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2011: Imre Makovecz (1935 – 2011) by Jonathan Glancey

Read Jonathan Glancey’s 1981 Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz who died last week aged 75

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There is now striking evidence of a very fruitful union between the two architectural traditions in Hungary, the urban and the folk. An atelier of Hungarian architects, Corvina Muterem, has been developing an officially approved organic architecture that not only reconciles urbanism with ruralism (a central tenet of Marxist thought), but which also calls on an ancient folk tradition-most notably that of Transylvania-to create a framework for buildings as much inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Bruce Goff as by the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner and by the sensual philosophy of the young Karl Marx.

Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz

Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz

Until about 25 years ago, Hungarian architecture was as rich and varied in its ingredients as one of that country’s famous dishes, the goulash. The turn of the present century witnessed a prolific output of buildings in styles that have since been labelled Viennese Secession and Art Nouveau. Powerful cultural links drove the influence of the fin-de-siecle French avant garde through Austria and the Empire to Budapest.

After the First World War a curvaceous Neo-Baroque dominated new city building, punctuated towards the late ’30s by purist Bauhaus villas. But before Modernism could insinuate itself into the national consciousness Hungary had become a Soviet satellite and a heavy-handed Stripped Classical Socialist Realism was extruded from the 3 state-owned architects’ offices, little different from the Soviet, Nazi and Italian Fascist models. The restatement of Bauhaus ideals from the politically turbulent mid-’50s was to produce an architecture no different from the ‘official’ Soviet style then being adopted.

Officialdom supported the certainties of Modernism. But underneath this transformation of urban styles have flowed the sinuous under currents of the Hungarian folk tradition. City architecture has long been a world removed from the timber-framed, wattle-and-daub walled, shingle-roofed rural buildings that constituted the fabric of peasant Hungary. The folk tradition was kept alive right up until the early 1950s.

The leading light of the group Corvina Muterem is Imre Makovecz, whose work appeared at the Venice Biennale of 1973. Born in 1935, Makovecz comes from a farming background. His father was a carpenter and the teenage Makovecz helped him to reconstruct war-damaged wooden buildings. His knowledge and love of joinery is joyously expressed in the recent buildings-that of the Mortuary Hall in Budapest is quite extraordinary.

Although the folk tradition is part of his essential background, and Makovecz has been attacked in the official press for reviving romantic rural ideals, he has been at pains to stress the fusion in his work between rural and urban elements. He also draws attention to his youthful love affair with High International Modernism, describing his student days as a time when he ‘ate and digested the Bauhaus’, greatly influenced by fellow Hungarian Marcel Breuer and later by Le Corbusier. But by the time he was translating Frank Lloyd Wright into Hungarian in 1958 he had come to believe that the Bauhaus was ‘a tired old lady, though one who had been beautiful in her day’.

Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz

Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz

Ironically, it was in the late ’50s that the Bauhaus architecture got a real grip on the Budapest skyline. Makovecz, whose primary output has been the design and construction of a series of inns, hotels, restaurants and large stores for rural co-operatives, believes that his architecture is reaching towards what he calls an organic and canonic synthesis. By organic he means much the same as Wright, Goff and Steiner, ie a union between the detail and the whole fabric, a symbiotic relationship between building and landscape, an attempt to relate the shape and ‘commodity’ of his building to the scale and movement of the human body and to build an empathy between human emotion and constitutional elements and materials.

Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz

Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz

At first glance Makovecz’ s buildings seem decidedly symmetrical. On closer inspection the plans reveal themselves as what he calls canonic: ie they incorporate the asymmetrical nuances of the human body. The exterior of the buildings represents the skin of the living organism, the interior what lies beneath the skin.

As the human heart is off-centre, so interior spaces can be asymmetrical; but only, Makovecz contends, if the asymmetry has both purpose and meaning. Without meaning, tampering with asymmetry is mere wilfulness. Pursuing symmetry as an end in itself, he believes, produces buildings which reveal themselves as so much frozen dogma. The human imagination is too rich to tolerate ‘frozen dogma’ and so buildings need to be essentially empathetic.

Makovecz aims at producing what he calls the ‘building being’ (epulet-levy) and is currently devising experiments by which the relationship between structure and human movement and expression can be more closely explored. In the Mortuary Hall Makovecz has peopled the walls of the rib-cage interior with wooden stalls designed to portray (very successfully) grief-stricken onlookers, so both mourners and the building in which they mourn seem one in their ritual grief.

Metaphorically, the rib-cage theme interprets the biblical myth of Jonah, a prophesy of Christ’s Resurrection and of the resurrection of the dead through trust in God. In plan, most of the buildings completed over the past 15 years suggest some internal organ of the body, but the facades are undoubtedly faces. Makovecz has chosen freely from the zoological garden: if not human, the faces are those of frogs, lizards, other reptiles and their familiars, animal types which suggest themselves given the nature of the construction materials used; eg shingles resemble reptilian scales.

Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz

Architectural Review article on Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz

The fact that Makovecz and the Corvina Muterem have been given official recognition shows the increasing tolerance of and respect for national history, of personal as well as corporate values and a more subtle, pre-Leninist and Stalinist interpretation of Marxist. The highly unusual architecture of this new wave of Hungarian architects restores to Hungary its special tradition of pan-European eclecticism. Budapest looks to become as vital an architectural centre as it was in the heyday of the Secession.

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