Left: Vejti – Street façade with masonry pediment, guttered eaves and downspouts, enriched by ornamental elements. Feked – Aerial photo showing the village’s harmonic unity. It is built on two sides of the river, at some distance from the water. Patapoklos – Regional house with arches supported by classicist-style columns.
Center: Magyarlukafa – Folk building with board pediment. The structure is front-porched, with ornamental carving. Rábapordány – Streetscape formed by row of one-story buildings with pediments, without front yards, in comb-like arrangement. Fertőszéplak – Streetscape formed by sawtooth placement of buildings, a variation of the comb-like arrangement, exclusively seen in a few settlements around Lake Fertő.
Right: Bikal – Fine example of straight closure porch, with turned wood columns. Zengővárkony – Straight closure porch supported by columns decorated with custom designed elements.
FOLK ARCHITECTURE OF HUNGARY
What do we consider folk architecture? Ethnographers and architects generally list in this category the country architecture preceding World War II. In Hungary, having been an agricultural country, 85% of her population used to live in villages. The peripheries of several cities and towns (such as Kecskemét, Karcag, Hódmezővásárhely, Hajdúszoboszló) also had rural characteristics. Here we will concentrate on residences, peasant houses of yore.
After all, great intellectual and physical achievements of rural inhabitants had been born in those peasant houses. Dr. Vargha László, one of the most significant ethnographic scientists of the 20th century, had a degree in architecture as well. It was due to his efforts that the first post-war historic monument law (1949) contained the possibility of folk buildings’ inclusion, preceding by 14 years the “Velencei Karta”, the bible of monument protection.
In relation to dwellings, we are essentially interested in two basic prototypes throughout the country. One is the “Western Hungarian or Transdanubian”, with all rooms opening onto the yard or a porch. Those date back to times when houses had no chimneys and the smoke from the kitchen stove exited through the ceiling, the attic space and the roof. To keep the other rooms free of smoke, they all had a door opening directly to the outdoors.
The other building type is the “Middle Hungarian, or that of the Great Plains”, whose dwelling section has only one entrance; rooms can only be approached through an intermediate space, the inner porch or the kitchen.
What are the general characteristic features that render Hungarian folk buildings unique by comparison to those of other countries?
- They are always single-story.
- They are of single span, i.e., the width of one room, potentially enlarged with a porch.
- They are of a comb-like arrangement, with a long axis perpendicular to the street, with or without a front yard.
- They always have gable roofs; mostly with gable ends, though sometimes they are hipped.
- They are always correctly oriented, from SW to SE, meaning the orientation of the long façade facing the yard.
- The buildings are mostly whitewashed with few exceptions (usually by some of the ethnic minorities).
Naturally, we do find arrangements different from the comb-like construction in the country, such as the Great Plains’ ranches, the “bushes” near Nyíregyháza, or the “szer” around the western borders. Those, however, are characteristic of certain regions only, thus they are of local and not countrywide importance.
Initially, materials for the structures were determined by the geographic location. In wooded regions, we find wood construction with its variations, while plain and marshy areas employ more dirt, twigs, sedge and reed. Mountainous regions – Mátra, Bükk, Mecsek, Balaton highlands – favored stone, although its use was more local, due to its poor thermal insulation. With the diminishing woodlands, variations of dirt-based construction became more common all over the country until the first part of the 20th century: layered wall, mud wall, adobe. Starting at the end of the 19th century, fired brick started to gradually squeeze out the dirt-based building methods. Roofs were generally covered with thatch or reeds. Wood shingles were used for churches, bell towers, and sometimes for residences as well. Tiled roofs began to be popular only from the first half of the 19th century.
Among the many floor/ceiling solutions of building structures, only one is worth mentioning, the so-called “peasant floor”, that was most widespread in the whole country. Initially, this consisted of planks laid next to another across floor beams, later with about 2-3 cm (about 1 inch) overlap to cover gaps. They were caulked from above with layers of mud or clay. With floors we have to mention the architraves (crossbeams resting on top of a column or doorway), not just for their structural usage but also, in some regions, for their unparalleled rich ornamental carvings that were even painted in color. These were even historically significant, usually showing the date of the house’s construction and the initials of the owners.
Due to the stormy history of Hungary and the accompanying devastation – wars, natural catastrophes, floods and fires – some people had to rebuild their home many times. Thus, they frequently had to turn to ancient, traditional building methods. This is how, even in the first half of the 20th century, folk architecture still employed archaic elements or, rather, they can still be found on surviving structures. Of those, two are worth mentioning.
One is the oven protruding from the structural rear wall of the building, allowing the enlargement of the kitchen area. But due to the proliferation of modern chimneys and heating equipment, those are now rare to find.
The other is the use of so-called rafter-forks, columns dug into the ground, with a fork-like top, built into the two end walls and into the separating walls parallel to the ends. Their role was to support the top girder of the roof. In some regions, these were built in front of the main wall instead of into it. In those cases, however, these columns had no fork top. Instead, they employed larger one-piece supports with square or rectangular cross sections shaped from a single tree trunk. Those were used decoratively, richly carved with religious motives, crosses, and Marian initials, similar to architraves. In the 1960s and 1970s, in regions near Győr, rows of streets still preserved those elements.
Pediments are parts of residences’ decorative structural elements that, based on their shape (triangular, baroque, hipped and their variations) could be characteristic of certain regions, and their surface (masonry or boarded) suitable for decoration. Boarded ones usually have jigsaw decorations and may be painted; masonry ones are adorned with plasterwork. Buildings without porches typically employ pediments over entrances, supported by arches on columns or piers, sometimes brackets. These are generally used only in certain regions.
Porches, however, were uniformly present countrywide. Initially, they represented wealth in folk architecture, but since they were practical, their use became ubiquitous by the second half of the 18th century. Their location shows great variety from side to end, and their esthetics renders Hungary’s folk architecture unique worldwide.
We still have to mention cellars, rows of cellars and cellar villages, such as the grouping of wine press-houses and cellars of Palkonya, Gyarmat, Hajós, Villánykövesd, etc. Being located further from the settlements, they were less influenced by historic changes – destruction by wars, fires, modernization, etc. Their function remaining the same for centuries, they could preserve several elements of folk-construction and form, as well as original equipment and consumer implements.
Dealing with esthetic values of folk buildings, we also appreciate the simple country people’s instinctive sense of proportion, their unique creativity in achieving beauty. It is all the more significant that a considerable portion of folk buildings was constructed with help from friends and family. The joint effect of these buildings – the harmonic rural streetscapes – crown the uniquely balanced esthetic experience that distinguished them from folk-architecture of other countries. This is validated by the fact that the Hungarian Hollókő was the first rural folk ensemble that received the rank of World Heritage in 1987, simultaneously with the Acropolis of Athens, the Great Wall of China and the lagoons of Venice. Our regional houses (tájházak) are on the waiting list.
Those regional houses deserve mentioning. Essentially, their category was established in the 1970s, since enforcing the strict law of historic buildings would have involved hardship for the mostly elderly inhabitants of protected peasant houses. Therefore, in 1971, the State provided a substantial amount for the purchase and maintenance of endangered houses. This enabled the acquisition of nearly 170 buildings in the ensuing years. Those structures, however, needed a new function to be established. That function became the “regional house” whose number by now has reached about 400 nationwide.
Now what exactly are regional houses? They are regionally characteristic and authentically furnished structures preserved on location and protected by historic building laws. With few exceptions, they are in State or municipal ownership, and can be visited as museums. The fact that in the 21st century a country can protect and service nearly 400 fully furnished regional buildings or groups of buildings “in situ”, with features of historically bygone eras, is a worldwide-unparalleled achievement. Their furnishings, furniture, textiles, dishes of various materials, utensils give evidence of the unusually high level of folk art, small trades, handicrafts. Regional houses are the rare, valuable documents of the history, culture, creativity and talent of the Hungarian people.
Another curious characteristic of folk architecture is its proportion. By now, it has been proven that builders of the village houses instinctively applied the ancient golden rule which, in essence, determines the relation of the length and width of a quadrangle so that it seems the most optimal for the human eye. This roughly determines the proportion of the street façade’s gable end and wall surface underneath, the pitch of the roof, as well as elements, shapes, sizes of windows, doors, even porches, in folk structures.
In conclusion, let’s mention that many have tried to define the concept of absolute beauty. In architecture, it means the harmonic unity of “function” (for what purpose is it made), “structure” (implementation) and “form” (appearance). We can confidently state that Hungarian folk architecture, by always considering natural and geographic conditions as well as economic options typical of the region, has been building homes most functionally, thus achieving this harmony.
(translated by Olga Vállay Szokolay)
Simányi Frigyes worked as a design engineer in various cities and various capacities. He retired in 1991. His interest in folk architecture was aroused in his college days by Professor Vargha László, whom he mentions at the beginning of this piece. Between 1983 and 1985, he was chief engineer of the Open Air Ethnographic Museum of Szentendre. He has published two books dealing with regional houses (tájházak), which he describes in the above article.