Miklós Sulyok


The Miskolc Architectural Workshop grew from a circle of friends studying architecture – although some had known each other for longer – who were already seeking opportunities to settle and work together in the years before graduation. Whether driven by the communistic lifestyle trends prevalent (not only in the Soviet bloc) at the time, or by the seemingly eternal power of young friendship, eventually they found a welcoming place in the seat of Borsod County. “But the new collectivity myth of the beat generation was also still in the air...”, remembers János Golda. Another factor contributing to their longing for a genuine community must have been the tendency of the existing socialist society to atomise and isolate the individual through its arrogant creation of pseudo-communities. Miskolc at the end of the 1970s was still gripped by the fever of socialist industrialisation; the forced transformation of the country’s second largest city, in the spirit of socialist urban development, was still forging ahead. The city and the management of the regional planning corporation Északterv welcomed the group, which came seeking a place to work and live together, with open arms. What is more, they allowed them to design their future shared residence using the existing large panel prefabrication technology, while remaining within the state-imposed home building parameters.

The members of the workshop graduated around 1977 from the Architectural Engineering Faculty of Budapest University of Technology where, according to their recollections, they had found no compelling architectural ideals, or mentors. This was the decade of system design, the industrialisation of construction, and Soviet-style large panel prefabricated home factories in Hungary. This was when the architectural profession began to lose its prestige, as the public held the architects responsible for the poor quality of the housing estates and their surroundings. By the time they finished university and got into the swing of life in Miskolc, “postmodern hit us like a tsunami” (Golda). But this is now the history of the 1980s in Hungary. The postmodern approach influenced important masters like Ferenc Bán (trade union headquarters in Nyíregyháza, 1983- 1985; Mátészalka Theatre, 1986-1988) and Péter Reimholz (sports hall of the primary school in Nézsa, 1988; teaching campus in Balassagyarmat). In the 1980s state control over culture was relaxed, but an even more important phenomenon was the emerging – and intensifying – economic decline, the effects of which were felt primarily in the construction industry and architectural design.

Here, it is worth briefly summarising other initiatives that were similar to the Miskolc Architectural Workshop during the 1960s through the 1980s. These groups of architects were characterised, above all, by a quest for paths that were independent of modernism, an interest in history, the search for trends that were not quantitative, long-term or massive, and a shift in favour of local values. The Pécs group led by György Csete was formed in 1971 at the planning corporation Pécsiterv, and consisted of the following architects: Gyöngyvér Blazsek, György Csete, László Deák, Tibor Jankovics, István Kistelegdi, Attila F. Kovács, József Nyári, Péter Oltai. Csete, whose Springhouse in the forest at Orfű (1971) was declared a listed monument in 2002, and who is regarded by international architectural literature as one of the seminal works of Hungarian organic architecture, believed in the ideal of creating architecture that spoke in its own ‘native language’. In six short years of operation, as the Hungarian forerunners of the postmodern movement, they pioneered the architectural use of local history and folk-inspired architectural forms and biomorphic patterns. However, they were not lucky enough to be taken on by a major planning corporation: the youth office at Pécsiterv was dissolved in 1976 following the ‘Tulip Dispute’ in which Máté Major, the all-powerful architectural ideologist of the party state, led an attack on the group’s design of large panel apartment blocks in the housing estate attached to Paks Atomic Power Station.

The Architectural Circle of Eger was organised by Emőke Thoma in 1985, and evolved from an informal society into a professional community. The group set out to conserve Eger’s architectural heritage, creating architecture that promoted and perpetuated historical continuity. Because they did not all work in the same office, their cooperation was far looser than that of the Miskolc Workshop. Their work was notable for the conservation of the city’s listed monuments, the highquality development of vacant lots, and implementation of the urban development plan for the Almagyar-Merengő district, designed with the assistance of colleagues from Miskolc (István Sári, Jáno Golda). The members of the circle were Ildikó Bablonkay, László Fehér, Károly Fohl, Gyula Gadavics, Csaba Kiss, György Dely, Árpád Miklós Fekete, Kálmán Hoór, András Kapuvári, Péter Komáromi†, Gyula Kormos, Ferenc Németh†, Attila Rátkai, Katalin F. Rónai, Emőke Thoma, Judit Mácsai, Róza Rátkainé Kiss, Judit Rubóczky, Sándor Styaszny and Györgyi Visnyey.

Imre Makovecz launched a series of regular Visegrád Camps (which continues to this day), starting in 1981, through the Bercsényi Architectural College of the Budapest University of Technology. At these events, student of architecture, and later graduates built a structure of their own design with their own hands, so as to gain the experience of true community and manual labour.

The institutional framework for the Miskolc Architectural Workshop’s operation was provided by the North Hungary Planning Corporation (Északterv). This was the largest planning organisation in the North Hungary region in the mid-1970s, with five hundred employees. It was a true ‘design factory’ with briefs handed down from above. The members of the group of young architects who joined the corporation in 1977 were assigned to work alongside older designers. Then a few years later, in 1982, they established a thirty-strong studio headed by Csaba Bodonyi, and from 1983 operated as a complex office with a staff of 80, giving them the resources – alongside their developed professional skills – to take on larger projects. From 1 July 1963 until 1 October 1983, the corporation was directed by Ferenc Kerepesi, who, together with the workshop’s chosen mentor, Antal Plesz, was already nurturing its talent in the early 1970s, when he supported the studies of Csaba Bodonyi and István Ferenc in the then relaunched Circle of Young Architects (later to become known as the Postgraduate School of the Association of Hungarian Architects). When the informal circle of graduate architects found the opportunity to settle and work together in Miskolc in 1977, it was Csaba Bodonyi, ten years their senior, who took on the role of mentor at the planning corporation. His own mentor had been Antal Plesz, who left the corporation in 1976 and moved to Budapest. Plesz, who Imre Makovecz once perceptively called “the marvelous minstrel of our profession”, was a one-man institution in the Hungarian architectural profession. He had worked at numerous planning corporations around the country, learning his craft from such greats of pre-war Hungarian architecture as Ferenc Kiss, István Nyíri or László Lauber, one of the most influential de-facto professors of the Hungarian architectural profession. Those that he personally tutored included Ferenc Bán, Csaba Bodonyi, István Ferencz, János Dobó, József Kocsis, Árpád Koska, Lajos Kovács, Attila Kulcsár, Ákos Marton, Róbert Rády and Péter Vesmás, but his spirit also lives on in the architectural philosophy of the Miskolc Workshop. His approach is characterised by modernism, structural cleanness and rigour; his most prominent work is the Hotel Juno in Miskolc (1964). However, his influence not only stemmed from his completed works, but was also exerted through his professional and personal mentoring. As Csaba Bodonyi succinctly phrased it: “What could one learn from Antal Plesz? (...) His method was not the direct transference of knowledge (because this only conserved habits); but rather, as a ‘Socratic midwife’, he helped his pupils to bring out the latent abilities that were dormant within them. Everything else merely created the atmosphere for this. (...) He encouraged us to focus on constructiveness, on the importance of the supporting structure, its inherent dramatic power as an architectural tool, the importance of the cross-section and the professional details, on the thrill of technological experimentation, on powerful, comprehensive architectural thinking, the primary importance of the concept, on experimenting freely without regard for the regulations, on clean structuring, and conscientious manual work.”1 A well-known aphorism in the architectural profession is that “Building starts with the building of people.”

The Miskolc Architectural Workshop first made a name for itself with the ‘Collective House’ built to house the architects themselves at 48 Győri Gate, Miskolc, which was completed in 1979. It is one of the best-known works of its architect Csaba Bodonyi, as well as a leading example the experimental use of a prefabricated building system in Hungary and, last but not least, it ensured the continued operation of the Miskolc Workshop. But it was not what brought them together. The community had already existed for a long time when the Collective House was constructed. Bodonyi summarised his architectural objective thus: “The building is also an experiment in that it seeks out the unusual, unconventional possibilities of existing prefabricated elements; that is, how to arrange existing panels in a different spatial order, to create a building on a human scale without technical trickery (...) I hope that the building can be a seedling, a model for achieving a superior lifestyle at today’s housing estate level, and for an industrially produced, artificial environment that has a more refined spatial structure while remaining on a human and natural architectural scale, following human laws and attractions, which creates a bond and desires.”2

The need for a common living space was first expressed when the group of young architects made their preparations to settle in Miskolc. Once they were working at Északterv, they held a competition at the corporation for the design of their community residential building, and Csaba Bodonyi’s design took first prize. The construction technology was a known quantity: they had to use prefabricated large panel technology, and the financial limitation imposed by the city was that it should be equivalent to fourteen prefabricated apartments. In other words, they had the price of fourteen flats to spend. Experienced system designer Bodonyi achieved the best solution using this decidedly inflexible technology, by creating lots of small residential units and one large community space. With the exception of one reinforced concrete part, the building was made exclusively out of standard prefabricated elements. The only custom item was the roof of the large space, but even this was made from prefabricated custom beams and pillar frames.

Most members of the collective remember the first five years of cohabitation as a euphoric time. Offering a rare experience of freedom during that period in history, the unusual blurring of the work and home atmosphere provided them with some unforgettable years. They held get-togethers, parties and community events several times a week, which were attended by young intellectuals from every part of the country. In keeping with the spirit of those times, the police kept the group under surveillance, with officers living in the four-story blocks directly adjacent to the building. According to their recollections, the group’s members were regularly visited by ‘TV repairmen’ despite not having a television set. In reality, these people were checking the listening devices. Today the building functions as a condominium. Only two of the original residents still live there, and it has long been in a bad state of repair...

By the end of the 1970s, when the band of young graduate architects arrived in Miskolc, the era of thinking and architecture dubbed ‘modern’ was over. The work of their mentors, Csaba Bodonyi and István Ferencz, and especially Antal Plesz, had started during an age when the post-Second World War insularity of the Soviet-bloc countries still left its stamp on Hungary’s cultural life and architecture. In the grey 1970s, the situation in Hungary was one of stagnation and schematism in culture, as well as other areas. After the socalled new economic mechanism was reined in for political reasons, central state bodies determined the laws of operation of the economy, including the construction industry. András Ferkai writes: “Those in charge of building believed that the overarching construction objectives set in long-term plans could only be achieved through standardisation and prefabrication, so they set about developing construction into a major industry, and reorganising its planning. This was when they bought the ‘house factories’ and started building prefabricated housing estates on the outskirts of the towns. This was when the state-owned architectural firms, until then based on studio work, became ‘design factories’.”3

 The architectural philosophy of the workshop was characterised by diversity and freedom from ideology. “...there was no stated professional goal or theory that could be pinned to the mast; so it wasn’t the case that those who agreed stood in a group under a common flag and started implementing their preconceived and declared principles. Instead, these emerged in the course of the work. (...) for us, the principles always took shape ‘on the fly’.”4 Their architectural interests spanned the full spectrum of design from whole cities to individual objects. In the midst of the crisis in modern architecture and urban development, having seen that modern urban planning is incapable of creating varied and complex urban settlements similar to the historical, towns that grew up organically, and cannot even manage the existing ones with sufficient sensitivity, their attention turned to an examination of historical urban settlements. Their philosophy is most clearly reflected in their participation at the 1981 architects’ conference entitled Warsaw Confrontations 1981, and their design submitted in the competition (which won the award of the Association of Polish Architects). During the debate at this event, the team led by Csaba Bodonyi (István Ferenc and István Sári, colleagues János Golda, Tamás Noll, Pál Farkas, Teodóra Dombi, János Hidasnémeti, Antal Gonda, Lajos Tompa) put forward arguments relating to urban development that were tantamount to heresy at the time. They called into question the justification for long-term urban planning determined on the basis of economic and sociological analyses and vision of the future, and proposed a flexible, practical method in place of the utopian theories and ideals.

Urban architecture is the main arena for the postmodern architectural approach, and its precursor neo-rationalism. This was where the most urgent need arose for a rethinking of the architectural situation that had emerged in the second half of the 20th century. It is no coincidence that the most essential elements and most lasting values of the thinking and activity of the Miskolc Workshop can be found in its urban development legacy, or to put it more simply, in its approach to town planning. Urban planning is perhaps the architectural genre with the longest-term effect; and the impact of modern architecture and urban development on the 1960s became so tangible in Europe that it was no longer possible to blame the past for the flaws in modern towns and housing estates.

It was also Bodonyi who, describing one of the characteristics of their method, wrote that “for us, the number one priority is to ‘decode’ the environment in a historical and spatial sense, in terms of its social interrelationships and architectural details, to decode the structural components of the spatiality, its unique architectural traditions and historical aspects, and the peculiarities of its history and meaning.”5

The workshop existed until 1990. When the economic changes occurring during the change of regime led to the breakup of Észákterv and most other Hungarian architectural planning corporations, the workshop members set up their own firm.

It is difficult to compile a definitive list of the group’s members, because there was a high degree of churn over the years, and the intensity of collaboration also fluctuated. The mentor of them all, Antal Plesz (1930-2014) worked at Északterv between 1964 and 1976, and was never formally a member of the group; but he mentored Bodonyi and Ferencz at the Postgraduate School of the Association of Hungarian Architects, and followed all of their careers closely until his death. Csaba Bodony was present ‘for the duration’, that is from 1977 to 1990, as the de facto master of the workshop, while Pál Farkas was there from 1981 to 1990, and István Ferencz served as the other master, also from 1977 to 1990. János Golda, Katalin Gergely† and Zoltán F. Horváth† were also present between1977 and 1990. Interestingly, Zoltán M. Horváth, who played an active role intermediating between the group of architecture students seeking a joint working opportunity and Északterv, ultimately did not go to Miskolc to work, and nor did he live in the Collective House. Other members of the workshop included Zoltán Klie from 1977–1990, Mária Lohrmann 1983–1990, Tamás Noll, Ágnes Novák and Attila Pirity 1977–1990, László Rostás 1983–1990, Mihály Rudolf 1979–1990, László Szőke 1978–1990, Ágnes Thoma 1977–1990, József Viszlai 1983–1990, and István Sári† 1977–1990.

More loosely associated with them were István Bede (1979–1982), János Dobai, Júlia Galkó, Benő Horváth and Attila Kosdi (1982–1990), Emőke Lautner (1980–1990), János Máté (1986–1990), János Rauschenberger, Péter Puskás, Benő Taba (1979–1988), and Lajos Tompos. The ceramic artist Ildikó Vincze, who created sculptures for a good many buildings designed by the workshop members, lived in the Collective House between 1983 and 1998.

The era of the Miskolc Architectural Workshop represented the ‘apprenticeship years’ for the group of young architects. Then it was precisely in 1990, during the period of the corporation’s forced dissolution, that they went on to create their “adult” works in their own studios. Naturally, even in the years between 1978 and 1990, larger buildings were built to the designs of Csaba Bodonyi and István Ferencz, who had been in the profession since 1967, and Tamás Noll, who had joined Északterv in 1977.

The architectural philosophy of the Miskolc group, therefore, is diametrically opposed to the utopias of modernity; that is, to an approach that seeks abstract truths, mainly arrived at through rationality, which disregard the specificities of the location. They do not set out to criticise the system in the name of universalistic ideologies; on the contrary, they want to be present, not distant. To be present, to build from within. According to Plesz’s teaching, first create the person, and then the house. The literature refers to their architectural approach as contextualism, but the term regionalism is more precise and richer in meaning. Indeed, with hindsight we can see that they were the forerunners in Hungary of the critical regionalism6 described by Kenneth Frampton in the early 1980s. The criteria expressed by him are almost entirely concordant with the workshop’s architectural philosophy: giving preference to architectural heritage and small-scale plans over the utopia of modernism; linking place and form, the architecture of bonds; understanding architecture as a tectonic, not a spectacle-based activity; taking the natural features of the building’s location into consideration; giving equal status to tactile and visual experience, favouring experience over received wisdom; using local vocabularies of form, without mimicry and pathos, and with local culture both complementing and contrasting with global culture; moving away from the centre-periphery theoretical model.

These ideas, then, had also emerged independently in Hungary, and naturally without their purpose being to fit in with some kind of international trend. It is clear that critical regionalism is not a language of style or form, and certainly not an ideology. Rather, it is an attitude, or – to use a favourite term of the Miskolc group – a behaviour. If you place a new building on a site, they say, it has to behave itself: it must be on speaking terms with the ones that are already there.


1 Magyar Építőművészet, 1988/6 p. 4

2 Handwritten circular inscription on the exhibition tableau showing the Collective Building, 1979.

3 András Ferkai: The Change in Roles and Styles in the Hungarian Architecture of the 1980s and 1990s. In: Beautiful Day is Today. Hungarian Art in the 80s and 90s. ed. Katalin Aknai and András Rényi, Association of Hungarian Creative Artists, Budapest, 2003

4 Exhibition Catalogue, ed. Miklós Sulyok, Exhibition of the Miskolc Architectural Workshop, Budapest Gallery, 1988 p. 1

5 Ibid.

6 Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an architecture of resistance, in The Anti- Aesthetics: Essays on postmodern culture, szerk. Hal Foster, Bay Press, 1983, 16. – magyarul: Kenneth Frampton, Kritikai regionalizmus: az ellenállás építészetének hat pontja, in A mérhető és a mérhetetlen, szerk. Kerékgyártó Béla, Typotex, 2000, 303.