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  • Prepared Architecture

    Critical Thoughts on the Building of Rácz Baths in Budapest

    Architect: Tamás Dévényi
    Text: Levente Szabó
    Photos: Tamás Bujnovszky

    We may as well have got used to it that an architectural work is only circumscribable at best: we are trying to use analogies, parallels, poetic or less poetic images, metaphors or associations, quotations and quotation marks to do so. Actually, however, it is only space, proportions, sounds, lights and colours, recollections that occur to us accompanied by associations of our own.

    The narrative – in which the building to be analyzed here is extraordinarily rich by its very nature – may only influence the basic experience of our perception and sensation at the most, without our being able to define it. It is true that we can tell the same story in words (e.g. the filling up of the street level in the Baroque era, the evolution of the Turkish bath, its remodelling and extension by Ybl, the demolitions because of the war or the construction of Elizabeth Bridge and Hegyalja Street, etc.), but when it comes to perceiving the work as a whole it does not actually add up to much. It is a new single building created, born, evolved and designed here – our task is to describe this „one” as it is a new building without stories describable in words, a structure that stands in front of the percipient without words.

    The basic situation was given: built in various periods, often fragmentary, partly in archive photographs, partly in concealed and remodelled way, but besides each other, intertwining and filtering through one another the existing structures wished to have a new formulation, addition and primarily spatial relations. There were a variety of objects scattered in front of the architect here before starting the designing process, which he looked at and dusted, but he also created new ones of his own. However, the result is not a homogeneous framework, but the co-existence of objects and spaces with a wide variety of identities, origins and functions. This kind of tension is the fundamental proposition of my criticism.

    This building takes on the fragmentary character resulting from its basic situation, translating a kind of porosity into the language of forms. It is not only an issue of abstract forms and aesthetics: the revelation of the building is only fragmentary, thus when visiting it, we only experience it in parts. The fragments derive from three sources: the reconstructions of the original structures, the evokations of in situ unprecedented rooms (e.g. the shower hall by Ybl) and the newly constructed parts.

    The reconstruction of historic parts reflects an exemplary attitude of architects. The research work done to explore the original conditions as precisely as possible and the reconstruction of the structure itself is a remarkable architectural achievement deserving credit: it sets an exceptionally high standard by restoring the original structure although there were only incomplete sources to rely upon when doing so. There are certain parts where reconstruction is almost exclusive. A success of the struggle with the archeological concept is that the spaces of the Turkish bath are ready to use partly in the original material reality, that is the spaces with a past of several centuries retain their functions and thus offer an elementary experience for visitors. It is understandable that the part at the deepest point of the complex regarding both space and time exerts the most intensive influence on us which is directly sensuous, or even dramatic, and it is not an exaggerations. Materials, lights and the story create a unity here to which every visitor may contribute with the knowledge they were born with or acquired so that they can go on constructing the complex. The same kind of unambiguity is expressed by the hot-water pool hall designed by Ybl. Certain parts are defined by contemporary additions: Flóra bath, for example, is a pool hall belonging to the VIP section which has been completed with modern details (such as the double glazed glass roof on the gallery also designed by Ybl). However, there are parts where an element newly designed creates new situations and explains historical context. Such an addition is artificial stone lining in the Baroque entrance gate, simultaneously capable of levelling the never existed grade difference without creating a new plinth for the Baroque building which had not existed before. This solution in itself is a brilliant and exemplary architectural twist, but still appears as an inserted object in the complex like a prothesis interpretable in itself. Dévényi and his fellow architects seem to have wandered in-between historic periods and their imprints in an enthusiastic way, considering and reconsidering from time to time every architectural decision concerning even the tiniest details.

    A disputable point of the building is the construction of the shower hall by Ybl on a site where it had never actually existed before. Based on contemporary photographs, the reconstruction of the interior spatial configuration is a convincing one even if the details of the interior originating from 1865–70 do not appear as influential and relevant as those of the structures built earlier or those of reconstructed now. The designer’s decision to present this space as a model set in another, which means it appears as the negative of the interior in its exterior form, is actually an innovative solution to a problem seemingly insoluble. The situation would probably have been made unambiguous if it did not strain to space to such extent, if we could perambulate it completely and if the two-storey gallery was also presented around the two-storey model.

    Based on a triangle, the pillar and skylight raster of the new building parts homogeneously and consequently fill in the gaps between historic sections: the denominations given by the designer („custard” and „sieve”) precisely reflects the intention at least. Holes in the raster to filter through light (sources of artificial and natural light as well) are present as fine reinterpretations of the opeions of Turkish baths. The implacability of the raster organizes and coordinates the appearance of the new developments. However, the spatial units born this way – I suspect primarily because of their dimensions – appear as fragments of a fabric instead of a unifying one. They undoubtedly resemble one another as well as the micro-world they reconstruct in themselves. It makes it more understandable that these spatial units behave in a different way in different positions. There is no doubt that the basic idea is the most powerful one where light conditions are the most restrained (they would probably function most effectively where exposed to light coming from above exclusively). The zone of the building part with a buttress from the direction of Hegyalja Street turns with a single glass partition to the yard revealing the Turkish cupolas, but it is basically positioned as an internal and closed unit. This is where the raster-based organization is seen at its best. Spaces where the interior raster receives a significantly large surface of the elevation compared to its own dimensions (e.g. the business premises and restaurant towards the River Danube or the space around the model by Ybl from the direction of the hotel), the space lit from above is also beginning to lose its meaning and significance. In some cases it raises functional issues: it is enough to think of the completely glazed rest area on the ground-floor next to the model facing the public square. It causes a painful absence that the top-floor adventure bath space with eight swimming pools has not been built eventually as it would have been an exciting layer enriching the complex by joining the one on the roof terrace.

    The exterior of the elevation shows the same kind of fragmentariness as the interior. With regard to the articulation of the former structure of lots created here in about 1860 this present-day, also articulated reinterpretation is understandable even if the architecture of the neighbouring hotel is quite a different world. This way the structure of the reconstructed main entrance, the Baroque elevation and the two new facades with glass lamellas are completed with its black mosaic covered hole architecture. This kind of embarrassing diversity may be explained by the former layout of lots but it is a fact that the fragments with their own identity are perceptible here orthogonally which is embarrassing to some extent. The same does not hold true of the development viewed from Hegyalja Street as it is hardly visible from that direction: the solid elevations of the existing building parts present step down gradually as counterforts (let us now forget about the criticism of the engineering equipment of the roof), reacting to the foot-of-mountain situation.

    The architectural fragments concerned above are revealed almost like a display. Designers have proven to be excellent dramaturgs as visitors find themselves in ever-changing situations owing to transparencies and retrospections. This is illustrated by the entrance route from the main structure to the Baroque street level leading out and downward as well as the gateway functioning as the actual access route to the entrance. A series of sophisticated gestures attracts us closer and closer to the building. Looking out from the interior first we perceive the Turkish cupolas wrapped in lead. We pass by them starting out from the corners of the yard embracing all of them. Another example of the dramatic way of guiding visitors here is that after getting dressed we catch sight of the yard opening up from the space accessible via the stairs to the ground floor. Designers furnished it as a huge shopwindow which paradoxically functions by looking out from the interior. Two Turkish cupolas are present here in the yard along with the stained-rolled partition-walls of the structures built in different periods embracing it (the latter explain why the former interiors have been moved into exterior spatial situation).

    Every carefully designed homogeneous square metre of the development embody the same quantity of thought. To put it another way: nothing is left for chance (the user). It is not a sensuous kind of architecture, which is typical of contemporary architecture associated with bathing culture. Here we primarily rely upon our intellect instead of our senses and elementary experience (e.g. the bath in Vals designed by Zumthor). The building may have justification when visits without a guide and utilization allows for individual interpretation, emphasizing spatial parts, and when visitors themselves shall create their hierarchy which is now missing. When the building shall stand on its own without the designer’s narrative.

    Previous plans: Kaszab Ákos† (2001-2006)
    General design: Dévényi Tamás – Budapesti Műhely Kft. (2007)
    Architects: Dévényi Tamás, Kis Péter, Pethő László
    Fellow architects: Bun Zoltán, Balázsa Gábor, Mihály Eszter, Takács Orsolya, Vadász Viktor, Valkai Csaba, Varga Anikó
    Architecture, interior design: Dévényi Tamás, Valkai Csaba, Varga Anikó, Máté Orsolya, Mihály Eszter, Szakmári Donát, Ükös Tamás, Vadász Viktor
    Structure: Szabó András, Tamássy Tamás
    Installation: Barta Ervin
    Landscape: Szalkai Adrienne – Pigment Stúdió Kft.
    Public utilities: Simon bálint – Siengi Kft.
    Archaeology: Papp Adrienn – BTM
    Monument experts: Bor Ferenc, Bartos György – Hild-Ybl Alapítvány