Tamás Csáki: The Béla Lajta Virtual Archives – presenting the fragmented documents of an architectural oeuvre on the Internet


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Barcelona, 06.06.2011.


I would like to talk you about the “Béla Lajta Virtual Archives”, a website, that aims to present  documents on the life and work of an early 20th century Hungarian architect – Béla Lajta.

This website is being developed at the Budapest City Archives. Its initial version, then only in  Hungarian was launched last autumn on the occasion of an exhibition on the architect. The English version is a rather new development, in fact this event could be called its official launching.


–        before going into details about the website I would like to give you a brief and necessarily somewhat simplistic biographical sketch of the architect – I assume not everybody is familiar with his oeuvre, and I need to prove why he deserves a website of his own

–        then I would say a few word about the aims and motivations that led us to create the website

–        finally, I will lead you through the site, while browsing, I will speak not just about its structure, but the problems I faced during its construction and maintenance, and the sources, material I used


Béla Lajta (1873–1920)


–        a leading architect of the generation that followed that of Ödön Lechner – the father figure of Hungarian Art Nouveau. This generation produced its major works in the last decade of the Belle Époque, immediately before the WW1

–        Lajta had a short career of only two decades, built rather few works – of his 40 known architectural projects 20 were built, designed over 35 sepulchral monuments


–        born as Béla Leitersdorfer in a very well-to-do family of tailors and cloth merchants, who owned one of the largest such firms in Budapest, and he graduated as an architect at the local University of Technology, 1895.

–        After graduation he took extensive study trips in Western Europe and North-Africa, during which in Berlin he probably worked on the teams of Adolf Messel and that of Ernst von Ihne.

–        After his return to Hungary he had some success in architectural competitions. He soon joined Ödön Lechner’s movement for the national art nouveau style. For some years he invited Lechner to use his own studio and they worked together on several projects, small and large. His own work before 1905 also shows a strong lechnerian influence (in the handling of the masses, the folk art inspired motives, the polychromy)

–        After 1905, however, he distanced himself from Lechner’s way of expression, but he always regarded himself / and was acknowledged as a prime disciple of Lechner

–        From this time on he strived for a more sober, archaic and monumental architecture: using elements of English free style domestic architecture, contemporary North European architecture (especially Finnish National Romanticism), and local folk architecture as well. He also set out to develop a very personal ornamental language, mixing geometric patterns with more realistically handled natural motifs, patterns from folk textiles, woodcarvings etc.

–        Lajta’s commissioners were mainly the members of his own circles: first of all, his family, the Jewish bourgeoisie of Budapest and the Jewish charity organisations in the city. As the architectural advisor to the Pest Chevra Kadisa he was in charge of the city’s Jewish cemeteries, and from this time on the design of sepulchral monuments gained a special significance in his oeuvre.

–        Around 1908, with the Ceremonial Hall of the Jewish Cemetery and the Parisiana night club came a period of transition: they carry on several details from the former period (details, materials), but a further formal reduction is clearly perceptible.

–        In his mature work strived to create a modern yet enduring style, characterised by reducing mass to basic geometrical shapes, arriving at monumentality through the simplicity of form and the refined choice of materials as well as a clear display of the interior arrangement in the facade divisions. On these buildings, his mostly folk art inspired ornamentation  is arranged in swathes or plaques – and it makes a powerful contrast with the broad, unadorned surfaces of the walls or building fronts.

–        Of equal importance are three residential blocks of the capital, which offered exemplary solutions to the problems of the metropolitan building-type combining trade and residential functions.

–        Between 1911 and 1914 he worked on the unrealized project of a Budapest Municipal Library, which was planned to be a unique building both in terms of size and cultural and social significance.

–        His late work shows a renewed interest in historical architecture, which was typical of the age – but he used historical compositional solutions, details in a more abstract way than  his contemporaries.

–        Behind the great formal variety of his buildings, his ever changing, rather elusive style – there was always a rational, straightforward and inventive design method for which he was praised by contemporaries

–        After several inactive years during WW1 he died at the age of 47 in 1920.


Why were these Virtual Archives produced?


–        First I have to mention the very peculiar state of research / knowledge on Béla Lajta:

–        The importance of his work has always been acknowledged. He has occupied an eminent role in the narratives of the local modern movement and the national architectural movement as well.

–        There is only one monograph on him, that of Ferenc Vámos from 1970. It has its merits, but which conveys a very subjective, distorted image of the architect is not a well researched book, to say the least. In the last decades the scientific and popular literature on Lajta has been determined by this book – this is true of the web as well – these outdated views recur again and again.

–        Conditions of research were rather bad: most of his buildings survive in a damaged or altered state (although being mostly listed monuments), the personal archives of the architect are lost – there is no Lajta-bequest in any museum.

–        Budapest City Archives hold not just the records of the municipal administration, but also a vast collection of 19-20th century architectural drawings. As a part of this we  keep most of the documents pertaining to the life and work of the Béla Lajta as well. Not just architectural drawings, but records of the trade activity of his family, documents on his private life and professional career, as well as on the construction, maintenance, demolition etc. of  the buildings he designed.

–        That’ why back in early 2009 we decided to devote our yearly architectural exhibition to his architecture – the other reason being, that he is my favourite architect –


–        we had to decide what kind of publication shall accompany the exhibition:

–        to put it simply: the archives had no money to publish a decent catalogue, and I had no time to edit it besides curating the exhibition

–        I thought that my research was not advanced enough to be published in a printed form, but there was a wealth of material which we could not put on show  in the exhibition

–        Web based publication, Virtual Archive offered a relatively cheap, open ended, augmentable, easily accessible solution.

–        We hoped that it can be useful for specialists, students studying the period, or the architecture of Budapest – at the same time it can give the general public browsing the web  more reliable information than what is generally found there.

–        From the onset I wished to have the homepage in English as well – this has a chance to reach an international audience, while a catalogue published in Budapest has not


Presentation of the Virtual Archives


–        received financial help from the municipality of Budapest and from two foundations (a private and a state one)

–        organized in cooperation with several public and private collections (museums, archives, libraries), architectural offices, private persons – due to this cooperation the homepage can aspire to comprehensiveness: all the accessible Lajta-drawings, most of the known period photographs are or will be on the website

–        Website was created by a small firm making mostly commercial sites – they applied a rather simple software, commonly used in commerce, called WordPress – open access, so very low-cost, easily adjustable, certainly easy to manage, upload new documents – so I do not need the constant help of an IT specialist – it has several limitations

–        Links, Bibliography, On Béla Lajta

–        these two categories form core of the archives: Biographical documents / Oeuvre

–        What you find under the first heading – is sadly mostly in Hungarian, so not accessible to foreign public – some of the entries are

Biographical documents

–        Documents on the Leitersdorfer family

–        Photo of their Kossuth Lajos Street shop – it can viewed it in a high resolution, higher than what is usual on museum or archival homepages. For me it was very important, that the visitors of the virtual archives can really study the architectural drawings, period photographs online, can see the details, inscriptions. On the other side was the acceptable reservation of the lending institutions, who wanted to avoid the unauthorised reproduction of their items. So I tried to find a resolution that makes this detail-study possible, but is still not print quality.

–        A gallery of portrait photos on Béla Lajta

–        Lajta’s photo collection that he gathered on his early study trips in Europe: now only a small selection is available, I hope I will be able to upload much broader selection, and show Lajta’s “musée imaginaire”. Every image is downloadable – which is also important if we want people to use the website, but most images are watermarked: Béla Lajta Virtual Archives plus the name of the institution that owns the specific item.

–        Items of Lajta’s art collection: that extended from avant-garde painting, to African sculpture, to Torah ornaments, and to the folk art of different ethnic groups of Hungary – and to bits and pieces of medieval Islamic ceramics – introduced by an orientalist expert

–        Texts on Béla Lajta – again for the local public

–        Problem of copyright: a burning issue in all web-based projects

–        most of these texts are still under copyright (the authors have died less then 70 years ago)

–        according to the regulations:  I should acquire authorization from each and every right-holder of every text personally – impossible

–        very difficult, impossible  to determine who the copyright holders are (Pál Nádai)

–        similar problem with photographs and with some architectural drawings –  plans of later additions, renovations of the Lajta-buildings etc. – where we managed to get authorisation in most cases

–        It would be a great loss to omit for example these texts: very interesting, lot of them have remained unknown, uncited up to now, and some are hardly accessible (missing from the collections of the National Library)

–        I do not have any economic gain from maintaining the website, and those who use it or download images can not really make any such gain either – I think that we are justified in doing so

The Oeuvre

–        possible way of searching and browsing on the site: either using the tags or the search engine, browse through the gallery of thumbnails or a chronological list

–        every known work of Lajta has its own page – except for the sepulchral monuments, that are gathered on one page

–        What do we have on a page?


Charity Home of the Pest Chevra Kadisa

–        huge hospital building for the incurably ill standing in a villa suburb of Pest

–        drawings pertaining to the different stages of the planning process of the original building:

–        Competition plans

–        important to be able to evaluate the merits of Lajta’s solutions: Entries of the other competitors – these are mostly from contemporary architectural publications

–        Planning drawings – mostly from our collection, plans handed in to acquire the building permit

–        Charity Home: lots and lots of version were produced by Lajta, only one complete series of plans survive + one elevation published in a contemporary weekly

–        Photographs documenting the original state of the building

–        period photos

–        fine series of photographs, of different quality (some by the leading architectural photographers of the time – photos from weekly press),

–        photos available in the 1960s but untraceable today – reproduced form the 1970 monograph

–        some vintage prints as well

–        mid-war photos, that still show the original state of the building

–        Archival material

–        from the collection of the City Archives and from other collections as well, in this case the Archives of the Hungarian Jewish Community – I know, that some will stop browsing the page here, I hope that there will be some more curious people who go further, mostly for the Hungarian public too

–        (only photographed samples, will be scanned in good quality):  minutes of the competition and the building committee, Lajta’s own description of the building,  the yearly report of the Chevra listing the donations, bringing all the orations read at the opening ceremony

–        Press material – not just periodicals, but every contemporary published material: in this case the statutes of the institution, articles from architectural reviews and from weeklies and dailies

–        Documents on the afterlife of the building: mixed media (photos, drawings, texts) documenting the major events that happened to the building after inauguration

–        photos, measured drawings: of very poor quality, but they document for example how the garden side used to look like, which is now partly hidden by later additions –

–        some drawings of later additions: how a 1980s post-modern building reflected to the architecture of Lajta

–        Documentation of the actual state of the building: is mostly documented on photos the photographer of our Archives Levente Bartha took this spring / there are also some very fine measured drawings I received from architects working/have worked on the renovation of the buildings

–        show the main exterior and interior views of the building to show the alterations it suffered

–        tried to record every existing original building part, detail – because they are constantly disappearing (some were lost during the two years of our project)

–        elements that were not photographed at the time of the inauguration


Shop and Apartment Block of the Lajta Brothers

–        the building owned by his brothers, housed the family tailoring workshop

–        figures in every Hungarian book on art history, considered to be one of Lajta’s masterpieces, shows him as a forerunner of modernism – one of the first 20th century building to be listed as a monument

–        Detail drawings for the cornice and the string courses from the archives of the manufacturer of the tiles, the Zsolnay Co.

–        Interior photos of the ground floor music shop – gem of art nouveau interior design by Lajos Kozma, working in Lajta’s office at the time

–        hardly any period photos or archival documents

–        An enormous amount of documents about the afterlife of the building:

–        photos, drawings showing the changes in the commercial levels, in the storefronts

–        among them private photos – from a website collecting private photos – I hope this will prove to be an important way for the enrichment of the archives

–        archival material, reconstruction plans  from the records of the Municipal authority for monument protection

–        in a miniature detail they tell how the attitude towards art nouveau architecture changed between 1930s and the 1990s – and together with the up-to-date photo documentation they tell the sad story about the powerlessness of Hungarian heritage protection