One feels the arc of time when walking around Budapest. The city's architecture spans from ancient Roman ruins to Architizer A+ Award winning contemporary buildings, with plenty of treasures in-between these endpoints.
In the 1st century AD, the Romans expanded all the way to the Danube in order for the river to serve as the eastern border of the Roman Empire in Central Europe. Emperor Trajan made Aquincum province, situated in the northern part of today's Buda (Óbuda), the capital of eastern Pannonia, also known as Pannonia Inferior. In its heyday, Aquincum was a notable city with 40,000 or so inhabitants.
The best preserved ruin of this ancient town is the Aquincum Military Amphitheater, a 13 thousand-capacity complex once used for gladiator combats and chariot races, as well as Thermae Maiores, which was a public bath inside the Roman legionary fortress. They're easily reachable from downtown Pest by public transport.
But you don’t even need to leave downtown to find the underground remains of the Contra-Aquincum (location), a Roman defense fortification from the 2nd century AD. They built it to strengthen the Empire’s border, and to ensure uninterrupted access across the river. You can see more ancient ruins and learn about the history of this region under the Romans at the Aquincum Museum (location).
Historical housing stock on the Castle Hill
Fast-forward to medieval times, the Castle Hill became the center of town from the 13th century on. Today’s street layouts are still those that were formed centuries ago. The area was split between the Gothic-style Buda Castle and the residential quarters densely packed with two- and three story medieval homes. The countless battles waged against this small piece of land erased many of the original buildings. For instance, it was the reconstructions following the recapture of Buda from the Ottomans in 1686 that lent a baroque facade to most residential buildings. Similarly, WWII bombings are responsible for the 1970s and '80s modern and post-modern buildings (e.g. Hilton Budapest; location) that came to replace the ruins left from the war.
A bittersweet consequence of the WWII destructions was that many long-forgotten medieval buildings suddenly emerged from the mountains of rubble. They had been buried beneath layers of newer buildings. As a result, parts of the original Gothic-style royal palace was excavated and can be visited through the Budapest History Museum (location), and several residential buildings once again wear their original medieval facades (e.g. 14 Tárnok Street).
The city fabric of Pest built during the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Along with Vienna, in 1867 Budapest became the “co-headquarters” of one of Europe’s great powers, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For the subsequent 50 years, the golden years of Budapest, the city experienced an unprecedented level of urban and infrastructural development.
The Grand Boulevard and Andrássy Avenue (locations), as well as the eye-catchingly consistent revival architecture throughout the city are all the result of systematic city planning during this period. Andrássy Avenue, originally simply named "Boulevard", emulated the urban layouts of Paris and Rome, and was meant to signify Budapest's status as a progressive European city.
Miklós Ybl was the best-known and most prolific architect of the time. His finest work was The Hungarian State Opera House (location), one of the best examples of Renaissance Revival architecture, the dominating style of the era. Completed in 1884, the richly-adorned building boasts statues of Hungary’s well-known composers (Franz Liszt and Ferenc Erkel), marble columns, and a giant bronze chandelier weighing over 3 tons. The building is considered one of the most stunning opera houses in the world.
Awe inspiring classical elements decorate the 145m long monumental building of the former Budapest Stock and Commodity Exchange that dominates the stately Liberty Square. At the time of its completion in 1907 this gigantic building was one of the largest stock exchanges in Europe (the trading floors had 18m high ceilings). Not in need of such a detestable capitalist institution, the communist regime shut it down in 1948. It's been in a state of neglect since the Hungarian National Television moved out of the building in 2007.
The largest building in Hungary, the House of Parliament (location), is a turn-of-the-century giant Gothic Revival complex stretching imposingly along the Danube river. The obvious resemblance to the Westminster Palace was the architect's way to enhance the building's legitimacy as the country's national assembly.
After 17 years of construction, the building opened in 1902 with 691 rooms, a total of 20km length of staircases, and a 96m tall dome. The rich iconography on the beautifully restored Hungarian limestone facade depicts the coat of arms of major cities and counties of the Hungarian Kingdom. Parts of the building are open to visitors, including the hall that once housed the Upper Chamber.
Hungarian Art Nouveau
Ödön Lechner was a pioneer architect who founded Hungary's unique style of Art Nouveau (some call him the “Gaudi of Hungary”, as a nod to Lechner's genius and loose resemblance to the Spanish master). His buildings, found all across Budapest, are known for motifs taken from Hungarian folk art. One of Lechner's masterpieces is the Postal Savings Bank (location), nestled on a quite side street at Liberty Square.
His fluid shapes, rich ceramic decoration often with brightly-colored tilework supplied by the renowned Zsolnay porcelain maker, and curvilinear wrought-iron entrances gave birth to a new architectural style in Hungary. Also check out the building of the Museum of Applied Arts (location) and that of the Geological and Geophysical Institute (location) to marvel at more of Lechner’s works.
Another important, though lesser known figure of Hungarian art nouveau architecture was Béla Lajta. A student of Lechner, he took his master's national style into new, often visionary directions. The Parisiana (1908, location) and the Rózsavölgyi house (1912, location) bear distinct early modernist characteristics, well ahead of the widespread popularity of this style.
Following WWI, modernist architecture left a distinctive mark on the architectural landscape of Budapest. In fact, several well-known figures of the Bauhaus school were Hungarians (Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy), although many of them later migrated to the United States.
The highest concentration of modernist buildings are found along Pozsonyi Road in Újlipótváros (the most lavish of all is located at 38 Pozsonyi Road). The architectural style of these modernist buildings was itself a form of protest by their middle class, mainly Jewish residents. They viewed the then still dominant Baroque Revival architecture and its political and social implications as outdated and backward-looking.
Modernism fans should certainly visit the residential homes along Napraforgó Street in Buda, where concrete constructions, modular structures, and flat roofs dominate the street view (location). This row of modernist buildings was the result of a progressive government decree in the 1930s that commissioned architects to build affordable housing in the leading style of the day.
A favorite building of this era is the residential home designed in 1932 by Farkas Molnár, a graduate of Bauhaus. The house radiates a sense of luxurious minimalism rarely found elsewhere in Budapest from this era (the building is nestled in the side of a hill and difficult to approach; the best view is from the memorial at Apor Vilmost Square).
Postmodernism in Hungary emerged only in the 1980s in earnest. So late, because the communist leadership viewed it as a potentially harmful movement from the "declining West", hence not needed in our corner of the world. But throughout its less than two-decades, it left a distinctive and highly-divisive footprint on Budapest. The style's leading architect was József Finta, whose buildings fundamentally shaped Budapest’s contemporary skyline (although not postmodern, the current-day Marriott and Intercontinental hotels along the Danube bank are also Finta’s brainchildren).
Finta’s coming-of-age coincided with the international shift away from modernism to postmodernism. Accordingly, his buildings evolved from sleek, geometric, box-type designs in the 1960s and ‘70s to more playful works showing historical elements (in parallel with an increasingly lenient state censorship).
But his postmodern architecture came into his own with the stunning 1997 design of the Police Headquarters (colloquially the “Cops' Palace”; location). The enormous, 58 thousand sqm building looks like a cruising tanker ship, or a sphynx fixing his gaze toward the city center. Proportions, decorative elements, playful reflections, and historical references (the round building on the side evokes a medieval tower) harmoniously come together to form a masterpiece.
Bear in mind about present day architecture that many downtown neighborhoods or buildings are under strict landmark protections, so architects need to walk a fine line between preserving the old (be it the fabric of a street or the facade of a building), and creating something that meets the expectations of the 21st century.
The recently completed building of the prestigious Central European University (location) did exactly this. The playfully indented facade, elliptical concrete staircase, steep glass-steel roof planes, as well as the quality and richness of details are marvels to behold. The building, with a café on the ground floor, is open for all to see.
The CET Building, located along the Danube river, displays a harmonious combination of old and new. The building complex is a mixed-use cultural and commercial space consisting of a set of gracefully restored warehouses and a whale-shaped steel-and-glass modern wing inserted in-between.
Budapest's new metro line #4, completed in 2014, appears to be a commercial failure and an architectural success. Completed way over time and budget, it doesn't generate nearly the passenger traffic it was projected to. The designs of the stations, however, showcase the best of contemporary Hungarian architecture.
The playful lighting solutions and the abundance of natural light of these spacious platforms make the crisscross system of heavy exposed concrete beams appear to be floating in the air. The gracefully minimalist design and the disability-inclusive infrastructure stand in wild contrast to the city’s otherwise outdated socialist-era subway stations (at the Kálvin Square station you can compare the two). The Fővám Square and Szent Gellért Square stations (locations), adorned with colorful mosaics, won the highly prestigious Architizer A+ Award in 2014.
Reviewed by Sándor Sólymos, Department Head of Fine Arts, at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts.