Ödön Lechner: The Hungarian Gaudí

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It’s no secret that Budapest is home to some amazing architecture, but have you ever heard of Ödön Lechner? Dubbed as the “Hungarian Gaudí”, Lechner’s most famous creations actually predate those of  his Catalan namesake.

Even if you’re not familiar with Ödön Lechner’s work, you’ll certainly stop to notice his buildings if you pass them by. And if you’re a fan of art nouveau, and you’re not familiar with Lechner, it’s time you meet!

Many perceive Lechner as being the creator of a Hungarian national style, in which he merged folk art, art nouveau and a curious form of orientalism that pays tribute to the Magyars’ eastern origin. While his title as father of the Hungarian Secession, a local branch of art nouveau, is well deserved, it’s interesting to see how his work evolved over time, from more classical forms harkening back to classicism to neo-Renaissance  to more avant-garde expressions.

The Atrium in the Museum of Applied Arts.
The Atrium in the Museum of Applied Arts.

Characterised by brightly coloured glazed tiles, Lechner’s buildings colour Budapest’s skyline with greens, yellows and even blues. His family owned a brickwork factory, which played a core part in the architect’s formation.

“In this factory I learnt to handle clay at a very young age, and I grew to love different ceramic techniques. Because the factory not only produced ordinary bricks, but also fine ceramics,” wrote Lechner in his memoirs, “my love for ceramics is still very much alive in me.”

The entrance staircase leading into the Museum of Applied Arts.
The entrance staircase leading into the Museum of Applied Arts.

Lechner’s passion for ceramics would lead him to the Zsolnay family, whose pioneering work with a form of architectural ceramics known as pyrogranite would influence the architect. This modern frost and heat resistant ceramic held the ability not only to be moulded into intricate shapes, but could also be finished with coloured glazes. These famous Zsolnay ceramics became a signature part of Lechner’s architectural oeuvre, featuring prominently on the rooftops of his incredible buildings.

The Museum of Applied Arts.
The Museum of Applied Arts.

While Lechner designed and constructed many buildings earlier in his career, the first noteworthy building that propelled him into the architectural spotlight would be his work on the Museum of Applied Arts (1893-96). If you take the tram along the Grand Boulevard on the 4 or the 6 tram, make sure you look out the window at the building with the green and yellow domed roof. The interior of the building appears Indian, even Moorish in parts, with Hungarian folk art.

Detail of the rooftop for the Institute of Geology.
Detail of the rooftop for the Institute of Geology.

Another of his building’s I love is located outside the city centre in the XIV District on Stefánia Avenue. The Hungarian State Geological Institute (1899) is striking with its blue roof in undulating tones of azure and turquoise. The roof is meant to represent the ancient Tetys Ocean and topped by Atlas-like figures holding up a globe, this tribute to nature resembles some of Gaudí’s connection with colour and nature. The building echoes geological elements inside out. The institute’s interior is inspired by caves, with stylised stalactites and stalagmites. Yet, Lechner’s love of folk art is never too far, since the windows are engraved with the Tulip motif, an important symbol in Hungarian art and flowers.

 

Interior details in the National Geological Institute.
Interior details in the National Geological Institute.

However, there is no need to leave the city centre to see some of his most loved work. On Hold utca in the V District, a stone’s throw away from the Hungarian Parliament, take a look up when you walk down this shaded street. The green and yellow tiles glimmer above on top of his Royal Post Office Savings Bank (1899-1901). The polychrome roof tiling, coupled with folk art stuccos on the building’s façade earned the building the title as being Lechner’s crowning glory.

Former Post office savings bank Budapest - Posta Takarékpénztár Built in 1901. Designed by Ödön Lechner. Detail of ceramic ornaments on roof. Photo by Kevin Anderson .
Former Post office savings bank Budapest – Posta Takarékpénztár
Built in 1901. Designed by Ödön Lechner. Detail of ceramic ornaments on roof. Photo by Kevin Anderson .

 

Postatakarékpénztár (Royal Postal Savings Bank) Secessionist building, now part of the National Bank of Hungary, was designed by Ödön Lechner in 1901. Photo by jaime.silva
Postatakarékpénztár (Royal Postal Savings Bank)
Secessionist building, now part of the National Bank of Hungary, was designed by Ödön Lechner in 1901. Photo by jaime.silva.

His bright colours, use of tiles and organic motifs might have earned Lechner the title of being the Hungarian Gaudí, but Lechner’s most famous works pre-date Gaudí’s iconic buildings by a few years. While I understand the comparison, Lechner ushered in a whole new school of architecture, and one that manages to be uniquely Hungarian.

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