Architecture: Welcome to the West, Budapest: Behind the grime, a romantic spirit that our own fin de siecle will never match. Angela Lambert celebrates its eccentric elegance

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The Independent Culture
THERE remains at the beginning of 1993 a spirit of jubilation in Budapest. It comes from the relief felt by some of the most nationalistic people on earth at being free from Communist domination, and their excitement at sharing Western Europe's political ideology - which some call capitalism, others democracy. There will never be a better time to go to Hungary and share this exhilaration, before it is overtaken by economic disillusionment or modified by commercial influences from the West.

Already Germany, Sweden, the United States and other investors with seed-corn money are cashing in on the new opportunities. The square, skeletal underpinnings of new projects are being erected behind fences in the centre of the city by building firms from Frankfurt or Sweden. Businessmen confer in every hotel bar and work out the forints (roughly 125 to the pound) at breakfast meetings. Within the next decade Budapest will have been transformed from what is still essentially a 19th-century city into one bearing all the hallmarks of the third millennium.

Freedom is a rare experience for the Hungarians. From 1526 until 1686 they were ruled by the Turks. Then came the Habsburgs, until the 1848 revolution led to compromise with Austria. In 1872 the two halves of the city were united: the medieval castle area of Buda on a hill above the Danube, and the town called Pest, huddled on the plain beside the river. For a few decades there was an explosion of energy and culture. Everything flourished - music, painting, poetry, gastronomy, but above all architecture.

Grand boulevards lined with theatres and opera houses were laid out; museums, banks, apartment blocks, insurance offices, even an underground train system were built; and with them the whole confident infrastructure of 19th-century prosperity. The population quintupled. The city must have resounded to the noise of hammering.

A new and passionate Magyar pride built a cosmopolitan capital to rival Vienna and even Paris in hardly more than 50 years.

The buildings range from the pompous and pillared neo-Classical, some wonderfully confident and eccentric mixtures in an eclectic style, and culminate in the opulent orchidaceous flowering of Art Nouveau. Today they are grimy and pock-marked from war and revolution and, above all, neglect; but the government has earmarked money to restore their architectural glories and the work has begun. The effects of the noxious exhaust fumes of half a million Trabants (70 times more polluting than Western cars) are being cleaned away to reveal the astounding buildings hidden behind the dirt.

Take the Museum of Applied Arts, built in 1896. It was designed by Odon Lechner, the most famous practitioner of what Hungarians call the eclectic style, in partnership with Gyula Partos. This wonderfully exotic building combines strong Turkish influences with Art Nouveau. The street entrance has a ceiling like a Persian garden carpet: a riot of intertwining flowers and leaves above an irrepressible cast-iron gateway. Its floor is set with mosaic and the elaborate stonework is ochre with white embellishments. After this one is prepared for anything - except what lies inside: pure, cool white.

It is arched and balconied, delicately pierced and pillared like a Turkish seraglio; the shapes are curvaceous and insinuating, lit from above by a wide glass span on iron struts, from which are suspended Turkish mosque lamps. It would be intolerably lush and distracting but for the inspiration of ice white.

Colour was more often a feature of Budapest's Art Nouveau. The Blue Renthouse (1904) is faced with sugared almond pink and blue, full of energy and humour. In the centre of the city, the Central Post Office Savings Bank was designed (again) by Lechner in 1910 and was originally pale ochre yellow. It has faded to gloomy grey, but the job of cleaning it has begun. The completed building will look dazzlingly fresh. The looping, snail-trail silhouette of its roof is formed by outlining a series of rose-petal shapes above the top row of windows punctuated by a series of decorative, stylised flowers. The flamboyant Spanish Art Nouveau architect Gaudi looks restrained by comparison - and this was the building in which the thrifty citizen was encouraged to deposit his savings.

There are many more such romantic symbols of the world of arts and science which the new century seemed to herald. One villa, for instance, was built at the very end of the old century, in 1899, for a wealthy patron in the part of Budapest where the rich and fashionable then lived. Now it is the diplomatic quarter, and the villa in question has become the Libyan embassy. Its facade is dominated by a long frieze of writhing female statuary above the main window. That window is surrounded by a wasp-waisted grille, corseting it like whalebone. Today the cast-iron curves are a modest dark green, but when newly built they were gold.

Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of these buildings is the fidelity with which they mirror the spirit of the times. They reflect not only the era's economic prosperity but also its preoccupation with the new theories of Freud in Vienna; the writing of Huysmans in Paris and Oscar Wilde in London. They reflect the new passion for all things Oriental, from the Egyptian (made newly fashionable and accessible by the construction of the Suez Canal) to the Japanese (brought to the West by the ending of centuries of cultural isolation). All these influences combined to produce some of the most exuberant yet cerebral architecture to be seen anywhere in Europe.

At street level, the buildings often seem bland and featureless, a hangover from decades of drab Soviet functionalism. But look up. At roof level they blossom into a riot of statuary, exotic undulating tiles and ironwork; of mythical beings in gold and mosaic, glittering in the light. The humblest apartments are embellished with balconies pouting like the decolletages of operatic beauties, or hydra-headed monsters, sea-horses and dolphins, gods and goddesses and Magyar heroes. The pride and energy of the decade is manifest in brick and stone, metalwork, marble and mosaic. Our own fin de siecle promises no such beauty.

(Photograph omitted)

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