The capital with the eye of an expat
Buildings tell tales
Its architectural offer, from the Secessionist masterpieces around Szabadsag tér to the Bauhaus villas on Napraforgó utca in District II, is extensive. The embellishments, such as the fabulous Zsolnay tiles of St Matthias’s church and the Museum of Applied Arts or the rooftop sculptures on the Opera House and the Ethnographic Museum, vie for attention. When walking the streets of Budapest, always look up, they say. And they, whoever they are, are right.
Restoration works in recent years have breathed new life into old palaces, reborn as grand hotels such as the Matild Palace and the Párisi Udvar. Work continues in the Castle District and new landmarks, such as Sou Fujimoto’s House of Hungarian Music, are also making their mark.
But it is the old stuff that fascinates me. The bullet holes in the walls in buildings in the backstreets of District VIII speak of the city’s troubled past. The small brass memorial plates in footpaths outside doors are testament to the Hungarian Jews who once lived inside. The larger műemlék (monument) signs tell us who of note once lived there and when. The wrought-iron balcony railings of inner courtyards, the ornate staircases, the stained glass, all speak of an elegance, nay an endurance, which underlies the spirit of the city.
These buildings house stories spanning generations of trials and tribulations, tastes and trends. The facades are often misleading, promising grandeur and delivering plainness. And the opposite. That’s the beauty of Budapest: you never know what you’ll find behind the door.
Now, thanks to Vincent Baumgartner and his project Buildings Tell Tales, I’m enjoying a look inside many of Budapest’s buildings that might, at first glance, have few redeeming features. His love of old buildings, old graffiti and small architectural details, ornamentations and signs from the past come through in the thousands of photographs he has taken of the city, photos he shares on Facebook and Instagram.
Born in Bienne, Switzerland, to a Swiss father and a Hungarian mother, Baumgartner’s interest in his Hungarian ancestry started when he was about 18. Actively involved in the Hungarian community in Geneva, he took up folk dancing. A year later he decided to visit Budapest for a year. One year turned into five and a BA in International Relations. He returned to Switzerland to complete his Master’s and noticed something peculiar. Although Swiss-born and raised, he was feeling homesick. For Hungary. For Budapest.
Baumgartner’s glasses have clear lenses. I checked. Through those lenses, he saw Hungary for what it was. His wasn’t a rose-tinted romantic notion of a homeland he’d only recently come to know. It was a deeper connection, one that went to the root of the city, deep into its bricks and mortar, connecting to the very fabric of his being.
He moved back to Budapest in 2018 and, after spells in Zugló and Budatétény, is now ensconced in District XXII. There, when he’s not working for an international organisation, he’s documenting the buildings and stories he meets on his Saturday forays with his girlfriend into the heart of the city.
Their Saturdays have a pattern. They spend the morning walking around after breakfasting in one of the city’s markets. He highly recommends the coffee at the lángos stall at Teleki tér! An open door is like a calling card, beckoning them inside. And if the door is closed but the façade looks like it might be fronting something magical, they ask to be let in. After lunch, they continue their explorations, often walking 25-30 kilometres in a day, finishing up at the cinema or theatre. What’s not to like, eh?
With a portfolio of over 20,000 photos, he’s visited more than 500 buildings and is slowly amassing quite the collection of stories he’s unearthed through his extensive research.
I’m learning so much.
He introduced me to the 1930s Hungarian jazz singer Tibor Weygand who lived in District XI on Tas Vezér utca in a building designed by Tibor Hübner. Weygand was instrumental in popularising jazz in Hungary and had some of his songs recorded in America by Columbia Records.
In fact, almost every post has me making a note to myself to go visit the places he’s written about. Top on my list is Dezső Benedek’s Schuler villa on the corner of Ida and Ilka in District XIV. The Art Nouveau door reminds me so much of a Romani caravan.
Buildings Tell Tales is not Baumgartner’s first project. He started with Budapest Téglái (@bricks_of_budapest), an Instagram account where he showcased the hidden history of Budapest captured in messages and images carved into the city’s bricks by vandals and artists alike. Our physical environment has so much to tell us if only we took the time to look, really look, at what’s around us.
Anker Palace in Terézváros, once home to many Jewish families, is a brick canvas, with names and dates signposting the way to more complete stories. From her signature carved into a brick, Baumgartner traced the story of Renée Nadler and her footballer brother, Henrik, who lived in the area in the 1920s. With the facelift the city is undergoing, so much of this history is in danger. He is on a mission to document as much as he can before it’s too late.
And he’s not alone.
Last year saw the birth of a new community organisation, Mesélő Város (Storytelling City), made up of likeminded people interested in collecting, describing and documenting everything from brick inscriptions, pictures, signs, symbols and tiles, to manhole covers, stairs, windows and doors – anything that can be seen in the buildings of Budapest. Although still in its infancy, they have plans for a photography exhibition this year and are seriously thinking of compiling what they have in book form. Membership is open to anyone who shares their passion for documenting traces of the past and making them known. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested.