The 'Hungarian Gaudi': Architect Ödön Lechner in 4 buildings

From the ice rink on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel President in downtown Budapest, you get the best view ...

Posted: Dec 17, 2018 3:32 PM
Updated: Dec 17, 2018 3:33 PM

From the ice rink on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel President in downtown Budapest, you get the best view over the city. It's not just because all the main sites sweep into the panorama, but it's one of the few places where you can see one of Ödön Lechner's playful buildings the way it's meant to be seen: from above.

Tiles in green and yellow scale the roof of the Hungarian State Treasury (formerly the Royal Postal Savings Bank) and, if you look closely, you can catch all the little details, like the queue of ceramic bees beneath the glazed yellow hive on the top of a chimney, and the cast of winged serpents, birds and bullheads twisting out of parapets.

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Playful architectural ceramics like these were one of Lechner's most recognizable calling cards. His daring use of color, organic motifs and experimental designs have earned him the nickname the "Hungarian Gaudi."

While his buildings may seem to be the product of a wild architect's fantasy, Lechner was working from a visual manifesto rooted in national identity. In the architect's lifetime, Hungary was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but in the late 19th century, a new art movement bubbled beneath the surface in rebellion against the historicist styles loved by Austrian Habsburgs.

As secession movements across Europe saw artists breaking with mainstream institutions, architects like Lechner seized the opportunity to develop a distinctly Hungarian identity.

1884: The Drechsler Palace

For over a decade, boards covered the windows of the Drechsler Palace, Lechner's first building in Budapest. With elegant turrets and curved arches, in a palette of neutral grays, Lechner's early work drew close inspiration from the French Renaissance.

"Lechner had just returned from renovating chateaux in France," says Kornél Baliga, an architect who specializes in historic restorations and who worked on the Drechsler Palace. "I noticed the roof structure and the courtyard style resemble the Chateau de Chambord, but the towers are more in the style of the chateau in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The building was never a palace. It was an apartment block commissioned by the Hungarian Railways as an investment for its workers pension institute. The Drechsler Cafe occupied the first three floors. It was gutted between the wars and became the Ballet Institute. It's been empty for almost 20 years."

But now Lechner's forgotten building, ideally situated opposite the Hungarian State Opera House, is prime real estate. In 2020, W Hotels -- part of the Marriott Hotel Group -- plans to reopen the Drechsler Palace as a luxury hotel.

The Drechsler Palace established Lechner's worth as an architect, but a decade later he would shun this conservative style for something bolder.

1896: The Museum of Applied Arts

A couple of kilometers away, you can spot the green and yellow dome of the Museum of Applied Arts (1896) as it rises out of the scaffolding, clad with building wraps. Even under renovation, it's still possible to glimpse Lechner's architectural manifesto.

The nomadic Hungarian tribes, the Magyars, came from the Ural Mountains and settled here at the end of the ninth century. However, Lechner turned further east to the popular 19th-century theories concerning the Hungarians' Asiatic origins with Persian or Indian connections.

The Museum of Applied Art, with its Indo-Saracenic influences, extravagant ceramic flowers and zoological figures, pushed Lechner's vision of an Eastern identity. Some contemporaries rejected his branch of Orientalism and criticized the museum as gaudy. In response, Lechner toned down his Eastern influences, but not his color palette.

1899: The Geological Institute Building

The Geological Institute Building peers over Stefánia Boulevard. On its blue-tiled rooftop, four figures of Atlas figures prop up a globe. Azure ceramic fossils adorn the facade, and the undulating forms within the drafty corridors and hallways are inspired by caves rather than Indian palaces.

At the cornerstone of Lechner's design was the Zsolnay Porcelain Factory, located in the southern Hungarian town of Pécs. The factory's innovative production of pyrogranite, an ornamental ceramic developed in 1886, would go on to define the Hungarian art nouveau style.

Pyrogranite was perfect for outdoor conditions, making it ideal for decorative architectural ceramics and roof tiles, and Lechner was not the only one to use them. His disciples and contemporaries used Zsolnay tiles on their facades, rooftops, and interiors, from the marine mosaics in the Gellért Thermal Baths to the tiled rooftop of the Great Market Hall.

1901: Hungarian State Treasury

Since the Museum of Applied Arts closed for renovation last year, part of its collection has been moved into György Ráth Villa, the former residence of the museum's first director. This September, it opened with a permanent collection showcasing the art nouveau movement from the Hungarian perspective.

As you stroll through the fully furnished rooms and exhibition spaces, it becomes clear that Lechner was not the only artist of his time searching for a Hungarian visual identity. Whether it's a story of a fairy tale told on the side of a Zsolnay vase or a carved maple screen depicting the life of Attila the Hun, Hungarian art nouveau moved toward modern interpretations of local folk art.

Lechner, too, incorporated folk motifs on the facades of his buildings. Beneath the show-stopping roof of the Hungarian State Treasury, flowers inspired by Hungarian embroidery adorn the front of the building as the architect turns closer to home for his Hungarian voice.

The golden age of Hungary's secession only lasted until the early 20th century. Lechner's monuments may have caused an uproar when they were first revealed to the public, but today, they offer a treasure to the city, so make sure you remember to look up when you're walking the streets of Budapest.

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