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Imre Makovecz (1935-2011)

Jonathan Glancey celebrates the mastery of Makovecz

Imre Makovecz was one of those few architects who have created a world recognisably their own. His, though, was a world beyond that of a readily identifiable style. Makovecz shaped highly distinctive buildings – or ‘building beings’ as he called them – for the world he wanted us to inhabit, one that was antithetical to the materialism, communism, corporatism, consumerism and globalism that he saw as soul-destroying errors of our age.

A brave and unremitting individualist, Makovecz was also a devout Hungarian Catholic with a deep-rooted love of his country, folklore, craft and rural communities. He was a fierce guardian angel brought to life, and an architect who – in terms of passion, fearlessness and energy – one might bracket with Pugin or Gaudí.

Born and educated in Budapest, he exhibited highly individual tendencies from the earliest days. As a student, he designed a fish restaurant with the formal and tactile qualities of a fish. While Frank Gehry would have been applauded for designing such a thing in California 30 years later, it was not what you did in a Communist country under the Soviet yoke in the late 1950s.

‘Makovecz was an architect who, in terms of passion, fearlessness and energy, might be equated with Pugin or GaudÍ’

From the early 1970s, while banned from working in state bureaus, Makovecz nurtured a low-cost, timber-based architecture serving local communities in and around Szentendre (St Andrew’s), a pretty town on a bend of the Danube River north of Budapest.

At the same time, he helped to plan and build new cultural centres in villages that had been downgraded by the central authorities for which the life, folklore, myths and rituals of rural Hungary were anathema. And, in 1975, he built the extraordinary mortuary chapel in the Farkasréti (Wolf’s Meadow) cemetery on the outskirts of Budapest.

It was a small black-and-white photograph of this building reproduced in ‘Magyar Epitomuveszet’, calling to mind the belly of the whale that swallowed Jonah that drew me to Makovecz. Some 30 years ago, the trip required an interview at the Hungarian Embassy in London, a long wait for a visa and a ride on the Wiener Walzer express from the gemütlichkeit comforts of Vienna, being searched by guards toting veteran Tommy guns at the Hungarian border and passing steam trains adorned with bold red stars. I arrived at Budapest’s magnificent Keleti railway station (designed by Gyula Rochlitz and Janos Feketehazy in 1881–84) in a violent thunderstorm.

‘The first publications about my work to appear in England were written by Jonathan Glancey in the early 1980s,’ Makovecz later recalled. ‘I have no idea how he came to know about me… What I am sure of is that Glancey had never before travelled in Eastern Europe.

He took the train from Vienna and arrived at the Eastern station in Budapest, and was immediately stampeded by a crowd of Arab and Gypsy moneychangers. Out of desperation he finally called us and begged us to come to rescue him. My wife, Marianne, went to pick him up in her Renault 4. She brought him straight home but even then he was obviously still in a state of shock about the condition of things.’

Language was the problem. I had travelled in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but not speaking a word of Hungarian made communication difficult. Makovecz – who claimed to speak nothing but Hungarian – was convinced that I was unable to make sense of his work. Then, and in later trips across Hungary, we communicated through drawings in notebooks.

‘Jonathan was convinced that I was a national hero intent on opposing the communist system. Moreover, this hero produced his works as a kind of intuitive reaction to his surrounding social conditions… Jonathan believed he was talking to a strange, Eastern political revolutionary who dabbled in shamanism. It was a very long time before I succeeded in convincing him that this was not true.’

Makovecz’s extraordinary anthropomorphic and organic buildings – a revelation to the AR – were, however, very much a spirited reaction to the soulless, system-built architecture (Bauhaus without a brain, Modernism without merit) rushed up across Hungary and the Eastern Bloc from the time at which the Iron Curtain descended on Europe. Crafted in timber, and all eyes, mouths, domes and enfolding wings, here were spirited structures imbued with a soul.

While Makovecz happily acknowledged debts to Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Bruce Goff, Ödön Lechner and Rudolf Steiner, his work was very much his own, although a group of like-minded architects grew up around him from the early 1970s.

Makovecz was surprised to be recognised, and even fêted, in the West but, as he travelled increasingly outside Hungary, he developed his own special way of addressing non-Hungarian speaking audiences. He gave memorable lectures without words, showing beautiful images of his buildings set to the haunting sacred music of his Estonian friend Arvo Pärt.

Imre Makovecz
Technical University in Budapest
Academy of Applied Arts and Technical University in Budapest (1981)
Chairman of the Hungarian Academy of Arts (1992)
Key buildings
Mortuary chapel, Farkasréti Cemetery, Budapest (1975)
Catholic Church, Paks (1990)
Hungarian Pavilion at the Seville World Expo (1992)
St István Church, Százhalombatta (1998)
Stephenaeum, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Piliscsaba (2001)
Hungarian Heritage Award (1996)
Gold Medal, French Academy of Architecture (1997)
‘My aim is to counteract the subsensible spell of technical civilisation using supersensible imaginative power’

Determined to get him to explain his ideas to a wider audience, and without misunderstanding, I made a film for the BBC’s Late Show, produced by Janice Hadlow, now Controller of BBC Two, and broadcast in 1992. Makovecz talked like no other architect before or since. ‘My buildings do not come from me.

They come from the landscape, from the local environment and from the ancient human spirit.’ He sketched for us in a cloud of cigarette smoke: asymmetric plans, Celtic motifs, trees, spires and angels. I hope the film survives.

In England, his studio worked with the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture on the design of two timber pavilions while Prince Charles encouraged Makovecz to submit an entry for the competition to rebuild the rooms at Windsor Castle gutted by fire in 1992. If he had won, Makovecz would have carried out the work in partnership with Nicholas Grimshaw.

While remodelling Windsor Castle would certainly have brought him global attention, Makovecz drew a worldwide audience to the Hungarian Pavilion he designed for the Seville Expo in 1992. A glorious structure of timber and lead, towers, bells and spires, and decorative crosses, suns and moons, soaring above a great ark-like nave, the pavilion was utterly unlike any other building shaped for the World Fair. Enchanting, moving and mysterious, it spoke of the Hungary and the world that Makovecz wanted us to believe in.  

His most sensational building, however, was the Stephenaeum (1995–2001), an auditorium at the cultural heart of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University of the Sacred Heart’s Faculty of Humanities at Piliscsaba, north of Budapest. It takes the form of two circular buildings, one adopted from the form of a traditional Magyar jurta (tent), the other a Renaissance tempietto (small temple) crashing into one another. Here are two opposite worlds, urban and rural, rational and romantic, national and international trying to match and marry.

Makovecz remains a controversial figure. Fellow Hungarians have accused him of being too right wing for comfort, although he was once the boy who helped his father to blow up Nazi tanks. And there are those around the world who find his buildings altogether too idiosyncratic. Yet when I stepped into that mortuary chapel in Budapest 30 years ago, it was the first time, this side of Surrealist tricks, that I had felt a building breathe.


Vesa Sammalisto • See more work on his website

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