In just a few decades before World War I, Budapest grew from a small town to one of the biggest and most stunning capitals of Europe; the eye-catching architecture from this time still defines the city but it needs more care and attention.
After a bloody independence war and decades of tension with Habsburg Austria, in 1867 emperor Franz Joseph finally granted equal status to Hungary. Many people consider the half a century that followed to be Budapest’s golden period. Beside Vienna, Budapest became the capital of the newly formed Austro Hungarian Empire and ballooned from a small, provincial town into a worldly metropolis in just a few decades. By 1900, Budapest was the eighth biggest city in Europe with a population approaching a million people. The city bursted with energy and business opportunities, which in turn drew newcomers from near and far, creating sizable Jewish, German, Slovakian, Serbian, and Greek minorities.
During this time, Budapest took a big leap toward catching up with more advanced western European capitals. Nowhere was this more visible than in the construction boom between the 1880s and the 1910s, when the number of buildings more than tripled to accommodate the swelling population and public administration. Infrastructure projects included two vast railway stations, three bridges connecting Pest and Buda, and, in 1896, the first underground subway line of continental Europe. Between 1896 and 1902, six indoor markets sprung up across the city, including the Great Market Hall, replacing the makeshift open-air venues. Made with steel frames and oversized glass panes, they featured the latest techniques and building materials.
With money and political power came the desire for monumental public buildings and plazas to parade Hungary’s newfound prestige. Down went the one and two-story flimsy houses — vestiges of a modest past many were eager to forget — and up rose the towering ministries and court buildings, immense bank headquarters, and gleaming hospitals, museums, universities, and national monuments (not unlike Haussmann's renovation of Paris a decade earlier).
Most symbolic of this transformation is the giant Hungarian parliament building dominating the Danube’s bank. This limestone-clad Gothic Revival spectacle, which took twenty years to erect and opened in 1904, certainly doesn’t escape the attention. This is also true for the massive buildings ringing the nearby Liberty Square. Similar developments took place on the other side of the Danube: the modest Matthias Church was unrecognizably embellished, while the Buda Castle tripled in size. Some of the private commissions were also ambitious. The aristocracy built giant winter palazzos — summers they spent in their countryside estates — behind the National Museum, the center of political life before the new parliament building was completed (today the area is called the Palace District).
The urban fabric of the city also improved. Taking cues from Paris and Vienna, spacious ring roads, sweeping boulevards, and tree-lined avenues were built in the 1880s to improve connectedness and mobility. Also known as Budapest’s Champs-Élysées, Andrássy Avenue, linking downtown and the City Park, is still a sight to behold and well-liked by locals. Intersecting it, the Grand Boulevard pierces through five neighborhoods and functions as the artery of the city. Budapest’s new upper class owned many of the luxury buildings lining these streets. Unlike the aristocracy, they consisted of businesspeople, many of them Jewish, but with a similar desire to display their wealth (today, Andrássy Avenue is home to high-end boutiques and embassies).
But not all architecture was bombastic. In fact, the most important legacy of this period isn’t so much any individual building — although some are unique — as the eye-catching consistency of revival architecture throughout the city: The overall effect adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Even today, these three and four-story Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque Revival homes define the look of Budapest much more so than later buildings (despite the fact that many were destroyed during World War II).
It's misleading to compare the merits of different architectural periods because they’re borne out of different times, ideologies, and circumstances. It wouldn’t be fair, for example, to claim that these Austro-Hungarian-era buildings are superior to those built during Communism (1947-1989), even if most locals think so. But it's true that there's something enthralling and enduring in these late 19th-century buildings that are hard to match by those of later periods — their grandeur, their consistency, their craftsmanship.
Impressive though they look, it would be wrong to idealize these buildings (or the Austro Hungarian period in general). Many of the apartments were less than desirable. While some had as many as 6-8 bedrooms and expensive fittings, others were much smaller, came without a bathroom, and overlooked a dark interior courtyard. Another common criticism was the quality of building materials: instead of the more durable (and expensive) limestone, most buildings had brick walls and plaster ornaments.
It’s impossible to cover this period without mentioning Ödön Lechner’s unique brand of Art Nouveau. Like others, Lechner denounced the Europe-wide revival style as outdated and instead set out to create a distinct national Hungarian architecture. Lechner’s masterpiece is the Postal Savings Bank (1900-01) in downtown Budapest, featuring his signature sinuous shapes, brightly colored tileworks, and decorative brick patterns and folk motifs. Lechner’s numerous acolytes took his approach in many directions. Especially notable is the supremely talented Béla Lajta. In the early 1910s, Lajta designed some of the first modern buildings in Europe, the same time as the better-known Austrian architect, Adolf Loos.
Unfortunately, Budapest’s turn-of-the-century housing stock hasn’t been treated kindly by later generations. The Communist period was especially harmful: the state nationalized most residential homes by 1952 but didn’t have the money to provide even the most basic maintenance works. This left the buildings in a shocking state of neglect. Also, to address the city’s critical housing shortage, they parceled up the apartments into smaller units, which led to ad-hoc and clumsy modifications and maddening layouts that continue to plague residents.
In the more recent past, real estate developers demolished many salvageable buildings for no good reason other than profits. Every one that gets knocked down chips away from the overall picture. Hungary’s national landmark protection agency has been hugely scaled back in the past decade and civil initiatives for preservation, which do exist, can only go so far. The restoration works have picked up somewhat since Hungary joined the EU in 2004 and received funds targeted at refurbishments, but there’s a long way to go as anyone who walks around Budapest can tell, especially in the areas outside downtown that get less attention.