A natural magician

Imre Makovecz has emerged from 30 years as a dissident in Hungary to delight and inspire with his organic designs. Even Prince Charles admires his work. By Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
Next Tuesday, Imre Makovecz will deliver the Architects' Journal Annual Lecture on his extraordinary work and provocative ideas at the RIBA Architecture Centre, London. The evening is guaranteed to be a sell- out, although you should try every trick you know to get a ticket to listen to one of Architecture's true and enduring originals.

Imre Makovecz, born in Budapest in 1935, is the dissident turned local hero, then national hero and, since he built the memorable and many-spired Hungarian pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo, a figure of international standing; this, despite the professional and political odds being stacked against him for over 30 years.

Makovecz's appeal appears to be across the board of professional and popular opinion. He is as much admired by the Prince of Wales, who has visited the architect twice in Budapest, as he is by this commentator, which means, unlike any living British architect, he is able to bridge the still yawning divide between the pessimists who bewail the state of the modern world and the optimists who, despite daily evidence screaming at them to believe the opposite, continue to believe in the possibility of human redemption and the much-maligned idea of progress.

Makovecz's elemental, organic architecture has the power to connect past, present and future. It is at once cheap and practical, populist and inspired, rough- hewn and highly crafted, the stuff, in fact, of both wild dreams and earthy common sense.

A typical Makovecz building, whether rural church or village hall, is a meeting place for local people, designed for local people, built with the help of local people and sometimes entirely by them. In this sense Makovecz's architecture evokes the very first communal shelters built by humans. Some of his earliest buildings, designed for state camp sites in ancient forests, were based on jurta, the archetypal Hungarian nomadic dwelling.

Consequently, his work is imbued with a universal and timeless message reminding us not just of the importance (and preciousness) of Nature, but of our place in a global culture that has its roots firmly planted in a much older and more natural world. His work is, thus, transcendental, overcoming international boundaries and prejudices while being deeply rooted in Hungarian soil and in the hearts of those it is built for and by.

Makovecz is unlike most architects. He is not a materialist; far from it. Nor is he engaged in the conventional web of professional rivalries. He is utterly unable to climb the slippery ladder that leads to social preferment. One of nature's radicals, he is entirely his own man and one who vehemently detests the culture of money (he lives modestly). He has about him something, not so much of the prophet or shaman, as the visionary poet or radical preacher. Not, I hasten to add, of the holier-than-thou, bible-thumping, evangelical school - he is too genial for that - but, in British terms, of a Wesley with a dash of Tom Paine, William Blake and Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers.

A nonconformist's nonconformist, Makovecz is also, by upbringing and choice, and like so many Hungarians, a Catholic. His religious spirit, however, has also been shaped by a near-mystical love of his country (its people, soil, Celtic roots and highly distinctive language, but not its political institutions) and a profound search for ways in which we can build and live in balance with nature.

From his very earliest days helping his father, a carpenter, to sabotage invading German tanks in 1944, Imre Makovecz has been a stubborn and creative fighter, tackling head on the forces of darkness - at first Nazism and then the Communist regime that ruled Hungary until 1989. In the 1956 uprising, Makovecz was one of many students arrested (death sentences were commuted finally in 1961) for his part in the famous, and famously unsuccessful, rebellion.

From college days, at the Technical University of Budapest, Makovecz ploughed a distinct furrow. When he designed a fish restaurant in the guise of a giant fish, was, his tutors asked, young Imre mad or simply disruptive? In a surprisingly imaginative moment, his examiners passed him fit to practise as an architect. Yet, from graduation, Makovecz's fight with the Communist regime began in earnest.

Despite some success, he was banned from teaching and was lucky to find a lonely and obscure job as as a forestry architect in the hills around Budapest. Cut off from mainstream design during the Seventies and much of the Eighties, Makovecz became a kind of Robin Hood of Hungarian architecture. He became known as "the wild man of the woods", a powerful, uncompromising man cocking a snook at officialdom while gradually inventing a form and process of architecture that was to make him as respected, and loved, in rural Hungary as much as he was spurned and looked down on in Budapest.

I went to Hungary in search of Makovecz in 1981. I had seen a postage- stamp size photograph of the mortuary chapel he had built in the Farkasret cemetery on the edge of Budapest in a compendium of the work of contemporary world architects. I had seen nothing like it before. It looked, from the photograph, like the inside of the ribcage of a whale (it is in fact, a three-dimensional depiction of the human chest). The text of the book was no help in deciphering this inscrutable structure.

I wrote to the editor of the magazine of the Institute of Hungarian Architects in Budapest, asking for an address for Makovecz and to see more of his work. A letter was returned with an address, but no pictures, as Makovecz was, because of his political leanings and the oddball nature of his work, essentially unpublished. I wrote to Makovecz; his wife, Marianne, wrote back. Come and visit, please. So I did, arriving in Budapest from Vienna in an unforgettable thunderstorm on one of those long, drab olive-green trains that had stopped at the border for nearly an hour while red-starred guards armed with antique Tommy guns poked rigid faces into every nook and corner of the "Wiener Waltzer".

I booked into the Gellert Hotel, that Art Nouveau hill-top masterpiece overlooking the Pest in Buda, and waited for Makovecz, who arrived with his wife in an ancient and rain-sodden Renault 4 (Marianne's link with the Paris she had once been able to visit and the freedom she and Imre yearned for). Makovecz had expected to find the emissary of the mighty Architectural Review a distinguished and tweedy architect-professor type waiting in the lobby to discuss fashionable -isms and -wasms. He was taken aback to find a 25-year-old armed with little more than burning curiosity and a passion for architecture and rebellion.

The next few days I remember as some of the most important in my life, not just as a critic and writer, but as a person. Makovecz proved, over and again, that buildings really can have a soul. He brought the notion of genius loci, the sense of place, to life for me as no flatulent architectural tome had ever been able to do. He proved that rebels can be professionals, that the fight for human freedom can be won on the drawing board as well as through demonstrations and the barrel of a gun. He was, like John Ruskin and William Morris before him, unafraid to talk of God and Nature. He was clearly unable to stand back from events. He was neither cool nor laid-back, as so many of the architects I had met up to that point were. He was a natural fighter who had learned that architecture is a powerful political weapon as well as the art of building and a method of sheltering people in, potentially, beautiful surroundings.

I was very moved by his buildings, so much a part of the ground they rose from, as well as by his colleagues, craftsmen and apprentices, who, poor in terms of money, were rich in spirit. The upshot of my trip was that the Architectural Review was able to publish Makovecz on a generous scale and outside the pinched confines of Communist Hungary for the first time. It did seem strange to see the exclusive pages of the patrician Archie crowded with a forest of timber buildings, adopting their forms from the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Readers, however, were fascinated, as their letters showed, in Makovecz's ideas of "building-beings", of an organic geometry based on the real human frame rather than classical geometries rooted in idealised mathematical ratios. I hoped that we had got Makovecz's ideas across reasonably clearly, but as, at that time, he refused to speak anything but his beloved Hungarian and my Hungarian was limited to a childlike igem (yes) and nem (no), I thought we had only scratched the surface of an unfamiliar strain of regional architecture.

Makovecz's arresting designs had not sprung fully armed like Minerva from the head of Zeus. He had, he said, owed much to the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright (whose books were banned in university libraries when Makovecz was a student), as well as to Antoni Gaudi, Herb Greene, William Morris and Rudolph Steiner, and to romantic-nationalist thinkers and architects of his own country such as Kos Karoly and Odon Lechner.

By the time I went back to make a film of his work with Janice Hadlow for BBC2's Late Show in 1991, Makovecz was a free man. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union and the Communist regime in Hungary, the architect had become a national hero, a man who had fought for more than 30 years, for personal freedom and against the decidedly unnatural scientific materialism of those who had effectively outlawed him to the forests.

Makovecz was now able to build his sublime parish churches (the church had grown in importance throughout the years of Communist hegemony), and more of the village halls that, throughout the Seventies and Eighties, when the government was striving to destroy traditional rural life along the lines of Ceaucescu in Romania, had been havens of rural community and vital centres of village services. Today, he is building more than ever before, training architects and craft workers and inspiring those outside Hungary to think of how we can design sustainable, ecologically sound and beautiful buildings.

Working with architects from Makovecz's office, students of the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture have built two small structures in London, at Spitalfields and Rotherhithe. A major exhibition in London of Makovecz's work, organised by Charles Knevitt, is currently taking shape; it will be housed in a large temporary structure designed by Makovecz and his team. One does not need the divine powers of the Pythoness at the Delphic Oracle to predict that the exhibition will be a huge success. Hopefully, this will lead to Makovecz's being awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, an award he deserves for proving, at least in part, that in the age of Internet and superstores, the heart can still drive the architect's pen; and the spirit of a natural and benign God, rather than insatiable Mammon, can help shape a sustainable and beautiful man- made landscape. Not that we should be encouraging architects at home to ape his work - that would be folly, because his designs are indigenous and not readily transferable - but we need something of his fiery yet humble vision. "My buildings and architectural designs", he says, "do not come from me. They come from the landscape, from the local environment and from the ancient human spirit."

Imre Makovecz, 6.0pm, 7 May, RIBA Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1. Tickets pounds 5.50 (concessions, pounds 2.50); credit card bookings 0171- 631 0460 between 1.0pm and 5.0pm , Monday to Friday, or from RIBA Bookshop, as above.