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április 30th, 2020 § 0 comments


József Sisa, ed. Motherland and Progress: Hungarian Architecture and Design 1800–1900. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2017.

Six years ago a monumental work was published by the Research Centre for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Osiris publishing house. It was the first part of a two-volume series discussing Hungarian art in the 19th century, with the first volume focusing on architecture and applied arts. The main editors were László Beke and József Sisa, while the scientific advisors were Katalin Sinkó and Ildikó Nagy. Most of the studies were written by József Sisa, with all other authors also well-known experts of their research fields. With this work Hungarian Art and Hungarian History of Art have received not just a specialist book about architecture and applied arts in the 19th century but also an outstanding work that examines the social, cultural, and political circumstances which helped develop Hungary into an advanced country in Europe during the 19th century. This review has been prompted by the fact that a few years later an English version, translated by Stephen Kane, was also published, making it also available abroad.

The table of contents visualizes a well-structured concept based on chronological order, and it splits the book into four big chapters. The preface helps understand the historical background and periodization and gives a glimpse into the history of the research of the era. The three main chapters cover the three big eras of the 19th century: Classicism, Romanticism, and Historicism. There is no direct switch between these but a smooth transition, since each has something to use from its antecedents. The book also provides a short overview of the products of applied arts from the era.

During the first decades of the 19th century in Hungary (as part of the Habsburg Monarchy) citizenship was strengthened, and the middle class played an increasingly important role in cultural and regional issues, especially in Pest and Buda. After the flood of 1838 in Pest, a Beautification Committee was founded by Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary: his goal was to create a unified city, where the streets and squares are logical and well-structured, where no construction can begin without the approval of the authorities, and where the height of the buildings is similar. New building types such as tenement houses and different public institutions – museums, theaters, baths, etc. – were built. Urban planning started, and Hungarian architects gained a more influential role than Viennese architects, with two persons, József Hild and Mihály Pollack standing out. After a short overview, the Classicism chapter details the developments of Pest, Buda, and the rest of the country. It examines the training of architects and the different building types: some of these are highlighted so we can read about their detailed history and description. Through the examples we get to know the political, religious, cultural, and social life of the citizens and the towns: we can see how Hungary started the developments in light of the historical events of the Reform Era, and how these buildings became part of the national identity and representation.

The lost Revolution of 1848–1849 and its consequences had an impact on the political circumstances. It also affected architecture: the rhythm of development changed. The second chapter, Romanticism, examines the time period between 1840 and 1860. As mentioned above, there was no direct switch between architectural styles. There are some tendencies in the 1840s that can be considered Romantic, but the main character of the buildings remained Classicist. After the Revolution there were some plans from the 1840s which had to be rejected, for example, those of the Parliament building. Considering building types, if we examine the 1850s, there were mostly administrative, educational, and welfare institutions, and the main architects were Viennese again. The 1860s was a decade of political easing for Hungary. More tenement houses, palaces, castles, and other public institutions, such as theatres or baths were built. The first industrial buildings were also constructed, and Hungarian architects gained more opportunities. These three decades of Romanticism can be considered a search for a Hungarian national style: Gothic Revival and Rundbogen should be highlighted here. Buildings such as the Vigadó Concert Hall by Frigyes Feszl and the Palace of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by Miklós Ybl (as well as the dispute by Imre Henszlmann connected to the Academy building) are good examples of these attempts. The foundation of specialized education for architects was also laid in Hungary: in 1846 the Joseph Industrial School was opened (called the Joseph Polytechnikum from 1856), although there was no real training of architects yet. Still, the research started to provide material for educational purposes.  The structure remains the same in this chapter: after the historical overview, the different types of buildings are presented, highlighting again the most important examples from this period of time.

The last chapter, Historicism, starts with the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867, which created the political and economic conditions needed to make bigger developments not just in architecture but also in several other fields. Concerning architecture, this period of time can be considered a golden era, where Budapest became a metropolis and the Hungarian cities developed at a large scale. The changes of Hungarian society resulted in new building types: the demand for cultural and institutional development rose, and representation also became an important factor. In 1871 the City Council of Public Works was founded, and the next phase of urban planning started in Budapest. Its aim was not just to create the structure of the streets and canals of the city but also to construct those representative buildings which are essential for a capital: ministry, education, healthcare, housing, industrial, entertainment, etc. The proper educational conditions were organized for architects, so their training could finally start in Budapest. For orientation in architectural life several journals and periodicals became available, not just in Hungary but also from abroad. Reports came from every city in Europe, and even from America. The studies and books of the main foreign architects also became available. For generations of architects open and closed competitions offered opportunities to plan and win construction works. With the new buildings it became important to take care of the older ones: it was not perfect, but the protection of monuments still became an important factor in architecture. After an overview, the chapter focuses on the term we use to describe the era: Historicism. It is a collective name for the revival of historical styles in the 19th, such as Renaissance or Baroque, Romanesque or Gothic. The following sections give detailed information about the building types, highlighting again some of the most important buildings and the peak of the era: the Millennium Exhibition of 1896.

Just like the transition between Classicism, Romanticism, and Historicism, the transition from Historicism to Secession was smooth. The search for a national style resulted in a new type of expression: floral or brick-ornamented facades. The last thoughts of the book reflect on the connections between Neo-baroque and Secession: through the examples it shows how these experiments led to the next trend in architecture, which later continued to change into the next waves of modernism.


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