecture and politics. Seeing the great buildings of Eger, on our way back, she mentioned how sad it was that there were no books in English on Hungarian architecture. I told her, “Why don’t we write one?”. She instantly liked the idea, no doubt realising that it would not be an easy job at all. We still had the Iron Curtain with all the obstacles involved. In addition, in those times there was no internet, no email, not even fax. So over the next ten years we had to exchange innumerable letters to organise the book, and she came over to Budapest several times to discuss matters with me and our Hungarian co-authors. Each time she was carrying a big bag with all the manuscripts and pictures of our future book. Once I asked her whether she was not afraid of losing it with all its precious contents. “One doesn’t even think of it”, she answered coolly.


Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus, Budapest. Bertalan Árkay, 1931-1933. © József Sisa

Working with Dora was demanding. She set her well-furnished and well-organised mind to the task and carried on with perseverance. She made the authors work hard and discussed with them not only the general issues but also every detail. For my Hungarian colleagues it turned out to be rather exhausting; let it be said in their defence that they also had a foreign language to cope with. Eventually they managed quite well. But Dora’s unquestionable authority and towering personality were really needed to bring the project to fruition.


Town Hall, Kiskunfélegyháza. József Vas and Nándor Morbitzer, 1909-1911. © József Sisa

During her repeated stays and travels in Hungary and the neighbouring countries, she could realise (which earlier she may not have been so acutely aware of) the historical, cultural and ethnic complexities of the region. Her decision coincided with our wish and art-historical practice, namely to deal with Hungary as it existed in any given period to be discussed, never losing sight of the country’s social and ethnic diversity and the ever-changing historical and political context. That is clearly reflected in the choice of the buildings and pictures presented in the book. In order to provide the geographic background, each chapter is preceded by a map of historical Hungary as it was at the given time. Dora considered the country’s architecture ultimately the common heritage of the region. She formulated this thought in the book’s preface in the following way: “Many of the buildings discussed here are now located outside the present national borders of Hungary. They no longer belong to one nation but to the international arena of Central Europe.” She in fact preferred to broaden the horizon of the book further, urged the authors to consider developments in Western Europe and beyond, on some occasions suggesting or including connections or parallels that were not immediately obvious to the authors. At the same time, she liked to bring out specific features and phenomena that she considered characteristic of Hungarian architecture, eminently at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.


Stained glass window in the Palace of Culture, Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş). Sándor Nagy, 1913. © József Sisa

The structure of the book in some ways reflected an approach that may have been different from that of other handbooks dealing with Hungarian architecture. There is a short chapter entitled Architecture before Hungary”, whose focus is basically Roman architecture in the area of the present-day country. Also it may seem unusual that the whole of the Middle Ages is subsumed under a single chapter and not divided into units covering separately Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The explanation was not only that for the American readers this period was too distant to incite interest, but at least as much the sad fact that much and indeed the best of Hungarian medieval architecture was lost for posterity due to the destruction of the Turkish wars in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, for example, the Royal Palace of Buda could be best represented by an excavation plan of the site. Accordingly, the 19th and especially the 20th centuries received more attention.

Dora herself was working hard. She was methodical and seemed to be indefatigable, if not relentless. Not only was she editing the manuscripts and illustrations of seven authors; I remember well that on one occasion, at a rather late stage of the writing of the book, she brought with her a boxful of slips. It turned out that she had prepared in advance the index of the book, each slip containing the name of a place or a person. In other cases, this chore was usually done by assistants at the very end of the project. But Dora thought that the index was an ideal tool to double-check the whole text, and of course she turned out to be right. Anyhow, during that  stay of hers we were invited to attend a rather strange event in the city of Pécs in southern Hungary. On our way there, which took several hours by train, we were checking the slips against the manuscript, to the obvious amazement and delight of our fellow travellers. In Pécs, we attended the inauguration of the bust of one of the martyred generals of the 1848–1849 Hungarian War of Independence. We were standing in a big crowd when a platoon of soldiers pushed their way through the throng, then in the midst of all the people they took their guns and let loose a deafening volley in the air in honour of the national hero. Happily, unfazed but somewhat dazed, she we survived the incident. She even saw the funny side of it.


Cover of The Architecture of Historic Hungary (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. – London, England, 1998) © József Sisa

On another occasion we, along with a student of Dora’s, went to Transylvania in my small car (Trabant, the East German contraption). That was still not long after Ceauşescu’s downfall and execution, and, as could be expected, conditions were quite simple, to say the least. That was true of the roads, the food and the sometimes improvised accommodation. Dora endured all that, including a wasp-bite in a remote village in the middle of nowhere. On our way back we had to wait eight hours at the border, which gave her a taste of the (post-)Communist world. Being disciplined as she was, she always kept her cool.

The book, The Architecture of Historic Hungary, finally came out in 1998. There were several book-launches and presentations, some of them here in Budapest, most of them overseas. In order to illustrate the ten years it took to publish it, she liked to point out that when we had started the whole project my children were still very young, while in 1998 they were already teenagers. That was some time indeed, but we did it.


Dora Wiebenson and József Sisa. New York, 1995. © József Sisa

All in all, we are immensely grateful to her for embarking on this Hungarian project. In a way she helped put Hungary on the map of world architecture. And, I am sure she realised that, the timing was perfect – right during and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the former Soviet bloc countries were opening up to the outside world and, suddenly, intense interest turned towards them. I personally learned a great deal from her and from the whole process in terms of how to organise such a big project and, as an editor, how to deal with a bunch of manuscripts by different authors. Later I could apply my skill well in other similar projects. At one point she confided to me that she had never worked with anybody so closely. This was more or less the case the other way round as well.

While we were still working on the book, I received a grant from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), based in Washington, DC. This gave me the chance to go and see Dora in New York. I know how proud she was of her apartment with the superb view, and how hard she had worked to acquire it. I had the chance then, and later, when my wife joined me, and in the years to come when I visited New York repeatedly, to enjoy her hospitality. I could share her frugal meals and way of life. In fact she opposed waste of any kind and always preferred things economical. When we visited a market not far from her place, she led the way to take small bits from the tasty merchandise on display. She shared her home with two cats, invariably rather big and obtrusive beasts, which she often chided but could not have lived without. In her later years the cats seemed to take over the whole place. On one of my visits she proudly took me to see the newly completed High Line in western Manhattan. She could not walk that much any longer but she urged me to have a walk, while she settled on a bench.

Her last big project was Centropa, as the subtitle said: a Journal of Central European Architecture and Related Arts. She edited and published it for fifteen years, until she was ninety. She spared no effort and expense to launch it, which, considering all that has been said above, was no small sacrifice. Eventually she managed to break it even without outside help. Yet just this personal control gave her the independence in her work which she valued most. It was a daring enterprise: publishing articles on a geographically wide range of countries from the Baltic to the Balkans, approaching cultures with most difficult languages, and locating scholars in a dozen or so obscure countries was an amazing achievement. She organised Centropa in such a way that it consisted of thematic issues, often with an international expert invited as the guest editor. The topics, though they concerned primarily architecture, urbanism and design, eventually broadened to include some aspects of the fine arts as well. Finally, the journal got off the ground, began to flourish for the sake of future generations, and found its way to a considerable number of institutions, libraries and places interested in this part of the world.

Considering Dora Wiebenson’s earlier career, I admire among other things just this kind of ability to renew and innovate. She started out dealing with major countries with long-established traditions, such as France and over the age of sixty she could start a “new life”, for the benefit of all of us. We will fondly cherish her memory.


Rotunda, Bény (Bíňa, Slovakia). 12th century. © József Sisa



Vajdahunyad (Hunedoara, Romania) Castle, view from the west. Polygonal bay windows from the mid-15th century. © Géza Entz



The Knights' Hall of the Vajdahunyad Castle (Hunedoara, Romania), mid-15th century. © Géza Entz



Vajdahunyad Castle. (Hunedoara, Romania). Southern tower, mid-15th century. © Géza Entz



Painted ceiling of the choir of the reformed church of Bánffyhunyad (Huedin, Romania), 1705. © Géza Entz


Adam and Eve in Paradise. A detail of the ceiling of the choir. Reformed church, 1780. Bánffyhunyad (Huedin, Romania). © Géza Entz



A detail of the ceiling of the choir. Reformed church in Bánffyhunyad (Huedin, Romania), 1780. © Géza Entz

 


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