Reconstruction and Invocation

Hungária Baths – Continental Hotel Zara

Architects: Péter Hegedűs, Ágnes Bolyó
Text: Péter Haba
Photos: Dániel Cser, Tamás Bujnovszky

The famous swimming hall of Hungária Baths in Pest – or at least what has been preserved of it – was given a facelift after a period of decay lasting more than 40 years: the site of the complex with a past of 190 years was treated as an issue of prestige by the investor constructing a hotel whilst also restoring this outstanding monument of Art Nouveau architecture in Budapest as authentic as possible.

As a result of careful protection a constituent of the city’s fabric important not only for architecture, but also for cultural history has been reborn. Designers, however, did not intend to make us forget the shocking destructions of the past decades with the spectacle of the reborn torso or to present it as a memento, a conserved relic or a frozen historic „document”. This principle – as we shall see – also defined the principles of reonstruction and the methodology of restoring details.
In 1827 András Gamperl, a merchant specialized in silk opened his bath on the site bordered by Dohány, Klauzál, Wesselényi and Nyár Streets. Remodelled and extended decade by decade, the institution was divided into two main parts: the stone and steam baths opening from Nyár Street and the public baths accessible from Klauzál Street. In 1897 the complex was purchased by the Ringer brothers who immediately started a large-scale development. They also bought the house at No. 44. Dohány Street in 1906 to construct a large imposing swimming hall on the site. The new wing was completed in 1908–1909 after designs by Emil Ágoston. This building was only used for a little more than ten years in its original function, as in the 1920s it was purchased by a bank and remodelled as a movie theatre. The building on the corner of Klauzál and Dohány Streets was demolished to be replaced by an Art Deco-style residential building designed by László Vágó (1928–1929). This was the time when the house on the corner of Dohány and Nyár Streets was developed into a hotel named Continental. From the 1950s on the swimming pool was used as a theatre and from the mid-1960s the other wings of the building were more and more neglected. On the closure of the hotel in 1970 also the fate of the baths was sealed.
The conditions of the precious house did not only deteriorate when they were abandoned, but also after their sale in 1996: after the demolitions following the „sudden deterioration” and „rapid crumblings” in 2002-2003 the hotel almost totally disappeared and only the staircase section and the main facade towards DohányStreet was preserved of the swimming hall to be included among protected monuments in 2005. The ruins and the site had new owners later on: in 2009 Zeina Hotel Ltd. started constructing the hotel here. The investor commissioned Petur Stúdió Bt with the architectural tasks with Péter Hegedűs as the designer in charge of the project (for the new hotel buildings) and Péter Vékony (the reconstruction of the old wing). The new hotel wings flank the old one: one of them is located on the site of the former Hotel Continental, whilst the other replaces the baths building behind the tenement house designed by Vágó (at No. 6. Klauzál Street). There are six storeys above the ground floor of the buildings completed with two levels of underground garages on both lots.
The gateway of the former bath hall functions now as the main entrance, whilst the business entrance opens from the facades in Nyár Street and that of the staff in Klauzál Street. Replacing Hotel Continental and adjusting to its developmental structure and proportions, the new building embraces a cortile with a restaurant on the ground floor open also towards the street: it has an entrance on the corner where that of the hotel had been. The wing in Klauzál Street with also access to the cortile houses conference rooms on the ground floor. The planes of the facade of the new structure on the sixth floor are receeded to have enough room for the roof terraces belonging to the apartmants. The gallery of the Art Nouveau-style wing functions as an imposing bar of the hotel topped with rooms from the second floor up, whilst the top level houses the wellness department immediately above the original roofing.
The wing on the corner of Dohány and Nyár Streets as well as the facades of the block in Klauzál Street are defined by a raster of simple rectangles. However, the window frames evoke the stone blocks projecting in a random fashion from the facade designed by Emil Ágoston, enhancing the sculpturesque quality of the spectacle. The facade toward Nyár Street gradually receedes in the direction of the neighbouring lower house to round off the junction of the two buildings. The emphasis of the corner is accentuated by the band of reclining openings turning over and the projecting constituent of the roof level with a glass partition.
The most luckily rich archive photo collection played a key role in the reconstruction of the Art Nouveau-style building torso – the original designs have been lost, just like the majority of the decorative elements applied onto the exterior stone surfaces and the interior structures. Relying upon the fragments and the photographs, the metal components were reproduced (such as the riveted flower-stands, flag poles, protective grilles and the reliefs of scenes with animals in the horizontal dividing band of the set of windows in the centre and the metal gate with revolving doors). The central part of the entablature crowning the facade as well as the majority of the ceramic tiles with animal motifs below and the triangular gable above were destroyed when the roof level was divided – this project restored all of them. Based on the surviving two lateral pieces and the photographs, the ceramic relief series were also restored just like the eosin-glazed „Hungária Baths” sign and the ceramic inserts of the consoles supporting the cornice above the gate. The stone relief above the gate – probably representing bathing characters of the antique mythology associated with the symbolism of water – was also reconstructed with due care,whilst the totally lost glazed tiling had to be reproduced. The wings of the metal gate as well as the reliefs above them are all reconstructions: the ornamentation of the former is associated with the four seasons and Jewish symbolism, whilst the latter are also compositions related to water and bathing.
The Art Nouveau-style building part is perilious, the new core of communication was constructed to replace the irreparable staircase and thus the original structure of the tract could be preserved unchanged. Only one section of the space of the former swimming pool has come down to us: actually it is a fragment of a pillar section joining the staircase. The two lateral stairways starting from the former foyer and leading to the gallery have also been restored and reconstructed in details just like the roofing above the gallery resembling a barrel-vault with its ceramic inserts and geometric ornamentation. However, the balustrade of the gallery is the architects’ invention: it was designed in line with the forms of the building and based on the designs of balustrades by Emil Ágoston found in other buildings. Several details of the ground-floor part of the flight of stairs have been adjusted to the new function. The swimming hall was partly reconstructed: the original was restored to three pillars’ depth graced with mosaics together with the ornate metal-covered timber blocking and coloured glass vaulting above them. Based on archive photos also the relief tondo series narrating the story of Amor and Psyche was reproduced. Other pillar sections of the hall have been replaced by a concrete structure on the cortile of the hotel evoking the proportions and basic forms of the space – the two different types of architectural solutions are separated by a glass partition fixed to one of the pairs of pillars cutting the tondos and their decoration into two whilst marking deliberately what is „non-original”. The vaulting of the exterior structure is replaced by wires for creepers. Proceeding in the direction of the cortile from the entrance within the space of the swimming hall one can witness a peculiar kind of transition: firstly a reconstruction as authentic as conditions allowed (even though some of the details are free interpretations), and then the reconstructions of forms and structures lost (still closely following the architecture and ornamentation by Emil Ágoston), and finally the reduced „installation” evoking the spatial form completes the overall impression. It appears as if we were advancing from the concrete and factual towards the non-concrete, the genuine to the décor, as if the old rich in craftsmanship-quality details would gradually vanish to be replaced by the much more unimaginative and mechanized architectural world of the hotel. This concept of course raises a number of questions, primarily because of the contact and visual „overlap” or shift of the hotel exposed via the glass partition and the reconstructed or evoked building parts.
The reconstruction presents a whole series of surprises: the extremely stripped-off building has revealed an extraordinarily rich and mysterious world of fine and applied arts blending naive narration and lush eroticism. Although it appears somewhat confused iconographically and stylistically, this is the reason why it could reflect mundane and probably frolic freedom evoking the bath culture of the early 20th century in a sensitive way.

Design: Petur Studió Bt.
Architects: Hegedűs Péter, Bolyó Ágnes
Monument reconstruction: Vékony Péter, Weiszhaupt Viktória – nirmana építésziroda kft.
Interior design: Vörös Virág, Sáfrány Csilla – StudioLoft Kft. (szálloda), Fülöp Krisztina – nirmana építésziroda kft. (műemléki terek), Fejes Gergő – Plusdesign Studio Kft. (étterem)
Landscape: Tihanyi Dominika, Kovács Árpád – UILandscapdeArchitects Kft.
Structure: Surányi György, Zajzon Judit – M. Plan Kft.
Installation: Szabó Levente – Deraplan Kft.
Electrical engineering: Kovács Zsuzsanna – Interház Tech Bt.
Monument reconstruction: Bor Ferenc művészettörténész, Hajdi Márta építészmérnök, Gaál Endre üvegművész restaurátor, Soós László kő, kerámia restaurátor, Györffy Ádám farestaurátor, Doncsev Antoni és Sajó Ákos fémrestaurátorok, Páhi Attila fém-ötvös restaurátor, Herling Zsuzsanna festő-restaurátor, Csajbók Csaba építészmérnök, Zeke László stukkó munkák – H-Y Kft.