On Ajtósi Dürer sor, on a side of this quiet District XIV street opposite City Park, stand two buildings remarkable for their size and degree of ornamentation.
One is a school, once named after the popular Austro-Hungarian Queen Erzsébet (better known as Sissi) and now bearing the name of women’s education pioneer Blanka Teleki. The other, which bears a similar but simpler pale façade run through with thin brick columns, undulating brick parapets and floral motifs, is one of a number of buildings that house the National Institute for the Blind and was formerly also a school.
Both were built during the very first years of the 20th century, when a wealthy Hungary joined a wave of Europe-wide architectural renewal known variously as Secession, Art Nouveau or Jugendstil.
Heavy stone façades lined with cabled columns and historicist statues of gods and goddesses, typical of the imposing apartment blocks of the lower segment of late-19th-century Andrássy út, gave way to lighter, more colourful buildings replete with fluid, lively lines and motifs drawn from nature and from Hungarian folk.
Examples of this building style are strewn around Budapest. Landmarks such as the Gresham Palace, Gellért Hotel and Medicinal Baths, the Bedõ House (now itself an Art Nouveau museum) and the Museum of Applied Arts feature in all major guidebooks with more or less detail on their history. Others, perhaps more discrete and less documented, illustrate the wide variety of uses and audiences for which they were built: workers’ housing (Wekerle Telep), public entertainment (the zoo’s entrance pavilion), commerce (the Árkád Bazaar), burials (a variety of constructions in Fiumei út cemetery) or simply private occupation by the wealthy and the less so.
Over 225 sights to see
These form the subject of a guidebook by Hungarian publishing company Corvina in an English-language volume dedicated to highlights of Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture. In 225 separate entries, all illustrated with one or more photographs, the reader is guided around buildings in the capital city and beyond.
Part reference book and part tour guide, the book’s first section is devoted to Budapest and is organised around five walks covering the central districts and a further two for more out-of-the-way locations in Pest and Buda. Another third of the book covers buildings outside of Budapest, illustrating the effort of early 20th-century local worthies to spruce up the countryside.
In and out of Budapest
“It was principally on the Alföld that civic dignity had to be conjured out of what were often backward ‘one-horse towns’,” writer Béla Bede says. The southern Hungarian Great Plain is indeed well represented, with a large number of entries on the various banks, schools, confectioner’s shop, synagogue and mansions to be found around the Tisza River.
Chapters on Szeged and Kecskemét, both towns with significant concentrations of Art Nouveau buildings, metalwork and stained glass and normally well covered by guide books, include some lesser known examples of this style.
Hungary writ large
As is well known, Hungary at that time stretched far beyond its modern borders, and it is to those areas of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia and Croatia that the last third of the book is dedicated. This allows Bede to include fine examples of artwork in towns such as Cluj Napoca in Romania, and Subotica and Novi Sad in Serbia, but also quirkier entries such as the colourful, folksy firemen’s barracks of Senta in Serbia.
The point, then, is to give an overall impression of the many facets of early 20th-century Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture, and this the book does well through the various entries and many illustrations. Where one feels it is lacking is in the absence of a brief general introduction to the specifics of the Hungarian style and what made it different from its contemporaries in surrounding countries.
Informative and practical
Still, many details make the reading and visiting experiences easy and enjoyable. Every notice, although short, manages to be informative without being repetitive. Bede’s style – translated by Bernard Adams – is lively and almost chatty. GPS coordinates, opening times, admission fees and occasionally the key holder’s phone number or address are indicated.
So are the nearby Art Nouveau sites that are worthy of being seen but that did not make it to the author’s “top 225”. Of the numerous architects whose works are listed, 20 or so of the more famous including Ödön Lechner, Miksa Róth and Vilmos Zsolnay are given a short biographical notice.
An index further makes it easier to trace individual architects and artists’ works and colour codes on the maps to trace the entries.
Those who prefer armchair travelling can pore over the plentiful colour photographs by Zoltán Bagyinszki, but the book’s handy format and sturdy cover make it a practical companion for those on the go.
Buy the book
Hungarian Art Nouveau Architecture
By Béla Bede
Paperback, illustrated, 360 pages