Seen from a distance, the Hungarian Pavilion today looks like a strange entity that seems to develop out of the vegetation surrounding the building and is topped by a clay-tiled roof whose glazed surface mimics and continues the dense planting’s various shades of green.
On coming closer this rough first impression tends to disappear and is replaced gradually by a view of a very hermetic building with a massive, autonomous impact.
This contradictory initial impression manifested in the shift between an organic filigree quality and artificial mass surfaces once again when an attempt is made to clarify the pavilion’s spatial relationship to its surroundings.
As one of the first three buildings erected in the Giardini in 1909, the Hungarian Pavilion occupied a central position and enjoyed commensurate importance, but in the years that followed this situation changed considerably.
The later pavilions in the Giardini are oriented along areas that take the form of avenues or squares and therefore convey a strong notion of a common urban space. In this way they determine the spatial impression made by the complex as a whole.
Within this development the Hungarian Pavilion occupies a special position, as it is not directly integrated in the orthogonal system of routes that has shaped the structure of the biennale gardens since 1934. The other pavilions are essentially placed within the order imposed by the orthogonal circulation pattern, whereas, by being positioned at an angle, the Hungarian Pavilion alone clearly detaches itself from this system.
Any attempt to explain the placing of this building must refer to the direction of the nearby canal that runs approximately parallel to the rear façade of the pavilion. The buildings on the opposite bank very clearly relate to the position of the canal, and the main façades of the entire ensemble face onto it.
In contrast, the Hungarian Pavilion establishes a relationship to the direction of the canal only with its hermetically closed rear façade. This relationship is also present in the building’s main façade but at this point no longer has any significance.
The placing of the pavilion appears to be consistently focused on the idea of forming an exception. In the mid-1950s, however, with the erection of the Finnish Pavilion, suddenly the special aura of the Hungarian Pavilion was confronted with a form of opposite, perhaps even better described as “closeness.”
The way these buildings are juxtaposed, like a spatial manifestation of the Finno-Ugric group of languages, may well represent the ironic moment of this layout, but it also becomes the only joint aspect of their coexistence.
Despite being some distance away from it, the Finnish Pavilion is oriented for the most part toward the Italian Pavilion, abandoning the Hungarian Pavilion to its singular existence and declaring whatever they might have in common to be the result of mere chance.
Its prominent location inevitably means that you repeatedly pass the Hungarian Pavilion, but, as you never encounter any evident portal situation that might offer a direct reference to the building, it retains its anonymity.
This situation changes when you circle the building and approach what is actually the entrance. If the route brings you along the rear façade this otherwise closed area of wall reveals just a single opening that at this level of significance occupies a special position and inevitably attracts your attention. Through a doorway it offers a view of a basement room, a kind of space that in Venice, a city built in a lagoon, can be understood as a rather paradoxical surprise.
Standing in front of the entrance doorway you are confronted with an impression of generosity that contrasts with the closed nature of the forecourt and conveys a strong impression of privacy.
At this point the abstract image of the façade changes into a surface structured by the use of numerous elements. Thanks to its central positioning in a symmetrical façade, the doorway with the flight of steps leading to it becomes a dominant element. The monumentality of the entrance is softened somewhat by the way it tapers conically toward the interior and by the colourful ceramic cladding. The ornamental elements and the figures depicted by the tiling not only refer to Hungarian history and ideas about the need to articulate the façade, but, beyond the formal meaning, also operate at a further subtle level: the level of daylight scattering.
An antithesis is established between the absorbent areas of grey wall and the reflective ceramics, which, depending on the incidence of light, offer a contrast between directed and scattered light. When one enters the building, this contrast, always beneficial to our perception, is continued. As in a theatre we look from a darkened environment into the atrium brightly flooded with daylight, and here too our perception is confronted with the same contrast between different qualities of light already encountered in the exterior.
The front hall, which still very much exudes the character of 19th-century architecture, becomes the threshold to a completely different understanding of architecture that represents an extreme contradiction to the overall architectural appearance of the exterior. This impression is further strengthened when one enters the other glass-roofed exhibition spaces that convey a feeling of transparency and lightness. This image entirely erases the initial impression made by the pavilion’s strikingly articulated roofscape when seen from a distance. Suddenly, the massive roof seems to have vanished, to have been removed from our field of vision.
Contradictions can often attract our attention in a particular way. This is the case in the outer area, where the transition between the present line of the roof and the old entrance gable inevitably results in an elegant collision, a seam along which the history of the contradictions is again made manifest in detail. The closed impression made by the curved roof surfaces is interrupted, indeed severed, by the form of the entrance gable, but a connection is subsequently reestablished by means of a joint that refines a solution intended to convey an image of unity.
Along an axis of symmetry in which the spaces, irrespective of their appearance and origins, are mirrored, a number of remarkable individual sequences can be recognized, which, however, when looked at more closely, do not produce a homogeneous overall image.
If we are equipped with knowledge of its eventful history it becomes somewhat easier to understand the rapid shift between the different impressions that the Hungarian Pavilion makes upon us. The Hungarian Pavilion originally had a roof structure that was double the height of the present-day walls and terminated the building with a grand gesture. This height permitted the existence of a second upper floor that was laid out around the central hall, a space that is today the atrium courtyard.
Ornamental references to Hungarian history and its myths are integrated in the art-décolike structure. Yet the floral ornament with its suggestions of folklore then dissolves again into abstract forms. This first architecture attempted—successfully—to tread a path between the needs of national identity and the use of an international architectural language.
In 1958 the building underwent a radical change through the redesign by Ágost Benkhard. The entire roof structure was replaced by a flat roof and the central two-storey hall by an internal courtyard. On the façade the folklore elements were preserved in the area around the entrance, but all the other surfaces were given a uniform coat of white paint. By means of significant changes, the 19th-century architecture was translated, in part, into a concept of international modernism.
The process of transforming an existing architecture is as old as the discipline itself. It can result from a change of function and the new demands made on the building, or it can be due to a need for economy that makes conversion seem more appropriate than demolition. Neither of these explanations applies to the Hungarian Pavilion. Understanding the history of a building sometimes calls for disciplining the building fabric, which, in the present case, can hardly be understood as monument conservation. The transformation of the pavilion using the means of modernism tends to surprise us, as modernism’s orientation toward the new has generally committed it to the notion of the tabula rasa.
The mix that results from overlaying two approaches to architecture led to a situation in which neither could preserve its own identity. Within this coexistence, an original architectural statement was lost as the result of a kind of conceptual paralysis.
This polarity was covered over once more in 2000 by a roof designed by György Csete and in this way was overwritten again, which inevitably caused the already complex situation to become, in the way it affects our perception, a mere illustration or backdrop. However, the remodeling represents not only the fragmentary image of a roof but also a more recent phase of contemporary Hungarian architecture that can essentially be placed in the 1980s. This in turn relates again to a historic canon of forms that looks for its references in Hungarian history and thus provides the basis for an architecture that is oriented toward an amorphous, organic, and typically post-modern understanding of space.
Now all the latently visible contradictions of the first two architectures are suddenly resolved in an almost absurd way, as the pavilion itself becomes an exhibit that not only describes the different formal emphases in Hungarian architecture, but also positions them in the very concrete context of Hungarian society’s political and social development. The design from the start of the new millennium allows us an intimation of the current essentialist tendencies in Hungarian politics, in which the search for the nation’s identity is made among the myths of the Central Asian steppes. After the nationalistic awakening of the 19th century and the failure of 20th-century modernism in a Stalinist context, the building must now carry a roof that, through the way it is detached from the rest of the structure and through the amorphous impression it makes, is reminiscent of the tent from which the first Hungarians emerged.