The Sunflower street: 20th Century Modernism in Budapest #writings

Built in 1931, the ‘Sunflower street’ project is one of the few well-studied and often-cited examples of early modern architecture in Budapest. In fact, the ensemble of 22 villas has not only been subject to extensive research – among others by Ferkai András (professor and architectural historian, member of Docomomo-Hungary) but is also considered a significant heritage object by a wider audience. The strong interest in the ‘prototype settlement of small houses of Pasarét street’ (Pasaréti úti kislakásos mintatelep), is mainly due to acknowledged, distinctive features of historical relevance i.e. due to comparable uniqueness on various levels:

On the building level, we find new construction materials and techniques combining (partly) industrialised products with local craftsmanship. The latter allowed not only for shorter construction periods i.e. 6 to 8 month (between February to October 1931) but also for a range of innovations and experimental detailing. On the neighbourhood level, the Sunflower Street estate exemplifies a rather unusual case in which the initiation of the development was not coordinated by a developer or builder but by a group avant-garde architects (Kaffka Péter, Kozma Lajos és Vágó László) who approached one of the biggest construction companies (Fejér és Dános Építési Vállalkozók) to launch the project. Originally, it was intended to be realized for the opening of the International Congress of Architects in 1930 (6-13. September). But due to the slowness and wariness of bureaucracy, realisation happened only one year later. The public could visit the fully furnished buildings until November 8, at the beginning of 1932 the new owners moved in. (Ferkai, 2011, 128)

On the city scale, the estate is part of a larger re-organisation of suburban territories that introduced two novelties: The first was the possibility of smaller plot divisions (new minimum of ca. 360 m2 instead of ca. 1080 m2 in the third ring), which enabled people with lower income to afford a home with a garden in the suburbs instead of being limited to row housing (Pizág, 1998). The second consisted of the use of rationalised housing schemes that provided modern infrastructures such as direct electricity, gas and water supply. Even on the national scale, the estate is considered to bear special importance. It represents, as pointed out by Rozmann (Rozmann, 2006), against general scepticism at the time, the precondition for the societal acceptance of modernist architecture in Hungary. (“Bár Magyarországon nem fogadták örömmel az új épitészetet, a mintatelep mégis a modern épitészet társadalmi elfogadásának elöfeltételét teremtette meg hazánkban.”) In view on this, it is not surprising that, on the international scale, the estate is paralleled to other “experimental” or avant-garde projects like the German example of the Weißenhof settlement (1927) and the White City in Tel Aviv.

Heritage Protection and Restoration Works

As generally the case for modernist architecture in Budapest, the listing of the estate as heritage object started relatively late. Before 1974, the Sunflower street did not have any protection status whatsoever. The listing took place as a gradual process in which singular buildings were prioritised to others. In 1976, three houses appear on the National List of Monuments (No. 6-8, designed by Lajos Kozma, No. 11, by László Vágó and No. 19 by Gedeon Gerlóczy). The latter were classified as protected heritage objects (műemlék jellegű besorolás). In 1998, the National Heritage Office (Műemléki Hivatal) finally designated all buildings (which remained from the initial masterplan) as a protected monument in the so-called NKÖM decree (VIII. 18.) providing a stable legal framework. Emphasis was given on restoring buildings to their ‘original’ condition. Respective works, since then, required historical research and scientific documentation that considered available documents and blueprints (Napraforgoutca.hu).

The broad range of changes represented a major challenge for restoration works since many buildings have been altered significantly in terms of facade cladding, colours, windows and doors, balustrades etc. up to new annexes which have been added to the initial building volumes. Generally speaking, restoration guidelines opted in favour of the historical configuration: Esthetic coherence of a supposedly initial state was prioritised over the authenticity of subsequent layers. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that some alterations (like the shutters on No. 3) have been preserved.

The restoration of colours has represented a particular challenge due to its fragmental documentation which originated in the lack of colour photographs in the early decades but also in the fact, that ‚not all restorations included wall analysis and colour reconstructions’ which would have allowed for the assessment of ‚original plasters’. (Ferkai, 201X, 282) Ferkai generally laments the lack of specific restrictions which have led, to the ‚raspberry-ice-cream-coloured, rough insulating plaster’ of No. 7 by Wellisch Andor and the ‚pale, red’ of No. 3 by Kaffka Peter (which he assumed to be terracotta-red). The issue is not merely a matter of colour but of the applied plaster material: Contemporary systems/materials, in fact, are ‚flashier’ and less smooth than the ones used before WWII. The widespread use of synthetic, instead of silicate-based ‚Kheim’ paint, has, hence, been subject to critique in the restoration of the Sunflower Street (Ferkai, 201X, 284).

Pars Pro Toto? Common Features in the Estate

Comparing the buildings within the project we see very diverse results which are linked to very diverse architects of different age and social background. From the conservative university professor  (Wälder Gyula), the influential state-secretary (Kertész K. Róbert), the established figures (Kozma Lajos, Vágó László, Bierbauer Virgil) to the modernist ‘radicals’ (Molnár, Masirevich György jr., Fischer József). (Ferkai, 2011, 128)

Yet there are many common solutions which suggest a set of guidelines intended to unify the estate as a whole. These materialised in both tangible i.e.physical elements (materials, doors, windows, electric equipment etc.) as well as in intangible features (e.g. shared characteristics for composition and layout). The guidelines (appointed or collectively decided?) were supplemented by the avoidance of certain elements e.g. the ban of autonomous ‘complementary additions’ like garages, lumberyards and sheds in the gardens. The overall aim was to create clearly readable prototypes which could serve as models for new, innovative housing schemes. As such, a certain coherence in the designs was crucial for its aspired success.

As mentioned above, modern materials were one of the cornerstones throughout the estate. Hence, all of them have been built with reinforced concrete as a load-bearing structure, which, at the time, was still considered a novelty (the most popular construction material was brick). Additionally, we find precast ‘Isoton’ walling systems made of diatomaceous earth (kovaföld falazóelem) which was characterised by a comparably low net weight (leading to reduced loads) and comparably high insulation value. It was mainly used for partition walls and sometimes as insulation below the flat roofs. Windows and doors, moreover, follow a common pattern throughout the estate: On the exterior, we mostly find sliding or foldable windows, which opened up a big surface in the facade – in some cases even placed on the corners of the building. In terms of material, these were executed in metal or weather-resistant Scotts pine (borovi fenyö i.e. pinus sylvestris) that had a high share of resin. Built-in wooden shutters for solar protection represented an integrated design solution which came with correspondent cover plates for the straps in brass. Internal doors were predominantly hinged, panelled (coffered with four division) or made with fully glazed panels. Built-in cabinets, conversely, were often accessed via sliding doors. Not only big elements were recurrent in the designs but also small details which reflected the aim to employ (partly) industrialised products. As such, one line of porcelain light switches, lamp sockets, (frosted-glass) outdoor lamps and one line of glass covered electric plugs (hidden under the wallpaper) were used. In many houses, rugs with brass rods were used to cover the wooden stairs.

The mentioned issue of ‘colour planning’ represents another recurrent, yet more recently studied theme throughout the estate. It has ‘only been heard from in the last 10-15 years (i.e. the mid-80s). Before that, the conviction was that modernist architecture was purely white.’ (Wolfe, 1999) Although there are no direct indications about the matter of colour in the designs (construction permits et al) there are justified assumptions that colour planning was key for many facade compositions. Ferkai called it even an ‘integral part’ in the design of Fischer József’s building. (Ferkai, 201X) Based on photographs (which show darker and lighter surfaces) we can assume a distinguished use of colours that tended to highlight volumetric principles and exceptional elements. Unfortunately, articles, written at the time, only mention this matter very superficially. In the 1931/11 edition of Vállalkozók Lapja, for instance, it is stated that Ligeti and Molnár’s buildings had a ‘very interesting colouring’ (Author?, 1931). Sándy Gyula’s contemporary critique, moreover, attest a ‘disturbing overall impression’ due to ‘the unsettling use of clinker bricks and polychromatism’ (Sándy, 1931) which ‘is not really suitable for facades within the climate of Budapest’ (Sándy, 1932)

The gardens, highly similar in design, are a chapter on their own. They have been mostly been executed by one and the same gardener artist (kertépitö müvész), Solty László. Some are still intact featuring the initial selection of plants and trees like strawberry trees (still visible in No. 17 and 18.) and moutan peony (fás szárú peónia) (in No. 16 and 17). Privet and the Buxus hedges were found in almost every garden.

The Myth of The Hungarian Bauhaus-Style

Like many other heritage objects in Budapest from the 20s and 30s, the Sunflower Street project is assigned – rather generously – to the ‘Hungarian Bauhaus-style’. It originates in the attempt to trace links between the Staatliches Bauhaus in Germany and the formal-aesthetic preferences to be found in the Hungarian context. Considering the popularity of the term, however, it has become highly problematic to find more differentiated classifications not least because of the growing exposure to contemporary forms of oversimplifying media. Formats like travel books and real estate reports, in fact, have further reinforced the issue of stylistic labels (Kovács, 2018). The question arises, to what extent is it suitable to speak of Bauhaus in the Hungarian context?

The affiliation with the German school seems not far-fetched. There are many examples for close personal ties to the Hungarian modernists (Zólyom, 2011) Direct influence, especially from compatriots like the Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy suggests, moreover, a strong link to the contemporary practice which must have involved shared views on architecture and art. Molnár Farkas (1897-1945), as alumni of the Bauhaus, is, hereby, often mentioned as the personification of an alleged unity between the Bauhaus and Hungarian architecture of the 1930s. But even if we’d assume a direct influence in one way or the other, we need to ask ourselves which Bauhaus period do we refer to? The one of Gropius, Hannes Meyer or Mies van der Rohe? Which aspects do we focus on? The industrialisation of artistic production, the socio-political visions or simply the new aesthetics emerging in housing prototypes? In fact, the Bauhaus has never been representative of a uniform idea but of a plurality of changing dynamics within the larger context of the modernist movement. In this context, we find many other schools, institutions, groups and organisations which can equally be mentioned as a strong influence for Hungarian modernists.

Above all, there is the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM), which significantly shaped the local discourse throughout its Hungarian sub-group CIRPAC. To be short, the CIRPAC ‘had a significant role in reforming housing schemes in Hungary. (…) Initially, it has been rejected witnessing unsuccessful years. From the mid-30s on, however, it became increasingly popular with many commissions, mainly family homes, villas and apartment houses.’ (Valló, 2009, 245, 246) Developments along the Margit ring and the Attila street clearly show, moreover, that it has been considered the ‘modernist elite’ in Hungary. (Valló, 2009, 245, 248). In the occasion of “Collective Dreams and Bourgeois Villas”, an exhibition held at the OSA Archivum in 2019, the concept of the CIRPACs was depicted as follows:

“National CIRPAC groups were established in 1928 during the first meeting of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM). CIRPAC groups were responsible for communicating the architectural and urbanistic principles laid out at CIAM congresses to professionals, the public, as well as to clients and decision makers. As such, the activity of the Hungarian CIRPAC group also focused on the housing crisis of the 1920s and 1930s, a result of the combined impact of the world war, the Treaty of Trianon, and the Great Depression. Besides design contracts, they advertised the achievements of the CIAM congresses and of new architecture in general in publications, presentations, and exhibitions. (..) (OSA Archivum)

In conclusion: The diversity of modernist influences suggests that ‘Bauhaus’ is a too narrow and restrictive classification if not a misleading term which does not manage to capture the Napraforgó estate as well as other examples of the modernist heritage. Hungary, so one might argue, is better understood as embedded into a wider framework of European modernism.  In presentations for the wider public, however, Bauhaus-jellegü (freely translated as ‘featuring traits of the Bauhaus’) appears to be the generally accepted term. It was coined also among distinguished scholars like István Rév and Ferkai András who used it on multiple occasions during the BP100 events in 2019.

(For drawings check here.)

(cover image napraforgoutca.hu)

Bibliography

(Pizág, 1998) – Pizág Anetta, Műemlékvédelmi Szemle (1998/2), 5-38

(Ferkai, 201X) – Ferkai András, “A modern mozgalom színhasználatárol a napraforgó utcai Somogyi-ház kutatása kapcsán,A Műemlékvédelmi Tudományos Intézet közleményei (2007): 279-284.

(Ferkai, 2011) – Ferkai András. “Molnár Farkas.” PhD diss., Budapest University of Technology and Economics, 2011.

(Wolfe, 1999) – Wolfe, Tom, From Bauhaus to our house. New York, 1981.

(Rozmann, 2006) – Rozmann Viktor, “The ‘little’ island of The Hungarian Bauhaus: The Sunflower Street model estate. (A magyar Bauhaus csöppnyi szigete: a Napraforgó utcai mintatelep),” Atrium, no. 11. (2006/1), 52-55

(Valló, 2009) – Valló Judith, “Belbudai modern bérházak és kalóik az 1930-as években,” Tanulmányok Budapest multjából (2009), 235-274

Author?, “Kísérleti lakótelep”, Vállalkozók Lapja, no.12. (1931), 11

(Sándy, 1931) – Sándy, “Házkiállítás a Pasaréten”, Népszava (1931/11/08), 15.

(Sándy, 1932) – Sándy, “Időszerű problémák a Mérnök- és Építész-Egylet szakosztályi ülésén”, Vállalkozók Lapja (1932/2/11),3

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