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Budapest, so Nouveau

A cache of architectural treasures is the Hungarian capital's gift to visitors.

October 01, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Budapest, Hungary — TWO remarkable things happened in Budapest around 1900: The city shot up almost overnight, and Art Nouveau arrived, reshaping the face of Hungary's capital along glorious new lines.

It was a happy coincidence for Budapest then and for visitors now, especially those who have a passion for Art Nouveau, which put its richly ornamental stamp on buildings, furniture, glass, ceramics, textiles and jewelry.

People make special trips to see Art Nouveau -- to Prague, Czech Republic; Paris; Brussels; and Barcelona, Spain, but they rarely think of Budapest, known more for its old castle, a medieval set piece overlooking the Danube River. Beyond it, though, another ravishing Art Nouveau Budapest awaits, testifying to the city's blossoming and the beauty of the style that marked it.

At the time, Art Nouveau was swirling across Europe replacing such staid, derivative styles as neogothic with idiosyncratic architecture and gracefully abstracted floral motifs. It took distinctive forms in the many countries where it became popular. The style incorporated themes from folk culture and mythology in Germany, where it was known as Jugendstil. In France, where architect Hector Guimard created writhing, wrought-iron entrances to the Paris Metro, it was more floral and feminine. In Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi turned the facades of buildings into melting ice cream.

Hungarian Art Nouveau, especially as practiced by architect Odon Lechner, had an operatic, almost cartoonish flair, though the style's various tendencies all soon arrived in Budapest and blended. It was a wide-open canvas for the modern style, a city growing like a colt economically and culturally, the Continent's Chicago.

Today, instances of Art Nouveau are widely scattered throughout the city, which means long but tonic walks and rides on subways and trams for those seeking them.

The city's remarkable growth -- in the 25 years that preceded the turn of the 20th century, the population tripled and the number of buildings doubled -- was spurred by a variety of factors. The Compromise of 1867 figured chief among them. It made the country an almost equal partner in a dual monarchy ruled by Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, who was crowned king of Hungary the same year. Financial institutions and foreign capital flowed into Budapest. It got a sophisticated drinking-water system, electric trolleys, an opera house, parliamentary building, broad boulevards and a city park.

From Buda to Pest

AS my plane descended last month, I caught sight of the city clustered around a sweeping Danube River S-curve, as elegant as any designed by Tiffany or Lalique. With its varied skyline, seven distinctive bridges, waterfront walkways and trams, Budapest does justice to its wide, fair stretch of the river. Old Buda decorates the hills to the west, a beguiling panorama and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Newer Pest, where most of the city's Art Nouveau architecture is concentrated, lines the river on the east, officially united with its neighbor in 1873.

Modern Hungary joined the European Union in 2004. It has 2 million people, traffic jams and construction sites. Experts say its bubble economy has burst, and last month when Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted he had lied about the state of the economy to win the election, the city erupted in protests, some of them violent.

But the turmoil remained under the surface during my visit and had further subsided last week after protests Sept. 23. So the city worked its old-world charms on me. If you visit in rose-tinted glasses, as I did, it isn't hard to imagine civil and genteel Budapest circa 1900. Bells still tinkle in the doorways of little shops; yellow trolleys clatter along the boulevards; people spend the afternoon in coffeehouses and make phone calls from old-fashioned yellow-and-green booths.

In a minibus from the airport, I saw a complex of concrete-block apartments, an architectural legacy of the Communist era that circled other cities in Eastern Europe in high-rise housing projects. But central Budapest managed to evade large-scale desecration, practicing a somewhat relaxed form of Soviet bloc ideology known as Goulash Communism.

The city did not escape the ravages of World War II. During the 1944 siege, house-to-house battles raged between advancing Soviet troops and desperately retreating Germans. Seventy percent of the city was damaged; the Royal Palace on Castle Hill burned; all seven bridges crumbled into the Danube.

At the Gresham Palace, one of the first Art Nouveau buildings in Budapest, stained glass cracked, and an entrance gate was torn off its hinges. Miraculously, though, it survived the war.

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