Ödön Lechner: The Hungarian “Gaudí”

If you head to Budapest, chances are you’ll head down to the Danube, take photos of the impressive spires of the Hungarian Parliament Building, hike up to Buda Castle for some history, or take selfies in front of the Basilica. Once you’ve ticked off the must-see sights, and you’re an architecture lover, you’ll want to add some of the most beautiful buildings by Lechner to your visit. Lechner’s work may not feel as synonymous with Budapest as its more famous sites you’ll find on the side of a postcard, its steaming thermal baths, and charmingly dilapidated ruin bars, but the intricate colors and original designs capture the originality of Barcelona’s Gaudí.

It’s easy to spot a Lechner by his use of colorful Zsolnay tiles and architectural ceramics. His use of bold tones one blues, yellows, and greens, combined with his own stylized organic motifs earned him the nickname the “Hungarian Gaudí”, however the most Gaudíesque buildings by Lechner pre-date his Catalan counterpart’s colorful creations by a few years. Lechner’s contribution to Hungarian architecture came with a manifesto to create a uniquely Hungarian architectural style. Lechner approached this by drawing on the Asiatic origins of the Magyar tribes and Hungarian folk art.

His Asian influences are a world away from nomadic life on the Steppes beyond the Ural Mountains, and instead manifest in an orientalist fantasy inspired by Persian and Indian styles, seen best at the Museum of Applied Arts, whereas folk art pops up in ceramic details or carved into glass on his buildings.

Next time you’re in Budapest, if you’re an art nouveau architecture lover, add these Lechner to your list.

Hungarian Postal Savings Bank

This is the easiest of the Lechner buildings to reach, since you’ll find it right in the heart of the city center – just minutes away from the Hungarian Parliament Building. Turn down Hold utca and make sure you look up to catch the intricate green and yellow tiled rooftop. This building, built 1900-1901, operated as a postal savings bank, but this building built to handle postal bureaucracy turned into an architectural symphony. The tent-like rooftop is a nod to the nomadic heritage of the Hungarians, where as the busy little ceramic bees heading up to a glazed hive represent the workers of the building. Winged serpents sit on top of the roof just to add a little extra drama, whereas the facade is covered with Hungarian floral motifs. Although you can admire it from the street below, it’s best viewed from above. The Hotel President has a rooftop cafe – which right now has been transformed into a rooftop ice rink – that can be visited even if you’re not a hotel guest.

Institute of Geology

The Institute of Geology may be quite far out of town on the outskirt around City Park on Stefánia Avenue,

but it’s the most spectacular of Lechner’s work, in my option. The building rises above the avenue scattered palatial villas housing embassies with its blue tiled roof in undulating tones of turquoise and lapis. The marine tones of the rooftop represent the Tethys Sea, which is topped by four Atlases holding up the world, flanked by curling shell-like chimneys that recall Gaudí’s intricate rooftops.

Lechner planned the building in 1896-1899 with the Geological Institute in mind, which is why you’ll find accents paying homage to geology scattered like clues from the foundations to the top of the roof. Ceramic blue fossils dot the exterior, and inside the entrance draws inspiration from caves, echoing stalactites and stalagmites from its mosaic flooring to the curved plasterwork.

Folk art still plays an important role in the Institute. Carved into the glass windows, roses and patterns similar to embroidery motifs.

Museum of Applied Arts

Sadly, most of the Lechner buildings are hard to go inside (although it is possible with the Geology Institute if you book an appointment in advance for the Geology Museum), but until recently the Museum of Applied Arts was opened to the public. It’s closed for renovations for 5 years, but you can see it from the outside as you walk down Üllői út.

What is curious about this museum with its green and yellow dome rising above the avenue that divides the VIII and IX Districts is it was the first European Museum that was not built as a tribute to a Greek Temple. In fact, Lechner went to town here with his Asian inspirations, modeling the interior on an Indian palace. The exterior, by contrast, is mapped out with Hungarian folk motifs and influences from Historicism.

Other Lechner Buildings in Budapest

You can find smaller work by Lechner all across Budapest, like the residential house on Bartók Béla Avenue topped with turban-like chimneys on the top or the Institute for the Blind on Ajtósi Dürer sor, and the nearby house on Hermina út, to name a few.

And if you go to Bratislava: The Blue Church

Lechner got to work outside of Budapest, with one of his most beautiful creations being the Blue Church (1907-1913) in the Slovakian capital Bratislava.

The church gets its name from its hue of baby blue that looks like it’s been sculpted out of icing sugar.

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