The Museum Builder

Interview with Architect István Mányi about the Reconstruction of the Museum of Fine arts and other Museums in Pest

István Mányi has been drafting designs for reconstruction of the Museum of Fine Arts, which has kept stopping short, for exactly 20 years. He thinks that often an architect does not have to perform a defined task, rather he himself has to formulate his own. He fell in love with Historicism during renovation of the University of Economics, where he had to struggle the most for covering the ceremonial courtyard. In the case of underground extension in the 1990s, it was feared the Museum of Fine Arts might collapse. Then the historic halls had to be revealed and those who wanted to divide the Romanesque and Baroque Halls with ceilings to gain new space had to be won over. With the present reconstruction the public will regain more space, service functions will go below ground, yet after the opening of the Romanesque Hall there will still be plenty of work.

MC: You have been concerned with plans for the museum’s reconstruction since 1986. Allegedly, you were instructed by the director of Közti Public Building Planning Company to take on the job, for which architects would fight for today. Is that true?

¶ Actually, I was offered a bonus if I did it. Yet it was not primarily about me, but about the deep contempt for Historicism and Eclecticism.

MC: When did you fall in love with those styles which were despised by other architects at the time?

¶ Ten years earlier, in 1978, I was commissioned to renovate the former Main Custom House, at the time the Karl Marx University of Economics. More precisely, the job was for a technical renovation costing 120 million forints, which finally lasted until the end of the 80s, eventually costing more then 2.5 billion. It depended partly on my ambition that in the end the idea of the whole building was revised, discarding the earlier interior reconstruction.

MC: It was not only the architects but the official politics that were at odds with Historicism. How did you manage to overcome that?

¶ On the occasion of a ministerial inspection, Kálmán Ábrahám saw workers restoring the plaster mouldings and immediately gave the instructions for making an aluminium suspended ceiling in order to save labour costs. My detailed calculations proved that it would cost far less if the original condition were restored, than concealed. However, most probably the treasures of the historic building were not saved due to that, but because the minister was dismissed in 1984. Otherwise, the building had not been damaged too badly during the war, but in 1949 it was rather brutally converted behind the existing façades for the purposes of the university. For example, the ceremonial courtyard and its two side courts were divided with steel elements, and the interior façades decayed above them. In terms of university buildings, I was familiar with Debrecen and I knew that a university must have a significant communal space, an assembly hall. I wanted to undo the dividing ceiling and cover the ceremonial courtyard with a glass roof, which finally happened as one of the most lasting experiences of my professional career, although many people almost irrationally wanted to prevent that by all means. Ferenc Merényi, a prominent authority on Eclecticism, who was returning from the Hungarian Academy in Rome to be director of the Museum of Fine Arts, was asked for his expert opinion. The professor’s response, given on hand-made paper, supported me entirely. Moreover, he indicated that if I were to take on planning the reconstruction of the Fine Arts Museum, then Közti would get the job without a tender. I was afraid of too much work, since I was involved with the reconstruction of the University of Economics and the ELTE development in Lágymányos. Today I am pleased that someone else decided instead of me.

MC: Such things happen today, although it is true that a tender isn’t usually dispensed with due to professional reasons. What was your task with the Museum of Fine Arts?

¶ It’s a difficult issue – though it crops up frequently and was so in this case – in that architects do not have to perform a definite task, rather they have to stipulate it. The  changing roll of museums began in western Europe already in the 80s. This was partly due to the appearance of temporary exhibitions, when not only visitors travelled to see internationally famous collections, but artworks also began to travel. This increased the number of visitors tenfold, presenting new challenges for museums. Not only were adequate spaces required, since either no or very small rooms were designed for temporary exhibitions in 19th-century museum buildings, as with the Museum of Fine Arts, but due to the increased turnover there was a higher demand for designing more spacious cloakrooms, buffets, cafés, museum shops, restaurants, conference halls, storerooms for artworks and restorers’ workshops, creative education session rooms, larger and more toilets, sophisticated security systems and greater accessibility. Thus in a decade or so museums turned from quiet, devout shrines into experience centres. That was when for the first time in my life I was able to visit the major museums in Europe, and on the basis of their principles in 1986 I began to draw up plans for the reconstruction and exten–
sion of the Museum of Fine Arts.

MC: Which, admittedly were rather modest at the time.

¶ It was a long drawn-out process, which was cut up due to lack of finances. The early plans were far more large-scale, although there was criticism that I was being over-ambitious with this task, too. The investment was already given a green light by the finance minister, István Hetényi, yet at the last minute the museum’s Party secretary launched the idea that a glass tower should be rather erected on the side of the City Park. That made the project come to nothing. What we were planning – and that was partly implemented at the beginning of the 90s – was to utilize the museum’s basement, which was filled with sand and was only a metre under pavement level. That was not easy either, since many people were scared that I would cause the building to fall down. Using mining methods, we extracted the earth from underneath the halls between the foundation walls and built the new ceiling while visitors used the halls above. A magician can pull a tablecloth off the table while the dinner service is untouched. We took the table from underneath the tablecloth. At the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, those who commissioned us to do the work didn’t yet know what sizes of space were needed and they wanted to resolve the lack of space differently, for example by partitioning the large halls.

MC: Yes, actually an additional ceiling was constructed in the Michelangelo Hall and the finance department moved in there. But were there other plans, too?

¶ The museum thought that the Romanesque and Baroque Halls should also be divided with extra ceilings, but in the end that was prevented with the help of the Office of Monument Protection.

MC: What was the condition of the Museum of Fine Arts in the 80s and what tasks did you encounter with regard to the historic spaces?

¶ Large parts of the big halls were in a catastrophic state and in order for them to be used they were practically boxed. Artworks were stored in the loft covered with one layer of wired glass. In the winter it was –5ºC and in the summer +70ºC there. After the extension, which was not fully successful, the reconstruction halted due to lack of finances and it only restarted with the reconstruction of the Baroque Hall in 1996. Its cloisters had been earlier partitioned off and used for storage. An air-conditioned storeroom for artworks was constructed underneath during the full historic reconstruction of the hall. And the Pergamon and the Ionic Halls also had to be unwrapped. A goods entrance was made on the City Park side, which was badly needed due to the continuously increasing movement of artworks. After 2000, reconstruction continued with the renewal of a part of the museum and the Doric Hall, then there was 
a pause again. A dozen run-ups got us to the present project.

MC: You are fortunate in that you did not need to reapply for designing it.

¶ That’s true, but just think what would have happened if dozens of different concepts had left their trace on the building in such a way that the following architects would have had no idea what their predecessor had left unfinished. I saw the whole building and the subsequent steps. For example, during the reconstruction I managed to get a new lift shaft built, which connected the first floor with the then still empty loft. With the next run-up, based on that the Millennium conference rooms could be constructed in the attic above the porticus and the lift leading up to them was installed in such a way that the Renaissance Hall did not have to be closed off and turned into a construction site. When László Baán became director of the museum in 2004 he studied my ideas and met me, saying that we could continue on that path. That was how preparations for extension under the ground level began.

MC: Did it hurt you that your design did not win? What did you otherwise think of the project and its dismissal in 2011?

¶ Tamás Karácsony submitted an excellent design, although the full resolution of several technical problems remained. The enlargement was a huge opportunity for the museum and it’s a great loss it could not be realised. I also urged on the project, after all I made the first drafts with the same positions as the winning submission and I presented the design of the spaces joining the listed building.

MC: What does the present extension mean exactly? What new spaces does the museum gain?

¶ After the below-ground extension had fallen through, the museum had the chance to renovate the Romanesque Hall. We tried to link as many elements as possible that could be implemented as part of this development, so some 14,000 square metres of the building with a floor area of 28,000 will be renovated. The history of the triple-aisle, richly decorated Romanesque Hall is relatively well-known. This is the only part of the museum which still bears war damage. It was used as storage space, with one of the side aisles being partitioned off as a corridor. That linked the building’s sections on the City Park side. Of course, reconstruction and historic restoration of the Romanesque Hall are the most important tasks. Although the decorative painting is damaged on significant surfaces, it is in a perfectly restorable condition. The plaster copies stored there and the tower storage of artworks have moved out, but two significant works, the copies of the doors of the Freiburg and the Gyulafehérvár cathedrals have remained. An air-conditioned storeroom for works of art with up-to-date storing devices is being built under the hall. Since the Romanesque Hall will again be used entirely as museum space, an important communication axis will cease to exist. So its replacement also had to be resolved. The engineering, electric and security systems of the building will also be renewed. A new boiler room will be installed, the whole building will be made accessible not only for visitors but also for the operational side, since a large heavy-duty lift transporting artworks and reaching each level was missing. It does not seem much if you do not know that the building also did not have a staircase which reached all the floors. In vain would a gate for goods be built if the building lacked accessible transport routes and the large boxes for artworks had to be carried via the main staircase. Ceilings and floors have to be reinforced, since statues of several tonnes cannot be moved even on the ground floor. Rooms for creative sessions will be shaped both in and under the old library. The library moved out a long time ago, since it had outgrown the space. The changes will also concern the extensions of the 90s. The built-in areas underneath the Ionic and Doric courtyards and the foyer between them will be opened together and used as exhibition space for the exhibition of antiquities. The Egyptian exhibition will be rebuilt and a new cloakroom will be installed, which will be able to handle 1,200 visitors at any one time. The museum’s coffee house will receive natural lighting from above, behind the columns of the side wings. These spaces represent parts of earlier interventions but now we are organising them in a functioning unity without compromises. And at last a windbreaker will be installed, thus acceptable conditions concerning the wind will prevail in the foyer.

MC: Is it possible to know which space will have what function?

¶ Partly yes, although there are still some open issues. At the same time, in vain does a museum decide on something now if it is not sure to have the same function in 10 or 50 years. Therefore we try to create flexible spaces.

MC: What will happen to the Michelangelo Hall?

¶ The dividing ceiling will be taken out from the Michelangelo Hall, which opens from the Renaissance Hall. Its Renaissance decorative painting will be restored and the room of similar beauty above it, which was occupied by the Communications Department until recently, will be returned to visitors. That also used to be an exhibition room with a beautiful painted ceiling. Sometime in the 70s a suspended ceiling was installed, in a rather sinister way at that. The decorative painting, which was spray-gunned, will be restored. This space will be suitable for small events, concerts and small-scale exhibitions. The second floor accommodates a line of cabinets, which were used as storage in the past 25 years. Now they will be again used for exhibitions.

MC: Where will the rooms for temporary exhibitions be?

¶ By all means we would like to avoid them being the richly decorated historic spaces, since there is not much point in constantly converting them for exhibitions. The antique rooms and the space of the Antique Hall that joins them, as well as the Doric Hall to a limited extent, will accommodate temporary exhibitions.

MC: But in that way temporary exhibitions will still be staged in the historic spaces.

¶ Not necessarily, because the Doric Hall will not be needed every time and only in a limited way, given its protected monument character. The historicizing antique halls were modernized to the design of Bertalan Árkay in 1941. They have adequate ceiling height.

MC: Wouldn’t it still be better if a new underground hall specifically designed for temporary exhibitions were to be built?

¶ It is not timely now, but with regrouping the existing spaces are suitable for this purpose. We cannot say that the renovation of the building finishes here. Renovation of the Renaissance Hall has not yet taken place. This magnificent space is run down, its decorative painting is imperfect, partly whitewashed, the floor is worn and the lighting is inadequate. And above there is the fantastic, unused loft space. On the Állatkerti Boulevard side further below-ground extension would be needed for parking and operational functions, and that could also house the engineering equipment for the alternative use of energy.

MC: What do you think about the danger of  relocating the Natural History Museum, which you designed in the building of the Ludovika?

¶ If the renovation that began in the mid 90s had been finished in time, matters might have taken another turn.

MC: Have you got plans you have not realized? Although you won the international design competition for the extension of the Hungarian National Museum in 2010, the plan was not implemented. How do you look back on it?

¶ I started to deal with the building of the National Museum in Közti in the 80s, but due to designing the work on the Museum of Fine Arts I had to give it up. It’s a great pity that later during its reconstruction and restoration they did not manage to implement the changed requirements for a museum. It is also a problem that the underground parking on Pollack Mihály Square was built without organically joining the main building, since it is unsuitable due to its space structure and ceiling height. In addition the public utilities were all installed in the stretch between the underground garage and the main building. My design had the extension from the side of Múzeum Boulevard with facilities under the courtyard level. We would have restored the beautiful buttresses and vaulting under the main stairs to their original state. They are now divided by ceilings. We wanted the interior courtyard to be covered with glass and a new line of rooms would have been built around the building, with lighting installed at pavement level. We would have also cleared the loft. All that would have been done while fully respecting the protected features.

MC: Complete revitalisation of the Museum Garden was also part of the plan.

¶ The building of the National Museum is a national relic and like the herm of St. Ladislas is untouchable! That was the verdict of a prominent person in the monument protection authority. That’s when the construction licence stalled. I will never identify with this opinion because, besides protecting its valuable features, a building should also meet the challenges of the time.

MC: Ideas have been recently invited for designing the Museum Garden.

¶ It is not a refined approach.

MC: The Holocaust Memorial Centre, which was also designed by you, was referred to by Frank Owen Gehry as his most exciting experience in Budapest, in addition to the view from the Citadel. Yet the museum has never functioned satisfactorily. What do you think about it?

¶ Designing the Holocaust Memorial Centre was an extremely demanding job. We worked under incredible pressure and even those who commissioned the work did not know exactly what they wanted. The concept of the permanent exhibition was not ready in time, but we stipulated its requirement for space as a working hypothesis. I am very pleased to have been able to take part. I think we gave correct responses to the historic distortions and that we made good use of the limited possibilities of the authentic location. The complex of buildings is a recognized edifice in the beautiful volume presenting the world’s Holocaust museums. At home it is ignored.

MC: It’s a well-known story, isn’t it? You were mostly criticised in connection with the historic restoration of the synagogue, because in its present form it cannot be used as a neutral exhibition space.

¶ I can only say that we are fortunate to live in Europe where every decent person respects their predecessors’ work. That is the essence of monument protection. The authority’s work merely helps to enforce it.