Dada Would’t Buy Me a Bauhaus- In Search of Hidden Modernism in Újlipótváros

I’ve already mentioned my ancient collection of English puns, and how it provided unexpected guidance for my adolescent discoveries: another one I recall very vividly is the one giving this piece its title: ‘Dada wouldn’t buy me a Bauhaus’. Due to its Romanian connections, I was by then familiar with the concept of dada, but Bauhaus sounded exotic in a very competent German way, like whatever this is, it is one of those things that the Germans do better than us, like abstract philosophy, classical music, football, beer, garden elves and an inexhaustible list of other aspects of existence.

It’s just like people almost invariably saying they took the Autobahn when in Germany instead of using the slightly pathetic English motorway, or DC Comics feeling compelled to call their villains by German names, such as the literary Steppenwolf, or the simply cooler sounding Darkseid, to suggest a particularly methodical and efficient way of evil (Nazi undertones included.) Or just like the book lying next to my bed in the pile known as ‘references I might need any time’, by UK art critic Deyan Sudjic is called B is for Bauhaus– as a compendium of modern design in the modern world, he could have called it using any other one of the concepts discussed within, but he went for Bauhaus, because he knew perfectly well that’s the one which sounds best. I was a living testament that his gimmick worked when I picked the book off its shelf in a museum store in Berlin. 

It is some sort of a relief then to discover that the Bauhaus is exactly one of those things the Germans do better, as a matter of fact, it is a thing only the Germans can do at all. To officially belong to the Bauhaus movement, you needed to have studied at the homonymous art school, established by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919 and then moved to Dessau in 1925- it briefly functioned in Berlin as well for a year, between 1932 and 1933, under the direction of another giant of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was much more pliant to the new German authorities than his predecessors, yet the school was ultimately killed off by National Socialism. Interestingly enough, the attempt to replicate Bauhaus in the United States, in Chicago, under the name New Bauhaus was led by a Hungarian, László Moholy-Nagy. Although thought by many to be mostly a school of architecture, the Bauhaus aimed to develop a total form of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), and blur the lines between fine art and craftsmanship, prioritizing clean forms and functionality over excess. The result is that besides being an actual school of architecture, it also became a school of thought, permeating its original, rather strict boundaries, and becoming one of the most influential design ideas of the 20th century.

So when our guide to the tour of Újlipótváros’s hidden Bauhaus treasures dropped the bombshell than none of them are actually Bauhaus, as they were not designed by architects having studied at the school itself, he was both right and wrong. They might not have indulged in pottery in Weimar or Dessau, but they put Bauhaus’s design for life ideas into practice rather religiously, with the occasional small derailment, like the functionally unexplainable lion of Alig utca number 3 (designed by Béla Hofstätter, who alongside Ferenc Domány is also the father of the two most Bauhaus-y of all the visited buildings, Pozsonyi street 38 and 40) and the fake fireplace of Visegrádi street 38 (designed by Gábor Krausz.)

That Újlipótváros would be the home of such an intensity of modernist architectural activity can be explained by the fact that up to the end of the 19th Century, it was virtually a no man’s land- Lipótváros had reached today’s Szent István körút in 1896 and the increasing population of the capital made new housing solutions a necessity. Another book lying next to my bed, this time in the ‘to be read’ section, happens to be a collection of short stories about Budapest, which opens with a piece by Antal Szerb, meant as a guide to Budapest for Martians.

In it he first describes the pristine initial state of the area as a place where you would be ambushed by dogs and fall over ridiculously out of fright, and then proceeds to accuse its new embodiment to be a monotonous onslaught of copycat flats inhabited by psychoanalysts and ladies playing bridge, who then proceed to go skiing in the Buda hills at the weekends despite being chronically poor. Which is frankly an early 20th Century take on millennials wasting their money on avocado toast, something that happens very frequently in Újlipótváros these days, so one cannot accuse it of being untrue to its original nature.

The lack of money might seem odd though, as the main criticism leveled against the plans of the president of the capital’s public works council, Iván Rakovszky, of building a strictly pre-planned, modernist, block based neighbourhood was that it would be financially suitable only to the wealthier middle classes. Rakovszky did go ahead with his ideas though- the area was subject to building restrictions for a period, and then populated exclusively with projects which got Rakovszky’s seal of approval. Standing on the corner of Csanády and Tátra streets it is clearly evident how unified the latter looks in terms of building height and shape compared to the more haphazard nature of the former. While one might argue that too many similar building can become visually monotonous, the block based concept is a functional improvement over the older, inner courtyard centred type of Budapest houses. While the lower floors facing these courtyards are often dark, unventilated and damp, the modernist buildings have heated inner staircases and are often grouped around small parks, thus allowing light to reach all floors from both sides.

Our tour, organized by the Miénk a Ház! group, came with a very knowledgable guide, whose onslaught of information, insights and anecdotes might prove a bit dense for this blog entry, but are however warmly recommended in person- the tour takes place in Hungarian though, so a very skilled simultaneous interpreter would be best for English speakers. I am afraid the blog’s industrious co-photographer missed out on some of the experience as I am not neither skilled, nor simultaneous, nor an interpreter, but he considered the buildings at Pozsonyi 38 and 40, with their spiraling staircases and (most) minimalist design as his favourites- should you try to sneak in for a peak on your own, beware of the bulldog-style super, who is not so keen on allowing visitors inside, no matter how well behaved they are.

To go for alternative favourites, I’ll choose the running track patterns of Tátra street 23, the hidden exits of Pozsonyi street 46 (Rakovszky insisted that all buildings have their main entrance from Pozsonyi street, which was to be the main artery of the area, but locals preferred to exit towards the Danube, so architect Béla Málnay added two doors at the back which are much more spectacular than the subdued main one) and the little concierge cabin of Pozsonyi street 15-17. Such details raise the question of how Bauhaus can the Bauhaus principle remain once the lifestyle it catered to is gone: these houses have spaces for the concierge, spaces for depositing the giant baby carriages of the times, and those built during the war have official shelters too yet more than often impractically small elevators- a modern psychoanalyst might have to haul her bike up several flights or stairs instead. Or perhaps leave it in the repurposed baby carriage garage.As a matter of fact,  repurposing such a space is something I’d very gladly do if I had a dada rich enough to buy me a Bauhaus.

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