World Art Nouveau Day this year is celebrated on 10th June. In part to mark the occasion but also to honour the centenary of the death of Otto Wagner and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marcell Komor, FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, in conjunction with the Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts and its partners, has mounted a small exhibition entitled Waves of Art Nouveau, dedicated to this ever-popular style of architecture in cities of the Danube region from Vienna to Constanţa. The material consists of a series of wall panels grouped thematically, with information and illustrations chosen by the participating cities (twelve of them in total).
The show begins with Otto Wagner and his pupils and followers (notably Max Fabiani). After that comes the great Hungarian Secessionist architect Ödön Lechner. Lechner’s style is entirely unlike Wagner’s. Wagner was preoccupied with modernity and the question of how to refashion the architecture and urban planning of an imperial capital in a way that would reflect profound shifts in society. Lechner, on the other hand, was preoccupied with the distant past—even the subliminal—plumbing the depths of the Hungarian folk subconscious to create an entirely original and quintessentially Magyar idiom, part-European and part-Oriental. Lechner and his followers, particularly Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab, are well represented in this exhibition, with buildings in Budapest; Oradea and Târgu Mureș (Romania); and Subotica (Serbia), where the synagogue is very Lechneresque in feel, with a green-and-yellow-tiled lampshade dome and a façade articulated with symmetrical detailing in exposed brickwork.
The buildings featured in this exhibition illustrate the different ways in which architects of this period explored the relationship between structure and decoration. Sometimes the decorative elements entirely follow the physical lineaments of the building, picking out and enhancing cornices, bays and apertures. This is well seen in the work of the Serbian architect Branko Tanazević, who creates a sort of Art Nouveau version of the Renaissance in his former Telephone Exchange building in Belgrade. At other times the decoration masks the structure, obscuring it and playing hide and seek with it, as in Ivan Vurnik’s extraordinary, almost trompe l’oeilCooperative Bank building in Ljubljana (1923) or Vladimir Baranyai’s Bauda House in Zagreb (1905), where the balcony consoles are disguised as balls of laurel leaves. Occasionally the decoration is entirely gratuitous, most famously perhaps on Otto Wagner’s celebrated Majolica House in Vienna (1898–9), where the pattern on the ceramic cladding mocks a gigantic rambling rose. In some buildings, the decoration almost becomes the structure, as for example Daniel Renard’s memorable Casino in Constanţa (1910), whose huge windows are fashioned like displayed peacock’s tails. Renard studied in Paris, and though his work is filed in the same architectural compartment as that of Lechner or Komor, his aesthetic could not be more different.
It is always a pleasure to discover something new. For visitors familiar with French, Belgian and Austrian Art Nouveau the sheer delight here will be the number of exuberant, eye-catching and daringly original buildings in cities all across Central and Eastern Europe by architects whose names are entirely—and surely unjustly—unfamiliar.
Before you leave, spare a few moments to look at the FUGA building itself. It is a work of 1905 by the architectural partnership of Gyula Ullmann and Géza Kármán, architects who were also exponents of Art Nouveau but in a manner more closely allied to that of the Vienna Secession. Prime examples of their work can also be seen in Budapest’s Szabadság tér (three adjoining buildings now occupied by the US Embassy). The FUGA building preserves an imposing façade emblazoned with its original name, Hermes Udvar (Hermes Court). It was built for a firm specialising in safe deposits, a fact still advertised above the front door.
Waves of Art Nouveau. On show until June 18th at FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, at Petőfi Sándor u. 5. Open daily except Tues from 1pm. Free entry. There is a small café and an excellent bookshop.