The population of urbanizing Budapest increased exponentially by the 1900s, but the city could not provide a sufficient number and quality of homes for those who moved here in the hope of getting a job. Half of the population either lived in one-room flats or rented only beds. Of course, the housing needs of workers and low-wage government employees were the most awaited. In 1908, at the initiative of Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle, the state purchased a property for sale in Kispest to establish a workers' settlement there.
As a first step, a lime-sand brick factory was built on the edge of the area, as the sand from here was used for brick production. When the bill to build the site came out in 1908, it was an important consideration not to waste state money. Of course, this did not mean that poor quality raw materials were used. The widespread use of sand-lime bricks began in the 1700s, mainly in areas of the Netherlands, where 80% of dwellings are still made of this material. It was a well-known building material in Hungary at the beginning of the century, but after the Second World War, its use was forgotten against reinforced concrete.
A public tender was then announced for the design of the house types and the regulation of the area to be built. Both tenders received 30-30 applications, but Sándor Wekerle did not like either of the zoning plans, so he entrusted Ottmár Győri, the chief engineer of the Royal Hungarian Ministry of Finance, with the planning. He was the one who dreamed of a street layout orthogonal to each other.
The garden-style construction was proposed by one of the designers of the houses in the residential area, the famous architect of the time, Róbert Fleischl. There were many people of rural origin among the state employees, for whom it would have been a drastic change to move into crowded tenement houses. It was therefore an important consideration to design an environment familiar to them.
Eighty percent of the workers worked for state-owned companies, such as the tobacco factory, the MÁV Machine Factory or the post office. In total, between 1908 and 1930, 20,000 people got housing. As for the house types, 48 different types were finally made, which also differed in their facade design and colouring. For example, Károly Kós designed the later Fő (Main) Square - today Károly Kós Square - but although he was the responsible architect of the square, he could not design more than two houses - this was one of the stipulations of the tender - nor the other architects who won the other tenders.
The designers of the buildings of the settlement can be found among the “Youth” group: the already mentioned Róbert Fleischl, Dezső Zrumeczky - the gate he made is the most famous element in Kós Károly Square -, Lajos Schodits, Béla Eberling, and the designers of the later buildings, Dénes Györgyi Gyula Wälder or Béla Heintz.
Seventy percent of the dwellings were ground-floor houses, thirty percent of them were multi-storey; there were mainly 2 rooms in the dwellings, 1 room less frequently, and 3 rooms in the clerks’ flats. Architects had to design 44-46 square-metre apartments, and it was determined how large each room could be: clerks’ apartments were slightly larger, and workers’ apartments were smaller.
What was life like on the estate?
Since all the buildings were state-owned, both the residents and the users of the business premises were just tenants.
There were strict rules for renting flats, only the tenant and his or her spouse, their children, their parents, grandparents, unmarried or single siblings, and the siblings' dependent children were allowed to be accommodated. The rent was usually paid quarterly in advance, usually by state-owned companies, and it was later deducted from workers’ wages.
Not only the tenants had to take care of order, cleanliness and calmness, but they also had to warn their relatives about these rules. In general, great emphasis was placed on selecting tenants, and troublemaker, lazy people were not welcomed at Wekerle. Keeping small pets was allowed only in a confined space, but larger domestic animals were not allowed at all.
The Wekerle Guardianship was responsible for creating the preconditions for the intended use, maintaining the premises, beautifying the area and keeping it clean. The first head of the guardianship office was the already mentioned Ottmár Győri.
The Guardianship was also responsible for carrying out necessary repairs to the public areas and buildings, plant and other equipment of the quarter, scavenging streets, renting apartments, collecting and accounting for rents, and monitoring compliance with the rules for residents of tenements. As for the comfort of the flats, they had a central water supply - in Szigetszentmiklós a separate machine house provided the water supply to the district - which was part of the rent. The rooms and kitchen had heating installed. There was a toilet in every apartment, but bathroom was not. According to the original plans, public baths would have been built here, but this did not happen.
The proportion of green areas created during planning also contributes to the special atmosphere of the whole area. The plane trees still seen today are also the fruits of this wise foresight. They planted 50,000 trees in public areas and also gave the residents fruit trees that they could plant in their gardens. Not only the residential buildings of Wekerle, but also its public buildings are special. In addition to the flats, they designed architecturally accentuated public buildings, schools, kindergartens and churches as well. Originally, every denomination would have had a church, eventually only the Reformed and Catholic churches were built. The Catholic church dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker in Kós Károly Square was built in the Neo-Romanesque style and was consecrated in 1932. Reformed Bishop Dr. László Ravasz consecrated the Reformed Church in September 1928.
The Wekerle Social Circle, which forms the community life of the settlement, was founded in 1910 and still operates today. The main goal of the association was to shape the residents into a community, which is why the choir, orchestra and sports circles of the residential area were established. Despite the fact that workers came here from different parts of the country, they soon forged together, and local patriotism in Wekerle is still legendary today.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Építészeti kézikönyv: Wekerletelep értékőrző megújulásáért / Wekerlei Társaskör Egyesület Építészklubja, Budapest, Wekerlei Társaskör Egyesület, 2010-2014.