Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Art Nouveau as a style always provokes a reaction and it is impossible to remain indifferent.
The style is considered by many to be stunningly beautiful, with shimmering colours and imaginative forms, while others find it the height of bad taste.
Architecturally it radically altered the face of many cities of North America and Europe - with Budapest being a leading example - at the beginning of the 20th century and left an indelible mark on our collective cultural consciousness.
Emerging more than 100 years ago, the Art Nouveau movement was an attempt to create a modern, international style based on decoration.
It spread rapidly and could be found everywhere from public buildings to biscuit tins.
The sinuous coiling forms and elaborate features brought colour and verve to brighten up drab pre-war European streets.
The late 19th century on was a time of social change and political ferment.
A restless mercantile class pushed out the old aristocracy.
The revolution left its mark on many European capitals, as it spawned a building style that swept across the continent.
It was called Art Nouveau in Glasgow, Paris and Brussels, Jugendstil in Riga, Berlin and Munich, and Secession (Szecesziós) in Budapest, Vienna and Prague.
Today, Budapest is home to buildings that are some of the best examples of this ornate style.
At the end of the 19th century, Budapest grew from a small town to a great metropolis with a burgeoning middle class.
After the Compromise (Ausgleich in German, Kiegyezés in Hungarian) of 1867, which secured a degree of autonomy for Hungary within the Dual Monarchy, many artists, architects and designers wanted to form a cultural identity and embraced the Art Nouveau movement.
The “father” of modern Hungarian architecture, Ödön Lechner, wanted to “Shape a new age in art, to give birth to a new style.”
Art Nouveau became a force for liberation from the Viennese allegiances and pressures and Lechner gave buildings such as the Post Office Savings Bank and the Applied Arts Museum a singular Magyar identity.
Budapest's architecture provides a lasting and vibrant record of Art Nouveau and there are many places where exotic facades by Lechner still brighten up the dusty back streets.
Architects used playful ornamentation on their buildings in reaction to the stultifying restraints of Historicism, the previously popular style in which grand buildings from the past were copied.
Structures often were organic in form, with curving facades, a dramatic departure from the austere, classical regularity.
During this fertile period, applied arts took on added importance.
Architecture and interior design were blended to create buildings of a consistent whole, or Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art). Art Nouveau forms appeared not only in architecture but in the organic furniture of Ödön Faragó, Miksa Róth’s gorgeous stained glass, Béla Lajta’s fabulous mosaics and József Rippl Rónai’s Oriental-inspired multi-coloured paintings. Hungarians created their own distinctive Secession style.
They resented the Germanic influence of the Habsburg¹s domination in bilingual Budapest. They feared their Hungarian identity was in danger of being submerged by the growing population of ethnic minorities - Serb, Croat, Slovak, Greek – in the expanding capital. They wanted to make a political statement through art.
Lechner, the most famous Secession architect, led the way “We shall not rediscover a Hungarian form. We shall make one!” he declared.
Although the style Lechner developed was not without contradictions or critics, his influence over a generation of young architects starting out around 1900 was very strong.
Throughout his career he displayed a practical interest in new building materials and techniques as well as historical languages of form.
His early commissions such as the Town Hall in Szeged (1881-1883) drew heavily on the French Renaissance revival style. Lechner acknowledged at the time that he wanted to “harmonise” the “primitive crudeness of Magyar folk art and the refinement of French culture”.
Lechner imagined that he could conceive of a properly Hungarian style by fusing suitable languages of form.
After seeing the Calcutta railway station, he claimed that the archetypal model of this kind of synthesis was to be found in the way imperial British architecture had accommodated Indian architectural forms.
Lechner’s reputation was made by the buildings he designed from the early 1890s.
The Applied Arts Museum and the Geological Institute are credited as being the first examples of Art Nouveau in Hungary.
The Applied Arts Museum was built between 1893 and 1896, in line with plans prepared by Ödön Lechner and Gyula Pártos. The steel structure above the main hall is stuccoed, and the stuccos follow and demonstrate the logic of the structure while making it more graceful.
The unconventional, exotic appearance of the Applied Arts Museum was enhanced by glazed tiles, wrought ironwork, richly coloured pyrogranite tiles and Orientalist figures by the Zsolnay factory in Pécs and majolica bricks covering the street-facing facade and wings.
Lechner was well informed about the roots of Hungarian culture.
He knew the work of József Huszka, a pioneer of ethnography and he adapted peasant art designs such as the elaborately decorated felt cloak (cifraszûr) worn by men in the villages on special occasions, wooden dowry chests, tables and chairs hand-painted with tulip motifs and embroidered pillow cases.
Lechner preferred as natural motifs the flora and fauna of the Hungarian “peasant countryside”, including tulips and bees over the more exotic and literary orchids and Medusas found in many West European Art Nouveau buildings and interiors.
The tulip design, seen on the Geological Institute and the Postal Savings Bank, went on to become a symbol of Hungarian identity, with its roots in the countryside.
The Zsolnay factory chemists had perfected a lustrous eosin glaze that could withstand the effects of rain, snow and extreme cold. Lechner and others eagerly adopted the ceramics, using them extensively for decorative emphasis.
The blue tile roof of the Geological Institute, the yellow and green roof of the Postal Savings Bank and its exterior tulip design, the underwater vision of the Applied Arts Museum and Róth’s mosaic “painting” at the top of Szervita tér 3 show off the best of the creations.
Lechner’s disciples, christened the Fiatalok continued the Hungarian style, but varied the form. Károly Kós reached back to Transylvanian peasant architecture for inspiration, evident in the bird and pheasant houses at the Budapest Zoo.
Stained glass windows also enhanced many buildings during the Secession, most of them crafted in Miksa Róth’s workshop, in Nefelejcs utca near Keleti station.
The colourful circular window that frames the dome of the Applied Arts Museum displays Róth’s expertise and artistic acumen. Béla Lajta, another student of Lechner at the Budapest Technical University, employed the latest construction methods, using reinforced concrete with floral and geometric designs incised on the facades.
The beautiful, yet crumbling mausoleum that Lajta designed for the Schmidl family in the Kozma utca Izraelita cemetery in District X is a good example of his work.
The Budapest Zoo and Botanical Gardens opened in 1866.
Tens of thousands of animals and plants originating from all over the world are on display here in romantic artificial lakes, among the rocks, in aquariums and glasshouses, and buildings that bear an exotic, eastern influence.
The planners aimed to create living spaces for the animals that correspond to their original environment, and hence established an "international open-air architectural museum", which is significant in itself, even without the dwellers. The elephant house, whose roof is decorated with Zsolnay majolica, is a fine example of sensitive reconstruction.
The ornamental gateway to the zoo, featuring elephants gives a sense of exotic fun to Art Nouveau.
14 (+2) places to find Art Nouveau:
1. Gellért Spa Hotel, XI. Gellért tér.
2. Geological Institute, XIV. Stefánia út 14, Open Mon-Fri 9am-4pm
3. Hungarian Institute for the Blind, XIV Hermina út 74
4. The School for the Blind, XIV Ajtósi Dürer sor 39
5. Academy of Music, VI Liszt Ferenc tér 8
6. Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel (Gresham Insurance Co), V. Roosevelt tér
7. Párizsi Nagyáruház (Grand Parisian Department Store), VI. Andrássy út 39.
8. Church of the Philanthropic Foundation, X. Cserkesz utca 7
9. Primary school, mosaics by Zsigmond Vajda, VII. Dob utca 85
10. Philantia Flower Shop, V. Váci utca 9
11. Róth Memorial Museum, VII. Nefelejcs utca 26
12. Post Office Savings Bank, V. Hold utca 4
13. Szent László church, Kőbánya
14. The Schmidl family mausoleum, Kozma utca Izraelita cemetery, Kőbánya
And a little further afield, check out
15. The ‘Little Blue Church’ of Saint Elizabeth in Bratislava, Slovakia by Ödön Lechner 1910-1913
16. Also in Bratislava, the high school at Grösslingova ulica 18 by Ödön Lechner also in 1906-08