This week I accompanied Nick on a Fulbright tour of Budapest’s Art Nouveau architecture. I had been to the famous Paris Department Store (now a bookstore with a stunning café), and I regularly take visitors to see the fabulous lobby of the Four Seasons, but I hadn’t seen many of the Art Nouveau homes and public buildings around the city.
Our most impressive stop was the Geological Museum, a functioning research institute since 1896. I particularly liked the building’s geological design elements. On the foyer ceiling, what appears to flower buds in a repeated pattern are instead plaster replicas of foraminifera—tiny shell covered creatures that, due to their biodiversity and fossilized multitudes embedded in ancient stones, are key to geological dating (not a geological match.com but determining how old rocks are).
Our guide was quintessentially Hungarian, exhibiting throughout the tour what I believe to be three core Hungarian traits. Cultural stereotypes are always risky, and I disclaim any socio-anthropological insight. I’m an attentive observer, that’s all.
First, there was a deep pride in his careful depiction of the architects and ceramicists whose work he showcased. At one point, he compared the Hungarian architect Ödön Lechner to the famous modernist architect, Antoni Gaudí. He said something like, “I refuse to call Lechner the Hungarian Gaudí, because you never hear Gaudí referred to as the Catalonian Lechner.” Fair enough.
The second trait is loss. Hungarian history is rife with loss and their remembrance of this loss is deeply ingrained in the Hungarian pyshe. When the tour guide explained how French architect Gustave Eiffel designed the beautiful Nyugati train station, he said that Eiffel offered his famous tower first to Budapest instead of Paris. Due to Budapest building height restrictions, the city declined. In an attempt at humor that was notably tinged with regret, he said, “It could have been ours.”
Finally, there is perseverance. When describing a particular art nouveau building as a reflection of a happier, prosperous period he spent a good twenty minutes reminding us that, for Hungary, this was a period where the country still mourned the loss of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
This tour was not a cursory overview of art nouveau whimsy; it was a serious look at the brilliant architects and artists who persevered in the face of recent loss to change the face of Budapest. Before we moved to Budapest, Nick picked up a book whose title says it all: The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat.