Ignác Alpár, master of late historicism
Ignác Alpár was one of the outstanding architects of historicism at the turn of the century. He worked in almost every architectural genre, but without doubt, one of the highlights of his career was the Historical Main Group of the Millennium Exhibition, the building complex known as the Vajdahunyad Castle in the City Park. It is no coincidence that he is also regarded as a "bank building specialist", as his career took off by designing buildings such as the Tőzsdepalota (Stock Exchange Palace) on Szabadság Square. In our latest selection, we look back at the stories of some of his famous buildings.
A Hauszmann’s student
Ignác Alpár (born Schöckl) was born into a family of industrialists with many children, and Austrian origin on his father's side, on 17 January 1855 in Pest. His father was a renowned master carpenter who made a considerable fortune. Ignác was educated at the Downtown Public School (now Eötvös Secondary School). He was far from being an eminent student, as most monographs about him point out, but he was always outstanding in architecture and nature study. His father had intended him to be a carpenter, but the boy had other ideas. He knew that his father could only be dissuaded from passing on his craft with outside help. That mysterious outside help was none other than Alajos Hauszmann. He met the famous architect when his father’s firm was making the carpenter-work for a tenement house of Hauszmann, and young Ignác was the courier between the two masters. After convincing his father, Hauszmann took Alpár into his office and Alpár worked for him for almost 12 years. During this period, he went through the usual path of an architect, he was made a mason in 1873 and on the recommendation of his master, he travelled to Berlin to attend the Academy of Architecture, followed by a study trip to Italy. In 1881, after returning home - his name was then hungarianized - he was again employed in the office of Alajos Hauszmann, who invited him to work as an assistant in the Department of Decorative Architecture at the University of Technology. In the following period, his private life also underwent great changes. In 1883, he married Antónia Orth, with whom he lived happily until her death in 1918 and whom he always regarded as his guiding star.
The excellent relationship between the master and his student was not so cloudless by this time, and their disagreement became irreconcilable when Hauszmann refused to support Alpár's appointment as a teacher at the University of Technology.
Hauszmann remembers the conflict as follows: “He was almost demanding, and made it my moral duty to patronise him, as his long service to me had earned him that distinction. I told him that this was impossible and that his ambition could not be satisfied, because he lacked the necessary qualifications, as 4 years of public school education would not make a teacher at the University of Technology, especially as he had not prepared for a teaching career."
After the incident, Alpár started his own business and his workshop soon became the largest design office of the dualist era, and the biographies of countless architects mention that they worked for Alpár for short or long periods.
He built a great deal not only in the territory of today’s Hungary, but also in Transylvania. His greatest success was the Szapáry Baths (1883-1886) in Herkulesfürdő, whose Zsolnay majolica indoor fountains are still iconic today. The spa is now a highly endangered listed monument, the biggest enemy of the decaying building being the inflowing rainwater. With its ownership in disarray, the civilians working to save the building can do only emergency interventions. It is encouraging that the building has come to the attention of the heritage-protecting organisation Europa Nostra, and there is a chance that the French Renaissance style complex will be saved from decay.
Ignác Alpár's apartment buildings in Budapest are also noteworthy; including the house, he designed for himself at 11 Almássy Square, where he also had his design office. He also built villas and mansions; the most famous of the latter is the Boncza mansion in Csucsa. Unfortunately, we can no longer admire it in its original state, because its new owner after the World War, the Romanian poet and politician Oktavian Goga, had it completely rebuilt in neo-Byzantine style.
Historical Main Group building complex
One of the highlights of Alpár's career is the Historical Main Group of the Millennium Exhibition, the aforementioned Vajdahunyad Castle. This main group was intended to bring together buildings representing the styles of different periods of art history.
In the two-round design tender, which was first invited in 1893, the architect submitted his design under the motto 'red star, red crescent', with Byzantine and oriental elements predominating. In addition to Alpár, the other winners of the tender included Albert Schickedanz, Ferenc Pfaff and Ottó Tandor.
The second round in 1894 no longer asked for a universal stylistic study, but instead called for the use of domestic monuments. In this tender, only three people took part, and Ignác Alpár was commissioned to create the final plans. Although he exceeded the budget, the jury was impressed by his well-arranged plan and by the fact that Alpár wanted to preserve the groups of trees on Széchenyi Island, a wish that had been expressed in the original tender as well. At the same time, Albert Schickedanz was not left without a job, as he was entrusted with the design of the interior decorative fittings.
The complex was intended to be presented in a semi-finished state - as evidenced by the broken eaves and crumbling plaster - suggesting the antiquity of the buildings. As for the materials of the group of buildings, they were, at first temporary, made of timber frames, especially the towers (except for the Romanesque section). However, after the ending of the exhibition, they would have regretted demolishing the buildings, and it was fortunate that the permission of the capital leaders was obtained to keep the buildings in place for another ten years. Unfortunately, the buildings did not stand the wet conditions around the pond and the inadequate foundations and demolition became inevitable. However, with the help of the press, architects and the art world, the complex was rebuilt, also under the leadership of Alpár, so that it can still be admired today, and the Agricultural Museum did not have to find a new home.
The other outstanding area in Alpár's oeuvre and in the architecture of the turn-of-the-century Budapest is the buildings of banks and other financial institutions. After the Győr Municipal Savings Bank, designed in 1891, he built a series of bank buildings in the capital as of 1900, including the Austro-Hungarian Bank (Hungarian National Bank), the Budapest Stock Exchange Palace (later MTV headquarters) and the Hungarian Commercial Bank of Pest (Ministry of the Interior).
Although the Anker Palace is not a bank, it is still worth mentioning after this list. The place of the former building of the Anker Insurance Company was originally occupied by three houses. One of them even housed a brothel. In 1864, the first branch of the Anker Insurance Company in Hungary moved into this former building, and it was from this date that people of the capital began to refer to the neoclassical building as the Anker Courtyard. In 1907, the company saw its future in owning its own building, and the tender was won by none other than Ignác Alpár, as a master of bank building design.
The Art Nouveau building was completed by 1910. The pyramidal central tower was topped by a globe held by two eagles. On either side of the tower are two female figures with hourglasses in their hands (representing the passing of time). An anchor (German: Anker) was originally placed in the recess in the middle of the tympanum (now empty). The striking building, which at the time was very out of place in its surroundings, naturally caused a public outcry.
A popular anecdote is that when Alpár's wife saw the building, she cried out. "But, Ignác, aren't you ashamed? What have you done here?" However, the Anker Palace has achieved its purpose, its monumentality and its eccentricity makes it difficult to pass by without admiring it.
Alpár's career as an architect lasted until 1918, when the First World War and the economic situation made it impossible for him to continue. During the Republic of Councils in Hungary (1919), he was persecuted and accused of being a servant of capital and the former state power. He was taken to Markó Street (house of detention) and was finally freed owing to his friends’ intercession. In the 1920s, he held the presidency of various professional boards. In March 1928, he travelled to New York with his second wife, Ilona Csesznák, as part of a delegation of 400 people to the unveiling of the statue of Lajos Kossuth. On his way home, he fell ill in Zurich and died there on 28 April 1928.