Miklós Ybl, the capital-letter master of historicism

Miklós Ybl is the most influential Hungarian master architect of the 19th century, who excelled with his talent since his youth. As a renowned architect, he exceeded his contemporaries with his extraordinary working capacity. He did not only work as a manager in his office, but also carried out, or at least supervised, almost all phases of the planning himself. The richness of genre of Ybl’s oeuvre shows how versatile creator he was. From tenement houses of Pest to the Opera House building and to the large-scale complex of the Castle Garden Bazaar, the image of Budapest is still defined by the greatest part of his work. In our latest selection, we pay tribute to his oeuvre.

Master and his disciple

044331.jpgMiklós Ybl was born in Székesfehérvár in 1814. His family was of Austrian descent originally. As the drawing skills of the young Miklós showed up early, he was sent to study at the Vienna Polytechnic, as there was no similar educational institution in Hungary at that time. A characteristic of the “architect training” operating within the framework of the guilds of the time was that the young pupils began their apprenticeship with a master. In the course of working together, usually a close relationship developed between the master and his disciple, and this was the case with Ybl too. When the young man finished his studies in Vienna, he began his apprenticeship with Mihály Pollack, and until 1836, he worked in the office of the classicist master. The good relationship with the Pollack family was not broken even later, when Ybl was employed by the famous Viennese architect Heinrich Koch. Indirectly, due to Pollack's acquaintance with Count Károlyi, he could work as the manorial architect of the famous protector István Károlyi.

After leaving Koch, he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, and then during his wanderings he visited several Italian cities, from Venice to Florence. When he returned home, he applied for admission to the Construction Guild of Pest, but his application was rejected, despite the cordial-tone letters of recommendation, his masterpiece was not ready. In the absence of the right to build independently, Ybl associated with Mihály Pollack’s son Ágoston, and their jointly established Institute of Architecture was located on the corner of Dorottya Street in the downtown. However, their joint venture was not long-lived, as Ágoston carried on the workshop of his father after his death (1855). Yet it was an important stage, the result of their cooperation was the reconstruction of the Batthyány Castle in Ikervár.

In the service of the Károlyi family


In 1843 he passed the theoretical examination of a master builder, while he received more and more orders from the Károlyi family, including the Kaplony church and the Kaplony crypt of the Károlyi family. In 1845, Count Károlyi decided to build a church in Fót, which also served as a family burial chamber, and asked Miklós Ybl to make the plans. Ybl initially planned to transform and expand the one-nave baroque church here, but eventually it was demolished and a new church was built, which is one of the most beautiful examples of Hungarian romanticist architecture (semicircular arch romanticism). Fót was not only the place of his first independent work, it could have been a kind place for Ybl, since on 30 January 1851, he married Ida Lafite, the governess of the Károlyi family born in Graz. The architect was 50 years old when his only child, Felix, was born. In fact, the family had expanded earlier, because after Mihály Pollack’s death, his granddaughter named Maria was adopted by Ybl and his wife. Ybl became the manorial architect of the Károlyi family officially in 1847, and although he remained so until 1861, half a year after his wedding, the family moved to Pest.

Unger House, House of Representatives, Opera

Olaszintezet_02.jpgYbl's first work in Pest was the well known “wooden-cube passage house”, the Unger House (1852-53) on the then “country road and Hungarian street” (today Múzeum Boulevard). The customer was a descendant of the blacksmith Benedek Unger, who had a blacksmith workshop on the corner of Magyar Street. The builder's brother Antal married one of Mihály Pollack's daughters. We are probably not wrong to assume that the connection was from here, and that is why Henrik Unger may have entrusted Ybl with the construction of the house. The building was born at the same time as the church in Fót and shows great kinship with the romantic-looking church building. After becoming a guild member, Ybl said goodbye to the romanticist style and turned to the Neo-Renaissance trend. It was around this time that the House of Representatives was built at number 8 in today's Bródy Sándor Street (now the Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest) The construction began on 11 September 1865, and was completed in a few months.


The most beautiful and certainly the best-known work of the Ybl oeuvre is the Budapest Opera House. The construction of the Opera House was necessary mainly because the National Theatre was less and less able to meet the demands that would have required the staging of dramatic plays as well as the performance of operas. At the suggestion of Prime Minister Menyhért Lónyay, Bódog Orczy, the director of the National Theatre, outlined a comprehensive plan for the future building in the form of a petition in 1872. In 1873, the Metropolitan Council of Public Works and Franz Joseph I accepted the initiative. A design competition was issued, to which six architects were invited: Miklós Ybl, Imre Steindl, Antal Skalnitzky, István Linczbauer, and two foreign architects. Of the works received, Miklós Ybl's plan was considered to be worth implementing. An important condition of the tender was that only Hungarian masters could work using domestic raw materials. Ybl complied with this request, with five exceptions: the marble cladding came from Carrara, the granite columns from Austria, the oak and cedar cladding from Italy, the stage technology from Vienna, and the chandelier arrived from Mainz. The building permit was issued in 1875, but the original plan had to be reworked several times by the architect, for example because the emperor wanted the Pest Opera House not to be bigger than the Vienna one. The opening performance took place nine years later, on 27 September 1884. Nowadays, the grandiose building will reopen soon after a five-year renovation.

The church builder

Ybl also excelled as a church builder; his significant works include the already mentioned church in Fót and the parish church in Ferencváros on Bakáts Square. However, his most grandiose work was undoubtedly the construction of St. Stephen's Basilica. He was asked to build the church in 1867, after the death of József Hild. Ybl inspected the finished parts and indicated his reservations about the formation of the pillars supporting the dome, but before he could begin work indeed, the dome collapsed on 22 January 1868. Ybl made new plans; the demolition of the defective parts was a time-consuming task, so construction did not restart until 1875. Ybl broke with Hild's Hellenistic idea and dreamed of a Neo-Renaissance basilica instead. A new dome was made, and the cross was put on the top of it in 1889. The plans were not changed even when Ybl died in 1891. According to his idea, work continued under the supervision of József Kauser, who had to form the interior of the church.

However, with Ybl’s death, another significant work was also interrupted; the expansion of the royal palace in Buda Castle, which was taken over by his disciple, Alajos Hauszmann. According to contemporary reports, Miklós Ybl was a strong-built man, he did not seem 77 years old, and no one supposed that an unexpected illness could be fatal to him. He was a much-employed, high-influence artist, who was recognized throughout his life, and was accompanied on his last journey by masses of people to the Kerepesi Cemetery.

Translated by Zita Aknai








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