Infused with a distinctly Belle-Époque feel, much of Budapest’s extraordinary beauty is down to the genius of one architect: Ödön Lechner. His is a name that’s synonymous with the city’s most spectacular façades, and it’s his ingenuity we can thank for such architectural treasures as the gold and emerald-roofed Postal Savings Bank and the ornate Museum of Applied Arts.
But to describe these buildings as purely Belle Époque is to snub the pioneering architect’s aspirations. Ödön Lechner developed a style that was both independent of the Classical symmetrical designs dominating the European capitals, while also departing from the Art Nouveau trend that was spilling from Paris. That he was inspired by these forms is apparent, but Ödön Lechner’s creations kickstarted a new wave of creative Hungarian expression known as szecesszió, or Hungarian Secessionism.
The sensuous ingredients of Art Nouveau are all present in szecesszió architecture: the decorative details and sinuous dynamism; the organic ribbons and twirls of flowers and foliage. However, worked into these Belle Époque signatures are a uniquely Hungarian feature: the patterned, painted tiles. Adapted from traditional Magyar folk culture, Lechner employed these vivid tiles in his designs, creating the Hungarian watermark that would stake the country’s claim to its own form of Art Nouveau.
The seeds of szecesszió were sown early on in Lechner’s life. His father ran a brick factory, producing ceramics that inspired his son’s fondness for the medium. Lechner went on to study in Paris just as Art Nouveau was starting to bud in the French capital. While in Europe, Lechner visited the V&A in London and was intrigued by the elaborate Indian and Persian exhibits, and was also fascinated by the Arts and Crafts movement. These influences fed into the designs that Lechner would later become so famous for.
Trace Ödön Lechner’s development from his earlier projects to his later achievements, and the evolution from Classical to full-blown szecesszió is complete. The Szeged City Hall, renovated in 1871 by Lechner and his partner Gyula Pártos, is one of the earliest examples of the architect’s skill. Capped with carnelian and emerald-painted tiles, it certainly foregrounds Lechner’s first steps towards szecesszió, but the structure of the building itself is none-the-less firmly rooted in the symmetrical grandeur of the Neo-Renaissance.
Fast forward two decades or so to Lechner’s Budapest Museum of Applied Arts. One of the most dazzling examples of Hungarian Art Nouveau, its riotous green and gold Zsolnay-tiled roof crowns a spectacularly ornamental gallery of tiled ceilings and stained-glass windows. It’s marked as the first museum in Europe designed in a non-historical style.
Look further still to 1914 for one of Lechner’s final creations, the domed Szent László Gimnázium in the 10th District. A late szecesszió masterpiece, it reveals an elegant paring back of the visionary’s talent. In retrospect, Lechner confessed to finding his earlier designs no longer to his taste, admitting that he would have made them differently. While the gymnasium is certainly beautiful: cool and elegant where his earlier designs are bold and curvaceous, there’s certainly a place for both in the Hungarian capital.