Walking around Budapest, you can feel the arc of time. The city's diverse architecture spans from Roman ruins to buildings designed by Bauhaus graduates, and Architizer A+ Award winning contemporary constructions.
In the 1st century A.D., 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. In 106 A.D. Emperor Trajan made Aquincum province, situated in the northern part of today's Buda (Óbuda), the capital of eastern Pannonia (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 (location), a giant 13 thousand capacity complex used for gladiator combats and chariot races. It’s about 25 minutes 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 in the Castle District
The castle area in Buda has had a tumultuous history with innumerable sieges led by Tartars, Ottomans, Habsbugs, and Allied Forces over the centuries. This left few of the original buildings from the 13th century intact, but roaming around these narrow historical streets is an experience in and of itself (location).
Today’s street layouts were formed over 600 years ago, and plenty of buildings still stand on the original medieval structures (look for the landmark plaques on the buildings). The brutal siege to reconquer Buda from the Ottomans in 1686 reduced the castle area to ruins. Subsequent reconstructions lent a baroque facade to most residential buildings that, despite the enormous damage during WWII, remain marvels to behold.
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, Andrássy Avenue 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 named simply "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 but his finest hour 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-decorated building includes statues of Hungary’s well-known composers (Franz Liszt and Ferenc Erkel), marble columns in the vaulted lobby, and a 1,261 capacity hall with a giant bronze chandelier weighing over 3 tons. The building is considered one of the finest opera houses in the world.
Awe inspiring classical elements are on display at the richly adorned 145m long monumental building of the former Budapest Stock and Commodity Exchange that dominates the stately Liberty Square (Szabadság tér). 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 down the stock exchange in 1948, which has been in a sad state of disrepair 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 Steindl's way of amplifying the building's legitimacy as the country's national assembly.
After 17 years of construction, it was finally completed 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 façade depicts the coat of arms of major cities and counties of the Hungarian Kingdom. Parts of the building are open for 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 using motifs taken from Hungarian folk art are found across Budapest. One of Lechner's masterpieces is the Postal Savings Bank (location) from 1902, nestled on a quite side street at Liberty Square next to the American embassy.
His fluid shapes, rich ceramic decoration, bright green tilework supplied by the renowned Zsolnay porcelain maker, and curvilinear wrought-iron entrances gave birth to a new architectural style in Hungary. Check out also 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 can be found along Pozsonyi út in Újlipótváros (location), with the most lavish under Pozsonyi út 38. The architectural language of these buildings was a form of protest by their upper-middle class (mainly Jewish) residents against the Baroque Revival style still prominent at the time. They viewed it, along with its societal implications, as outdated and backward-looking.
Fans of this style should certainly go see 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, which radiates a sense of luxurious minimalism (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 at the time viewed it as an architectural style originating from the "declining West", hence not needed in our neck of the woods). But throughout its less than two-decades, it left a distinctive, 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 constructions in the 1960s and ‘70s to more playful designs with historical elements (in parallel with an increasingly lenient state censorship).
The most famous of Finta’s postmodern buildings are Mercure Budapest City Center (1985), City Center Offices (1990), Kempinski Hotel Corvinus (1992), and the Bank Center (1995), all in the heart of downtown.
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 can look like a cruising tanker ship, or a sphynx fixing his gaze toward the city center. Proportions, decorative elements, playful reflections of the neighboring buildings, and historical references (the round building attached to the side evokes a medieval tower) harmoniously come together here to form an excellent building.
Bear in mind that many downtown neighborhoods or buildings are under landmark protection, 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 harmonious combination of old and new is on display at the CET Building located along the Danube river. 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. However, the design of the stations are at the forefront of contemporary Hungarian architecture.
A crisscross system of exposed concrete beams, playful lighting solutions, and a creative use of natural light lend a distinctively 21st century feel to these spacious platforms. The gracefully minimalist design along with the disability-inclusive infrastructure stand in wild contrast to the city’s otherwise outdated socialist-era subway stations (at the Kálvin tér station you can compare the two). The Fővám tér and Szent Gellért tér 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.