28 June 2008

Spatial Influences

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I like history, and as I wrote about Berlin a couple of years ago (or about New York, for that matter), I am particularly intrigued by the overlapping elements of history and our physical environment. One of the best experiential components of a visit to any “foreign” place is simply in taking the time to look around, to absorb the things that are otherwise all too easy to ignore or miss. So much of the beauty of life comes in the form of its details.

My experience in Budapest more than met the test for a visual and intellectual extravaganza. It was a busy three days on the ground, and it has taken me as many days since to sift through both my memories and my photos. If the trip was a whirlwind, my recollections here will be similar, a (nearly) stream of consciousness review of a range of visual experiences. The photos included here generally reflect the shifts in the text.

Clearly it isn’t possible to write about Budapest and not recognize its Iron Curtain history, and this was the first thing I noticed driving in from the airport. One sees the wide range of buildings representing the city’s many phases: from the heights of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to the un-fixed damage from (one assumes) the Second World War, to the mediocrity of buildings that were fixed, to structures that look like they were Bauhaus designs, and then to those that were so clearly Soviet chic. At the top of Buda Castle, high on a hill in Buda (and overlooking Pest), it all starts to come together, in a heavy, stone building that still shows the bullet holes from the 1956 revolution, and in the castle building itself: well-restored on the outside, but with a terrible 1970s retro-fitting on the inside.

Up to that point, my sense was that I was in a typical central European city (if there is such a thing). But walking around the walled edge of the castle was a shock because of the mini-minarets. Minarets! Cupolas with wood-and-iron “plugs” closing off their upper levels, surrounding more traditional-looking statuary, and looking out over the city, a massive church, and more. Across the river, things shift quickly to the Art Nouveau period, from the glass ceiling of the “Gresham Palace” (now the Four Seasons Hotel), to the Bedo Haz, a lovely apartment building with a green decorative theme that carries through from the facade, to the chandelier hanging in the café downstairs, to the ear-shaped stained glass windows in the interior courtyard. And yet, just as quickly, the cityscape changes back to the period of empire, with ornate decoration (such as a beautiful, placid face) on the outside of the Liszt Academy of Music, or the layers of grand buildings like the Gellert Hotel and baths.

A steel-frame market building – built by Gustave Eiffel! – is a treat in its own right, with stall after stall of fresh groceries, meats, and pastries. The strudel we sampled – cabbage, cheese, and sour cherry and poppy seed – could not have been any more fresh or of the place, and I think I could have spent several hours just exploring the market and examining both the building and the shops.

The airiness of the market, which felt as open as a classic European train station and just as grand, was a theme unto itself. One of the most astonishing spaces I saw was the Páva Synagogue at the Holocaust Memorial Center: a lovely restoration reveals a sanctuary that could only have been a joy to pray in, with an open, white space accented with light blue and gold. (The Center has some architectural- and exhibition-driven similarities to the Eisenman-designed Berliner Mahnmal, but the exhibition is well done.) If one’s frame of reference for houses of worship are structures that achieve an awe-inspiring feel from their heaviness, then this one challenges those preconceptions head-on.

And in some ways, the synagogue also reflects the mixed design sensibilities that I mentioned at the beginning, with a feeling that is both Mitteleuropa traditional and the remnants of the fantastical architectural elements brought by the many, many invaders over the years. The Museum of Applied Arts, with its Zsolnay-designed cupola tiles, is of a piece with this history too; it looks perfectly at home and yet, in some way, quite alien. Somehow, it all fits together, beautifully, and I look forward to a (longer) return visit.


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