Architecture Art

Imre Makovecz – A Loss To Architecture And Design

Just a few weeks ago I wrote about my love for the works of the little known Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz so it is with deep sadness that I learned of his passing this week. A Guardian obituary tells most of his life story and why he was so important:

“The Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz has died at the age of 75. Makovecz headed a loose-knit band of architects, designers and craft workers who established an alternative way of building, thinking and existing during the long years of communist rule and soulless, Soviet-style architecture forced on Hungary and Russia. A fierce critic of communism, materialism and globalism, he was banned from working in Budapest in 1976 and moved north to Visegrád, a beautiful stretch of countryside by the Danube. There, he developed his compelling, idiosyncratic and organic style, borrowing from nature and re-interpreting the ideas of, among others, Rudolf Steiner, Frank Lloyd Wright, Antoni Gaudí and the Hungarian architect ödön Lechner.

Makovecz shaped holiday shelters, restaurants, camping grounds and visitor centres that were as highly charged aesthetically as their purposes were low-key. These designs were what he described as “building beings”. Erring on the folkloric and looking a little like trees in children’s stories, sprouting arms and sporting faces, they really did feel alive. Wooden shingles might be made to resemble the feathers of a bird’s wings. Some buildings appeared to grow like plants. Windows were like eyes.

Makovecz returned to Budapest in the 1980s, after the communism system collapsed, set up his own studio, Makona, and became something of a national hero. Alongside the low-cost community centres he built in villages, and a string of spirited new Roman Catholic churches, he was commissioned to design the Hungarian Pavilion for the Seville Expo of 1992. From the outside, the building resembled a cluster of fairytale church steeples. Inside, real trees were reflected in a mirrored floor. Like so much of Makovecz’s work, it was strangely lyrical and curiously beautiful.

Makovecz was born and educated in Budapest. His father was a carpenter. Imre spent much of his boyhood in and around Nagykapornak, to the west of Lake Balaton. He helped his father sabotage German tanks during the second world war. He studied architecture at Budapest’s technical university, graduating in 1959. When asked to design a fish restaurant as part of his training, he shaped one in the form of a pair of interlocking fish. His tutors were not amused.

He sensed a guiding creative spirit in the patterns found in nature, such as the shapes of trees, and in Celtic carvings and Scottish reels. “My buildings and architectural designs do not come from me,” he said. “They come from the landscape, from the local environment and from the ancient human spirit.”

In the early 1980s, as an assistant editor of the Architectural Review, I went to meet Makovecz in Hungary during a heavy storm.

A profoundly and defiantly individual architect and philosopher, Makovecz was a warm and friendly man with a powerful build, pronounced Magyar moustache and a love of God, Celtic and Scythian culture and Scotch whisky. He was at once fierce and kind, intensely serious and very funny.

In 2010, he closed his studio and retired to focus on the Hungarian Art Academy he founded in 1992. He was an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and, in 1997, recipient of the gold medal of the Académie d’Architecture.

He is survived by Marianne and three children.”

For me, growing up in an Ireland dominated by the soulless zombie works of a generation of wannabe Anglo-American architects and designers, the buildings of Imre Makovecz were a revelation. He showed people like myself the power of human scale architecture and the joy of reinterpreting vernacular styles in a modern setting. Because of him I was able to understand the imaginative and cultural poverty of contemporary Irish architecture, the derivative hollowness of it all. However I also came to understand what could be achieved had we but the self-confidence to reimagine our history and heritage in a modern setting.

He will be sorely missed.

Imre Makovecz, 20-11-1935 – 27-09- 2011. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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