István Medgyaszay the modern
It is sixty years since István Medgyaszay, one of the most important innovators of 20th-century Hungarian architecture, passed away.1 To mark this anniversary, the National Salon of Architecture includes a commemorative exhibition evoking his career and philosophy, showing the endeavours that make Medgyaszay almost contemporary even now, in the early 21st century. The Viennese studies, the early 20th-century field trips to study and collect folk art, his relationship with the members of the art colony in Gödöllő, his studies of engineering techniques and their modern application, all provided Medgyaszay with inspiration that profoundly influenced his world view and laid the foundations for his universally valid thinking. His historical approach and choices of theme remained unusually individual and conservative. He created a unique architectural style, in which an understanding of materials, and functional and structural innovation, were paired with ornamentation that was rooted in Eastern culture, proving that progress, modernity and a desire for ornamentation are capable of forming an organic whole.
István Medgyaszay was one of the few architects who pursued his creative activity, commenced at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, uninterrupted for half a century without being forced to make any major diversions. What makes his oeuvre so consistent is that his architecture was based on universal principles that recognised and respected the natural laws of the materials and structure. This was paired with tradition – the legacy of Hungarian building – which, combined with modern technologies, created his unique, individual style.
His work was fundamentally defined by the fact that – like many of his contemporaries, including the Belgian Henri van de Velde and the Slovenian Jože Plečnik – he, too, had started out as a craftsman, working with his hands. Learning the stonemason’s trade gave him a sound understanding of materials, which – as he also highlights in his memoirs – strongly shaped his architectural approach.2
During his studies at the school of applied art, the country was feverishly preparing for the “Hungarian Millennium” – the thousandth anniversary of the settlement of the Carpathian Basin by the Hungarians. The royal millennium exhibition marquee, the Feszty painting The Arrival of the Hungarians, and the ethnographic village in City Park left a deep impression on Medgyaszay and his work. Architects expressed the idea of the Hungarian Millennium in the form of memorial designs and the concept of a national pantheon. The influence of the late 1890s formed into a firm commitment to this theme and idea at the start of his Viennese studies, and this would accompany his designs made during his studies and later the whole of his career.3
His art was profoundly influenced by his studies at the architectural postgraduate school run by Otto Wagner within the Vienna Academy of Fine Art, and at the Vienna College of Technology, which he completed at the same time. These two, together, established and developed his understanding of architectural form, and his expressive ability, and provided him with a knowledge of basic technical subjects like structural engineering, dynamics, mathematics and geometry. In the second half of the 1890s, Vienna became one of the centres of the modern architectural movement. Otto Wagner was appointed professor of architecture at the Vienna Academy in 1894, and it was his personality, charismatic and suggestive, yet open and always innovative personality, that defined the spirit of the school. His slogan – “Artis sola domina necessitas” – “necessity is the only mistress of art” – is a paraphrasing of a saying by Gottfried Semper: “Art knows only one master: need! She degenerates where she obeys the caprice of the artist.”
Semper and his slightly younger contemporary, the English William Morris, exerted a major influence on the whole of Europe, including Vienna. Semper derived his forward-looking aesthetic approach from the materials and the manner of their crafting. Besides the tectonic use of material, it ascribed a restrained diversity to the material used for the surfaces, and this also serves to protect the surface itself. Ornamentation, he stated, is the privilege of man. Morris, on the other hand, saw the roots of art as lying in craftsmanship. The progressive artists of the turn of the century, including Henry van de Velde, took a fundamental moral stance that rejected the “fake, infected atmosphere” of historicism”.4
In 1894 Otto Wagner was commissioned to design Vienna’s metropolitan railway. He designed everything himself, from the stations to the bridges, believing that the walls dividing engineering and architecture could be dismantled. At this time he published his educational principles entitled Baukünstlerischer Lehrprogram in response to the changed fabric of society, the emergence of anew lifestyle and new materials at the fin de siècle. Wagner believed that the sincerity and truth of form, and the realism of expression through materials, has to be brought to life by the tectonic use of materials: “All artistic activity springs from necessity, the ability, the means and the innovations of our age. (...) The realism of our age must penetrate into the nascent works of art. This will not harm it; this will not lead to the decline of art. On the contrary, it will breathe new, pulsing life into these moulds, and will conquer new the new fields of our age, such as the realm of engineering.”
For his students, in 1895 in Vienna he published his book entitled Modern Architecture, in which he argues that, in the context of architectural education, architects should be trained as artists and not simply as specialists. To this day, Medgyaszay’s library still contains a publication presenting the designs made at the Wagner school, with the following commentary by its editor: “The basis for the school’s creative force lies in the recognition that the only starting point for artistic activity can be a modern, constantly adapting life.”5
Medgyaszay’s designs made during his last year of college, in 1903, have a Hungarian connection. The design brief for the Ceremonial Marquee invokes the memory of the Millennium Royal Marquee. The structure complies with the Wagner-Semper principles in every respect, and as a house archetype it was a regular exercise in the Wagner school. Megyaszay chose the Hungarian National Pantheon as the theme for the conceptual plan concluding his studies. There would be no point in searching for a Viennese flavour to his drawings, as there is none to be found: the young Megyaszay aligned the building with the eastern style of the Holy Crown of Hungary. This design complied fully with Wagner’s principles, and it displays a forward-looking dedication that both incorporates and further develops the ideas of the Hungarian Millennium. The building that takes shape within it would look most at home in the landscape of India or Tibet, but still it blends harmoniously with the summit of Gellért Hill.
In the final years of the Academy of Fine Arts, Medgyaszay moved from the Vienna College of Technology to the Budapest University of Technology, which gave him the opportunity to study the site of his conceptual plans, Gellért Hill and its urban surroundings. In 1904 he was awarded his architecture’s certificate by the Royal University of Technology, and that same autumn he arrived in the villages of Kalotaszeg (Țara Călatei, Romania): Körösfő (Izvoru Crișului), Sztána (Stana), Mákó and Magyarvalkó (Văleni).
His first-hand experience of folk architecture came as a revelation to Medgyaszay. In its end-products, he recognised the uncompromising fulfilment of the Semper-Wagner principles: the primacy of construction and use, and the materials-based use of form and ornamentation. During his research trips to Transylvania, he realised that everything he had learned to be the criteria for modernity in Vienna had already been practiced by the Hungarian people for centuries. The rationalism of rustic architecture is in perfect harmony with the given lifestyle and economic activity, and this is what gives it its organic character.
On his field trips, Medgyaszay used the method of “immersion”. He was not satisfied with the role of outside observer, and thus he was interested not only in the architectural forms, but in the ideas and intentions that created them. He recorded numerous expressions of folk art in his architectural sketches. The – sometimes very sporadic – diary that he kept during his field trips gives an insight into his method, the directness with which he recorded dialogues, without which he would only have been a dispassionate observer of the miracles. He could only analyse by observing from within. This romantic “deep-sea diver” attitude was typical of Medgyaszay.
His commitment and enthusiasm for folk art proved to be a love affair that lasted his whole life, and soon bore its fruit. The lessons learned on his field trips are reflected in his first buildings in Gödöllő. Between 1904 and 1906 he designed one studio villa for each of the two leading personalities of the Gödöllő art colony, Sándor Nagy and Leo Belmonte. Medgyaszay condensed all the principles he had learned at the Wagner school into these two studio buildings: the material-based design, the display of naked materials and structures, the free-form layout derived from function and needs, the positioning and size of doors and windows that seems arbitrary, but is actually linked to use and activity, are all visibly achieved here. On his studio villas, the closed cube is resolved into a stepped mass with cut-outs, while its protrusions and entrance are formed by the constructive elements of folk wooden architecture. The cornice – column and beam – closing the cubes from above, with the ornately carved consoles, is the opposite of the closed, smooth wall surfaces; the spatial resolution of the mass goes beyond the lessons of folk art, and starts to display a tendency towards the Gothic style. Besides these features, the overall eastern influence is obvious. The literature associates Medgyaszay’s two studio houses in Gödöllő with the English villa style, but draws the closest parallels with the residential houses of the Balkan and Mediterranean regions and the Middle East. One thing is certain: the eastern and western atmospheres meet within them, and despite their cubistic structures, they are masterpieces of the organic approach that is rooted in folk architecture. Another important feature is that, with these houses, Medgyaszay’s thinking and feeling are the same, which according to Sigfried Giedion is a prerequisite for the equilibrium of an era.
Medgyaszay’s early pantheon concept, and his first buildings and designs, each show a particular focus on a different great period of architecture. Alongside the two pillars of his architecture, his schooling in Vienna and his discovery of the material and structure principle of Hungarian folk architecture, another important aspect is his approach to the history of education in architecture. He considered the peaks of culture, and within this architecture, as being the Ancient Greek and Gothic periods. In Greek architecture, he admired the deliberate element with which they created their churches, weaving into them the psychology of perception, and the traditionalist element with which they retained the forms of wooden architecture in their stone architecture. Ancient Greek architecture integrated the traditions of the ancient eastern cultures – from Egypt through Persia to India – to create its own art, which, by virtue of its universal nature, became one of the sources of European culture. Art can only become universal through its culmination as national art. This is the correlation between “national” and universal art – to use the terminology of Lajos Fülep. Medgyaszay also recognised this.6
The emergence of Greek architecture, and its results, served as a programmatic example for Medgyaszay. The obviously symbolic act of conserving the forms of wooden architecture in their stone buildings was important for the Greeks. This should not be seen as anachronism, but as the deeper meaning of an insistence on form. In this regard, the architecture of the Greeks is a clear example of Semper’s Stoffwechsel, or “material change” theory.7
The other zenith for Medgyaszay was Gothic, which was the first style in the history of architecture to resolve vertical articulation. In terms of materials use, it pushed the boundaries of stone architecture, making the building’s structure visible with its system of flying buttresses and arches, displaying the power play between the structural elements. Added to this, was the endeavour to experiment with ever taller and more slender structures, pushing the limits of the material’s compressive strength. These principles made Gothic a highly modern, almost contemporary approach in Medgyaszay’s eyes.
Medgyaszay was extraordinarily interested in the development of structures in historical architecture. He studied the materials use of the individual eras, the horizontal or vertical character of the buildings, the directions of the forces, the structural arrangements (pillar-beam, vaulted constructions), and what kind of world view was expressed by the created architectural arrangement. According to Otto Wagner, construction is the stem cell of architecture, and the core of the new, modern forms. The analysis of historical structures always directed Medgyaszay’s interest to construction. He sought the expressive forms of the new structural material of the era, reinforced concrete, in a continuation of the work started by his father, Károly Benkó.8
He took the conceptual design for his first major public building, the theatre in Veszprém, to Paris in 1907 to hone his skills in the most authentic place possible, the studio of Francois Hennebique, known as the pioneer of reinforced concrete structures. Concurrently, he researched the genesis of the architectural forms, the origins of the Hungarian folk vocabulary of form, in the eastern collections of the major European cities.
The theatre in Veszprém was Medgyaszay’s first synthesising and programmatic work, comprising every element of his architectural creed: the organic, functional layout in harmony with the environment, the differentiated building mass expressing the interior, the use of reinforced concrete, the pergolas imbued with the character of folk wooden architecture, and plaster art depicting scenes from Hungarian ancient history. The Veszprém theatre also shows eastern influences, primarily in the formation of the building’s mass and the method of decoration. At the 8th International Congress of Architects held in Vienna in 1908, Medgyaszay gave a lecture that was published in Hungarian as The Artistic Form of Reinforced Concrete, in issue 1, 1909 of the art journal Művészet. With regard to this topic, he cites the architecture of historical eras – the aforementioned Greek and Gothic styles – and mentions the reinforced concrete structure of the Veszprém theatre as an example.9
He maintained his innovative thinking and approach throughout his career. Examples of this are evident in many of his seminal works. In the church and family mausoleum in Rárosmulyád (Muľa, Slovakia), he paraphrased the church at Körösfő (Izvoru Crișului, Romania) in reinforced concrete, but it also reveals his knowledge of the Mediterranean architectural tradition. He braced the prefabricated reinforced concrete segments of the church’s cupola together on site. Szent Imre parish church in Ógyalla (Hurbanovo, Slovakia) is a wood-structured version of the composition in Rárosmulyad. The harmony of the classic European and the Hungarian folk elements of form are unified in the archetype of the tent – as the prototype of the house – which gives the wooden cupola an almost floating feel in the interior space. The supporting frame of the Gothic-arched cupola is a suspended abutment resting on consoles.
A fine example of his innovative and experimental architectural thinking was the military exhibition of the Second Royal and Imperial Army in Lemberg, through which Medgyaszay – as the commanding officer with responsibility for construction – received an opportunity to summarise his latest ideas in a new form. The circumstances and location of the exhibition were what defined the use of material, and the ephemeral and experimental character of the architecture.
Stepping beyond an approach that utilised and integrated the individual historical eras of historicism, in the wider context of the newly emerging European art, he started turning his interest towards the conceptual and formal legacy of the world’s cultures. In reality, in the absence of a unified philosophy and world view, he was repeating the evolutionist approach of historicism, but drawing on a larger pool. There were already European antecedents to this direction, but it was predominantly the research trips and the consequences of colonisation that lay behind them. Besides this, there is also a special Hungarian aspect of his interest in the East.
A single conceptual thread runs through Medgyaszay’s architecture, accompanying him throughout his career. This is his dedication to the national pantheon, and it was this that strengthened his leaning towards eastern culture and architecture. The eastern influences are reflected in his thinking at various levels – in his motifs, compositions of form, and philosophy – and these constitute an integral element of his orientation and approach. The first manifestation of this was his Springhouse Church designed for the slope of Gellért Hill, created during his time at Otto Wagner’s postgraduate school in Vienna in 1901, on which he made use of Egyptian motifs.
The iconography, ornamentation and construction harmonise perfectly with his 1903 conceptual design for the National Pantheon on Gellért Hill, where the filigree character of the metal overlay resolves the sternness of the building ensemble. The following sentence is written on the sketch description of the national pantheon: “Der styl lehnt sich gewissermassen an das Orientalische Rücksicht auf die Kronenkuppel” (The style is, in a sense, defined by the eastern character of the cupola).
The success of the National Pantheon design bid, the construction of the Saint Gellért memorial, and the suggestion that Feszty’s The Arrival of the Hungarians should be housed in the Pantheon, inspired him to augment his 1903 design. This was when he made the monumental close-up view showing the details of the main building and displaying the eastern features of form. The 1906 close-up view of the design now showed monumental stone sculpture; its eastern-inspired ornamentation stands out from the background plane. The reliefs on the building wings are protected by a row of arched eyebrows with studded ribs. Similar features can be seen on the caves of Ajanta and the Székely gates of Transylvania. Medgyaszay made a line out of the motifs, transforming them into sculpted ornaments.
In 1911 he participated in an African expedition, to study the ancient cultures along the Nile in Egypt and Sudan. After returning home, he designed the Saint Ladislaus Church in Ógyalla (Hurbanovo, Slovakia), with strong eastern, Islamic features, which, in the interior, are manifest in the use of the ogee arch and in the decorative ceramic floor covering. The building also contains traces of the archaic Greek tradition: After Jože Plečnik, Medgyaszay made the columns and their ionic capitals – in reference to the antecedents of wooden Greek architecture – out of wood.
After the First World War broke out, he volunteered for front-line duty. During his service both on the battlefield and in the technical division, the military exhibition in Lemberg provided him an opportunity to indulge his penchant for experimentation: in 1916, he designed his concept and the major buildings for the military exhibition held in aid of the families of soldiers. Below the cupola of the main building – which is a reincarnation of the Gellért Hill national pantheon made from birch, boards and tarpaper – Medgyaszay used the distinctive pendentive of Eastern Christianity and Islam, and marked the entrance to the exhibition with two wooden towers. He had a historic antecedent for this: rhetor Priscus, who visited the Huns as an envoy, described how Attila’s wooden palace was surrounded by a fence reinforced with wooden towers. The influence of eastern architecture inspired the octagonal form of the agriculture pavilion, and its double-eave roof composition.
The exhibition was also constructed in Budapest in 1918, on Margaret Island, as the Transylvanian Military Exhibition. Here, new elements and buildings were included, and among these the eastern orientation of the Kunsthalle building – which housed an exhibition of items made by prisoners of war descended from related eastern peoples – clearly shows a Chinese influence.10
The influence of eastern architecture on Medgyaszay became even more pronounced after the war. He decorated the facade of the Rusz house, built in 1992 in Gyöngyös, with Indian elements of form. The multi-eave main block of the composition designed in 1923 and 1924 in a competition for the Museum of Ethnography also takes its inspiration from the east. The mountain shelter of the Gyöngyös Mátra Association shows an unmistakeable eastern character. The pagoda building, constructed in forest surroundings in Mátraháza, reveals an heightening of his interest in eastern connections: it builds a church of the forest, with the cyclical pattern of eastern thought reflected in the layered, repeating roofs. This mountain refuge is an early and beautiful example of our organic architecture.
A visually striking example of his devotion to eastern influences is the Baár-Madas Reformed Church School for Girls, which was completed in 1928. The halls of residence, in particular, clearly display an Indian style. The eastern tendency is also expressed by the sgraffito wall picture crowning the central avant-corps, depicting the role of women throughout history in the form of Réka – the wife of Attila the Hun – and Manuchehr, wife of the Turan prince Fereydun. The forms expressed in the Baár-Madas school clearly reflect the strong Indian leanings that are an imprint of the Scythian-Hunnic heritage, expressing the ancient and eastern character, individuality and uniqueness of Hungarian culture.
Medgyaszay’s National Pantheon designs were exhibited in London in 1909. From here they were taken to India, to great acclaim. Medgyaszay was invited to design the museum of history in Bombay (today Mumbai). The cross-section of the building design – on the wall of the entrance lobby – shows the silhouette of the National Pantheon.
In 1930, the Hungarian-Indian Association elected Medgyaszay as its co-chairman alongside Ferenc Zajti. In 1931-1932 he travelled to India, where he studied the teaching methods of Indian art schools, conducted research, and went on several expeditions. He visited the Ajanta Caves, and also went to Darjeeling to see the grave of the Hungarian Orientalist Sándor Kőrösi Csoma.11 Returning from India, Medgyaszay articulated his views on the evolution of architecture at universal level. In his essay The Path of Evolution of Architectural Art, he attempted to unify the western approach, which presupposes continuous evolution, and the eastern philosophy that is predicated on cyclical development, and thus to synthesise eastern and western thought. His final conclusion is comparable to Oswald Spengler’s cyclical theory of society “...if we consider that in later ages of culture, progress returns in the same direction, this can be better described with a spiral pattern.”12
In 1933, the minister for culture asked Medgyaszay to draft his designs for the National Memorial Hall on Hármashatár Mountain. With its large terraces and upward-tapering mass, the ensemble is evocative of a terraced temple. Apart from the main entrance, the building has a uniform facade in all four directions of the compass. Its monumental simplicity shows the character of having been carved from a single block rather than constructed, which is something that can be observed in Egypt and in the architecture of the Greeks and India. It is noteworthy that the layout conforms to the Vastu Vidya principles of architecture, which are based on millennia-old writings. “The style of construction originates from the ancient and still current Central-Asian cultural realm to which the art of the Huns and settling Magyars also belong”, Medgyaszay writes in the description of the work.
In Vastu the mandala is the fundamental geometric matrix of all plan designs, which relates to all spaces. It symbolises the living, karmic space that is manifest on earth through architecture. The central compositions, especially the idea of the nine divisions of space, can be traced back to Vedic architecture. His last conceptual building design, the concept of the Hall of the Arrival of the Hungarians, created to house the Feszty painting of that name, was conceived in the spirit of east-west synthesis. To Medgyaszay, the octagon was synonymous with perfection of form. The floating appearance of the roof is derived from the traditions of eastern Christian and Islamic architecture, and was later adopted by western culture.
Towards the end of his career, Medgyaszay become increasingly insightful. He always remained faithful to his principles learned in Vienna and formed on the basis of experiences gained during his field trips; he reconciled the good and lasting layout of his buildings with “artistic beauty”, providing an example of how modern architecture and ornamentation are compatible concepts. His architecture, which started out from the Vienna Secession and increasingly integrated eastern features of form, did not change essentially throughout his career. He is almost unique in 20th century architectural history in having retained his characteristic style in the period between the two World Wars, developing it in an expressive direction.
Medgyaszay saw his contribution to universal architecture as lying in the creation of a Hungarian national architecture. He saw the path of Hungarian architecture as lying in European functionality and structural progress, paired with our own traditions and eastern antecedents.
1 Medgyaszay was born István Benkó, as one of the twin sons of Károly Benkó and Kornélia Kolbenheyer. Kornélia Kolbenheyer’s mother was Kornélia Medgyaszay, and her father was Mór Kolbenheyer, an evangelical pastor from Sopron, who corresponded with the poets Petőfi and Arany, and translated the latter’s epic poem Toldi into German so that the burghers of Sopron could also enjoy it. He was a cousin on Artúr Görgey.
2 Henri van de Velde studied to be an upholsterer, and Jože Plečnik was a carpenter. After his father’s death, Medgyaszay became a stonemason in order to support his family.
3 Medgyaszay knew the makers of the memorial designs and pantheons personally, as they were his teacher, he worked in their studios, or had family ties to them.
4 Sigfried Giedion: Space, Time and Architecture, Harvard University Press, 1941.
5 Wagner Schule 1902-03 und 1903-04 Projekte Studien und Skizzen aus der Special Schule für Architekitur, Leipzig, January 1905
6 Lajos Fülep: Európai művészet és magyar művészet [European Art and Hungarian Art]. Kriterion, Bukarest, 1979.
7 Gottfried Semper: Der Stil in dentechnischen und tektonischen Künsten oder praktische Asthetik. Frankfurt am Main, 1860.
8 Medgyaszay’s father Károly Benkó (1837–1893) was an architect, master builder and teacher. In 1870 he founded the first Hungarian cement factory in Nyergesújfalu, but this was sadly ruined by competition from Austria.
9 The title of Medgyaszay’s presentation given in German: Über die künstlerische lősung des Eisenbeton baues.
10 The Military Exhibition of the Second Imperial and Royal Army, Lemberg, 1916 Medgyaszay had the exhibition brought to Budapest at his own expense, and in 1918 it opened on Margaret Island in aid of the families of servicemen in Transylvania.
11 “Search and explore, because not a single nation in the whole world will find as much treasure to enrich their culture as Hungarian society has found in the storehouse of the ancient Indian culture…” – said Sándor Csoma Kőrösi, who commented great respect in India.
12 István Medgyaszay: The Path of Evolution of the art of Architecture (on the research trip to Asia), 1932