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Ödön Lechner’s Budapest: Hungary’s Master of Art Nouveau
Barcelona has Gaudi—whose masterfully whimsical buildings dot the city—and Budapest has Ödön Lechner (1845-1914). Lechner was the father of the Hungarian Secession movement— Hungary’s brand of art nouveau. He aimed to create a distinct National Style blending art nouveau with Hungarian folk motifs (such as flowers and typical patterns) and Oriental elements (like tiled domes) to reflect Hungary’s roots, and to create some of Budapest’s greatest buildings.
Lechner’s late-19th/early-20th-century buildings stand out for their heavy use of colorful tiles from Zsolnay, a Hungarian manufacturer founded in 1853, which is located in the southern Hungarian town of Pécs. Zsolnay’s innovative use of pyrogranite—a decorative ceramic which was developed in 1886—played a major role in the development of Hungary’s unique style of art nouveau. Pyrogranite enabled the ceramic tiles to be used on the exteriors of buildings, and to hold up to harsh weather conditions. Lechner was not the only architect to rely on the Zsolnay tiles, used in many other well-known Hungarian buildings of the era, including in the Gellért Thermal Bath and on the tiled rooftop of the Central Market Hall.
The golden age of Hungary’s Secessionist movement was short and sweet—lasting only until the early 20th century. But the buildings resulting from it are among Budapest’s most defining ones.
Spending a day admiring Lechner’s fairytale-like buildings is a fine way to spend a day in Budapest.
(FORMER) ROYAL POSTAL SAVINGS BANK (NOW NATIONAL BANK OF HUNGARY)
Look out for the yellow ceramic bees and their hives on the colorful former Royal Postal Savings Bank. East of Szabadság tér, this former bank is a Secessionist masterpiece, and is now a part of the National Bank of Hungary. Built in 1901, the best view of this building is from above, which is the only way to fully appreciate the roof made of colorful Zsolnay tiles.
Built in 1899, the Geological Museum has so many gorgeous details to appreciate. Note the globe resting on the shoulders of four figures of Atlas, the ceramic-tiled roof in shades of blue, and the ceramic motifs which are part folk and part geological. Blue ceramic fossils decorate the façade, and the corridors inside are inspired by caves.
MUSEUM OF APPLIED ARTS
One of Lechner’s greatest buildings, the Museum of Applied Arts (Iparművészeti Múzeum), is closed for much needed restorations (and also an expansion) until at least 2020. One of Budapest’s greatest buildings, a statue of Lechner sits outside, and the building can be easily spotted by its green and yellow dome. Built in 1896, this art-nouveau building has strong Eastern (Islamic and Hindu) influences. Inside of the museum, when it’s open, there’s a small first-floor permanent exhibition on Hungarian crafts. But the main reason to come (besides to gawk at the building) is for the frequent temporary exhibitions, and frequent craft sales.
The Thonet House, a four-story residential building on Pest’s shopping street, is one of Lechner’s small jewels. Built in 1890, the building has an intricate façade covered with baby-blue Zsolnay tiles.
Sitting directly across from the Opera House, the Drechsler Palace was Lechner’s first building in Budapest. It was built in early French-Renaissance style between 1893 and 1896. While it’s clear from the first glance that the other buildings mentioned here were created by Lechner, the drastically different style of the Dreschler shows how significantly his style evolved from the beginning of his career. Despite it’s name, the Dreschler was never a palace. It was a residential apartment building commissioned by the Hungarian Railways. In Budapest’s coffeehouse heyday, the famous Drechsler Cafe occupied the first three floors, and was a buzzing hangout full of locals and well-heeled foreign guests. During the Communist era, and lasting until to 2002, the café’s space was given to the Hungarian Ballet Institute (and the building is still often referred to as the Ballet Institute). Since then, the building has sadly been empty, with only promise after promise of turning the place into a five-star hotel.
SCHMIDL MAUSOLEUM AT THE KOZMA UTCAI JEWISH CEMETERY
The Kozma utcai Jewish Cemetery, which is a part of the Újköztemető is the largest Jewish cemetery in Hungary. A huge Holocaust memorial dedicated to 600,000 Jewish martyrs, with the names of Jews who were killed carved into the walls of a symbolic tomb, is surrounded by the handwritten names of those whose names had been left out. Here, too, is an elaborately decorated oriental style ceremonial hall and many ornate family mausolea. Particularly noteworthy is the turquoise and gold art nouveau Schmidl family mausoleum, designed also by Odon Lechner and Béla Lajta. The Schmidl tomb has been restored, but like the other Jewish cemeteries, much of the rest of the place is in bad shape.
Explore Pest on Taste Hungary’s Budapest Grand Walk, which includes several of Lechner’s buildings. Continue on to the Buda side on Taste Hungary’s Buda Castle Walk.