The landscape I had journeyed across to arrive in Kecskemet was so devoid of sensory experience that I found myself wondering if the city would be the same. Instead of mind-numbing monotony, I would soon discover that a magnetically eclectic city awaited me. There was enough culture, history and architecture in Kecskemet to keep a person occupied for several days. This was contrary to my inauspicious arrival in the city. I first set foot in Kecskemet at the lackluster looking train station, a structure that did not do the rest of the city justice. Sizing it up, I quickly decided that the station was not worth photographing. This was something of a shame since a different iteration of this very building had been where the great composer, folk song collector and musicologist, Zoltan Kodaly was born. Kodaly’s father worked for Hungarian Railways and lived with his family in the station. The man whose approach to music education, the Kodaly method, would change the teaching of music forever, learned his first notes as a child by the rail side in Kecskemet. Zoltan Kodaly would later compose sounds much different from the constant roars of locomotives arriving and departing.
The Cifra Palace – Utterly Ridiculous & Outlandishly Charming
Departing from the station I began a short walk into the city center. My intended destination was the series of interconnected squares that are at the heart of Kecskemet’s downtown. This area is home to its famous Art Nouveau architecture. These buildings still stand as a reminder of the city’s turn of the 20th century aspirations to radically reinvent its urban landscape. The first of these structures soon came into view as I entered Szabadsag ter. The Cifra Palace (Cifra Palota) was unmistakable. The name literally means ornamentation palace and it certainly lives up to that standard. There was something both utterly ridiculous and outlandishly charming about the palace’s exterior ornamentation. Wall panels in the shape of hearts and other curved patterns were a cross between intricate sublimity and the bizarrely beautiful. Inside these panels were glazed majolica tiles covered with fantastical folk art patterns.
Other touches of secessionism (Hungarian Art Nouveau) included Zsolnay tiles around door frames and seven glazed chimneys embedded on the rooftop. My first reaction to the palace was befuddlement. I had no idea what to make of such stylistic eccentricity. There was an eastern inspired exoticism to the façade that did not seem European in any sense of the word. This wildly eclectic design was the product of a fantastical pathos. While the interior of Cifra Palace is now home to the Kecskemet Art Gallery, nothing can surpass the palace’s exterior ornamentation when it comes to profligate creativity. If Art Nouveau architecture was meant as a break from the past, the Cifra Palace was more like an explosion that left the traditional in ruins.
Missing Humanity – A Tragic Artifact
The last, immaculate exterior expression of another tradition that was brought to ruin in Kecskemet was just across the street from the Cifra Palace. The tradition was Judaism and the expression may have been crisp, clean and blindingly bright, but the city’s well-preserved Moorish style synagogue could only provoke a feeling of tragic loss. While the synagogue’s exterior still looked to be in fine form, the city’s Jewish community had long since vanished into the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz in the diabolical summer of 1944. As splendid as this once vaunted house of worship still appeared, I could not help but feel that it was a tragic artifact missing its most vital component, humanity.
At the time I visited, the synagogue was home to a Museum of Science and Technology. This slight was conceived and carried out in 1966 under the communist regime. After the Iron Curtain fell, many places of worship in formerly communist countries that had been forcibly converted into museums or storehouses were reconverted to sacred spaces. That was not case with the synagogue in Kecskemet. There were hardly any Jews left in the city by then. It would have been an honest representation of history if the synagogue had become a museum about Jewish life in Kecskemet. It has not happened and likely never will. The Holocaust is a shame that most Hungarians are not ready to face.
Incomparable Attractions – Objects of Fascination
On a much more positive note, I made my way only a couple of hundred meters over to look at the New School (Uj Kollegium), a Calvinist Law School inhabiting an Art Nouveau creation. Could there be two more seemingly incompatible ideas than Calvinism and Art Nouveau? Conservative, taciturn and fundamental religiosity versus creativity in its most revolutionary form. Somehow these two ideas were brought together in the construction of this school which soars above the street below. The main inspiration was Transylvania folk architecture, infused with a healthy dose of secessionist style. This fusion created a building of such striking singularity that it would be the outstanding Art Nouveau work in most cityscapes. That this is not true in Kecskemet owes much to the creative genius of Hungarian Art Nouveau’s godfather, Odon Lechner. His creative genius – in partnership with Gyula Partos – brought about the design and construction of the Kecskemet City Hall, an incomparable work of Art Nouveau architecture that dominates Kossuth ter. This was surely the effect Lechner had in mind when the building was being constructed from 1893-96.
The City Hall was completed just in time for the celebrations of the Hungarian Millennium. The Kecskemet City Hall was Lechner’s first attempt at creating a Hungarian National Style. It would prove to be so successful that the building would influence Hungarian architecture for an entire generation. The City Hall incorporates aspects of early French Renaissance style, English rural architecture and Baroque elements. Lechner and Partos brought the Hungarian influence to bear upon the design with his use of ceramic ornamentation to showcase folk art. His ability to assimilate a medley of stylistic influences into a coherent whole resulted in his first great work of Art Nouveau. I found certain details on the facade to be objects of fascination such as floral motifs on Zsolnay majolica tile and the use of pyrogranite on parts of the building.
I longed to go inside and see some of the ornamented decoration my guidebook so gloriously expounded upon. These included a wood paneled council room covered in frescoes and elaborate stained glass windows. Sadly, I had come at the wrong time to get the standard tour, but I did get enough of a glimpse to whet my appetite for a follow up visit. For me this was the essence of Kecskemet’s architecture, a path breaking attractiveness that left me wanting more. I had never seen anything quite like the fantastic trio of Art Nouveau buildings in downtown Kecskemet, but I had a feeling that one day I would be back.