The tragic genius of architect Ödön Lechner

Lechner’s lifelong pursuit was to create a distinct Hungarian architecture. After a few brilliant buildings, his career was cut short.

Even if you aren’t especially interested in architecture, there are three buildings in Budapest that will likely make you stop whatever you were doing and take a moment to observe. All three were designed by Ödön Lechner (1845-1914), one of, if not the most important architects in Hungary’s history. Lechner dismissed the Revival Style — faithful replicas of classical buildings — that was fashionable throughout Europe at the end of the 19th century and instead advocated for an architecture rooted in the folk traditions of Hungary.

Lechner didn’t think much of Hungary’s historical buildings. The Gothic style never reached the heights it did in France or Germany, he argued, and the Ottoman and Habsburg occupations of the country impaired the growth of the Renaissance and the Baroque. But now it was time for a change. “How does a national style form? By shaping the great European art movements with the natural instincts of folk art. Our folk art has preserved its native character for centuries; our decorative motifs have always existed among craftsmen, in the works of potters, embroiderers, carpenters, and goldsmiths,” he wrote in 1902.

museum-of-applied-arts-budapest-entrance
The floral motifs on the entrance of the Museum of Applied Arts (1891-96). Photo: Panoramio

It took decades for Lechner to find his own voice. Straight out of architecture school in Budapest and Berlin, in the 1860s he designed the type of Renaissance Revival buildings which he would later sharply criticize. Then, after a three-year sojourn in Paris working on castle renovation projects, he returned to Budapest and began to design buildings in the French renaissance style. The elegantly restrained palace he built in 1882-84 for MÁV, the national railway company, is today a jewel of Andrássy Avenue and will soon be home to a W Hotel. But Lechner’s architectural style was still far from its zenith.

lechner-mav-building-andrassy-w-hotel-rendering
A rendering of Lechner's renovated MÁV building (1882-84) on Andrássy Avenue that is currently being transformed into a W Hotel. Photo: Bánáti + Hartvig

The Europe-wide spread of the Art Nouveau movement in the early 1890s liberated him from these classical restraints. Lechner searched for Hungarian folk motifs and found inspiration in the ancient arts of Persia and India, as he (wrongly) believed that Hungarian tribes were previously exposed to them. “I was fascinated by these Eastern relations because they could guide me in my effort to plant folk motifs into monumental architecture.” These influences are most obvious in the building he designed for the Museum of Applied Arts (1891-96), complete with primeval Indian arches and lush floral patterns. Lechner later admitted that he might have gone too far, calling the entrance “a bit too Indian,” but this was nothing short of a revolutionary building in Budapest at the time.

museum-of-applied-arts-budapest-inside-2
The skylight inside of the Museum of Applied Arts. Photo: benedante.blogspot.com

Lechner had a new vision also about building materials. The practice at the time was to mask the classical stone decorations (columns, pediments, cornices, etc.) with cheap plaster since stone was too expensive. “Plaster and other fashionable techniques can be excusable on cheaper buildings, but they can’t be the starting point of new artistic forms,” he wrote in a 1911 essay. His solution? Glazed ceramics, which he believed synced better with Hungary’s natural resources. “Most of the country consists of a huge flatland, whose residents have barely heard of stone, let alone used it on buildings. On the other hand, ceramics is an ancient craft and decorative elements can be easily made from it.”

Lechner applied ceramic decorations with such gusto and personal taste that his buildings today are best known for these colorful ornaments. He had a successful collaboration with Zsolnay, a Hungarian company that patented and manufactured elaborate shapes of glazed ceramics called pyrogranite (“granite” referred to the strength and durability of the material). In Zsolnay, Lechner found a supplier able to deliver on his precise specifications, be it an elaborate floral motif or a roof tile with an unexpected shade of green (Lechner’s father owned a brick plant so Lechner knew enough about ceramics to appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of Zsolnay’s products). Zsolnay’s non-porous decorations were resistant to the cold and polluted city air and have aged better than stone and plaster. Plaster ornaments from that time, in contrast, are in a state of disrepair, with broken pieces dangling from many buildings posing a danger to Budapest pedestrians.

institute-of-geology-budapest-lechner
The blue-tiled roof of Lechner's Hungarian Institute of Geology (1896-99) can be seen from near and far. Photo: benedante.blogspot.com

Many view the Postal Savings Bank (1900-01) as Lechner’s masterpiece. He eliminated most traditional elements — for example, the building has no cornice. Instead he built an enrapturing structure that defies comparison. Gently curving brick patterns and Zsolnay’s floral decorations adorn the undulating white facade, which looks as if it’s floating in air. Symbolic elements crowd the striking green roof, some with obvious meanings (bees and honeycombs represent the fruit of hard work), others the offsprings of Lechner’s roving mind (snakes, dragons, and predatory birds). With this building, Lechner transported his mystical, archaic Hungarian wonderland to a narrow Budapest side street. “He believed in the expressive power of architectural forms, in their symbolic and magical force,” wrote János Gerle, the editor of a 2003 book called “Ödön Lechner.”

postal-savings-bank-budapest-lechner
The Postal Savings Bank (1900-01) in Budapest's Hold Street is regarded as Lechner’s masterpiece. Photo: We Love Budapest / Bálint Hirling

Perhaps paradoxically, Lechner was a staunch modernist when it came to building structures. During his years in Western Europe, he became up-to-date on the latest developments, including the use of steel and reinforced concrete. The Museum of Applied Arts, whose inauguration was attended by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, was one of the first in Hungary to feature steel supports and a massive steel-framed glass roof. The strength of steel enabled Lechner to span longer gaps and to create intricate spatial connections like the biomorphic layouts of the Museum of Applied Arts and the Hungarian Institute of Geology (1896-99). His imagination was boundless. Nikolaus Pevsner, the celebrated 20th century architectural historian, compared Lechner’s brilliant use of skylights to Le Corbusier’s lighting solutions at the Ronchamp chapel.

For much of his life, Lechner battled serious headwinds from the conservative architectural establishment and the Hungarian state. In theory, his national style aligned with the popular anti-Austrian sentiments at the time, but he was viewed as a reformer and a member of the Art Nouveau, which people associated with Austria (ironically, Lechner didn’t like the Austrian Art Nouveau). His two main adversaries were Alajos Hauszmann, the esteemed professor of architecture at the Budapest University of Technology, and Ignác Alpár, a prolific and politically connected architect.

Commissions became increasingly politicized, and architects split into pro- and anti-Lechner camps. Lechner, by nature a quiet person and far from a shrewd politician, lost major commissions, including the 1899 design for the Budapest Stock Exchange, which went to Alpár. After 1900, few assignments came his way. For a long time, he hoped that the Ministry of Culture would establish an Academy of Fine Arts, like the one in Vienna under the helm of the comparably inventive Otto Wagner, giving him an official platform to disseminate his ideas about national architecture. But it never came to be.

odon-lechner-statue-kobanya
A statue of Lechner outside the Szent László Roman Catholic church (1894-99) he designed in Kőbánya. Photo: kobanya.hu

By the first decade of the 20th century, Art Nouveau architecture started to move away from the type of unbridled, playful individualism that defined Lechner’s genius toward more restrained and less ornate buildings. This was foreign territory to Lechner and soon he was irretrievably sidelined. During the last decades of his life, he became a constant presence at Japán coffeehouse on Andrássy Avenue, where he shared a table with his famous artist friends and occasionally mentored young architects. He would use the marble tabletop to sketch down his ideas. According to an anecdote, when Marcell Nemes, an art collector, saw Lechner’s drawings for a memorial of Empress Elisabeth, he immediately bought the whole table from the café.

But this was far from the victory lap of a national hero enjoying the sunny years of retirement. Lechner suffered terribly from having been marginalized. In an obituary — Lechner died in 1914 — one of his followers, Béla Jánszky, recalled how Lechner would regularly burst into tears about his broken career. There are only four public buildings from Lechner’s mature period, and none from the last decade and a half of his life. Painfully few for a visionary architect who peaked during the construction boom of Budapest.

odon-lechner-funeral-procession
The 1914 funeral procession of Ödön Lechner with some of his acolytes in the front row. Photo: keptar.oszk.hu

Lechner did have an immense influence on the next generation, though over time, his acolytes took his vision in different directions. József Vágó migrated toward Otto Wagner’s Viennese Art Nouveau, Béla Lajta and Béla Málnai dropped most ornaments and made a name for themselves as pre-modern architects, and Károly Kós shifted to a vernacular based on the traditional buildings of Transylvania. Lechner’s buildings were so personal and hard to dissect that even his most faithful followers, Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab, had a hard time carrying the torch.

odon-lechner-tombstone-fiumei-cemetery
The tombstone of Ödön Lechner at Budapest's Fiumei Road Cemetery where Hungary's notable people are buried.

What does this mean for Lechner’s legacy? Despite his genius, was he only a short-lived star on the horizon of Hungarian architecture? Dezső Ekler, one of Hungary’s top contemporary architects, doesn’t think so. “Even more so than his buildings, I consider Lechner’s greatest legacy his innovations and his research. He viewed architecture as a language and he systematically tried to renew it to find Hungary’s voice in it,” he wrote to me.

“Like the greatest architects in history, he used metaphors on his buildings. From the shape of the entrances to the arches to the windows to the window frames to the embattlements and even to the spatial layouts. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to build more, which is likely the reason he has remained relatively unknown outside of Hungary.”