Lenke téri telektömb

A Housing Block with Connected Courtyards

The triangular block behind present-day 12 Kosztolányi Dezső Square (Lenke Square at that time) became the subject of real estate development activity in the hands of the Fischer and Detoma construction company in 1907. This project was a part of the increasing development of the Lágymányos district after 1905. In Budapest’s property and housing construction markets defined in terms of individual lots, it proved to be out of the ordinary because the project was completed according to a unified concept. Although its development was implemented by lots in accordance with the building regulations, the buildings were still integrated into a unified architectural plan formulated by József Fischer that extended over the entire block. The fulfillment of his concept was ensured by a single owner controlling the properties, resulting in uniform architectural design. The outcome was an ensemble of hygienic residential buildings that followed the most recent international housing reform principles, and it was completed by 1912, so in under five years. This area bounded by Kosztolányi Dezső Square (Lenke Square at that time), Bocskai Road (Lenke Road at that time), Fadrusz Street, and Bartók Béla Road (Átlós Road at that time) became a block of connected courtyards in accordance with József Fischer’s design, which was in contrast to the pattern of each building enclosing its own courtyard that was predominant in the city at that time. This resulted in a large, landscaped courtyard in the middle, eliminating courtyard apartments in the traditional sense that had openings on no other sides. The solutions employed by him integrated seamlessly into the contemporary international housing reform trend, which he was quite familiar with due to his knowledge of French and German practices.

The housing reform movement, which primarily strove to better the living conditions of the lower social strata, was occupied with improving the housing situation of big cities while retaining the existing urban fabric in addition to promoting the idea of creating suburbs separated from urban metropolises. The efforts at reforming the development of city blocks through the employment of innovative solutions was a central element in this direction. The international trend of reformed blocks that retained the streetscape as an element of the existing urban fabric included precedents stretching back several decades for progressive solutions involving city blocks. These included the development method of connected courtyards creating a large green courtyard in the middle of the block, which began to spread to a greater extent in European metropolises in the 1890s. The core of the innovative solutions was the avoidance of individual lots with enclosed courtyards that resulted in courtyard apartments that lacked light and air. This was done by instead leaving the centers of the blocks free of construction or opening them to the street. Forming shared green spaces in the interiors of blocks; creating quasi-street front façades in place of ones facing a narrow, enclosed courtyard by separating buildings through interior streets and developing courtyards open towards the street; breaking away from the accepted placement of living rooms along the street-front side of buildings; increasing the number of stairwells and locating them away from the façade sides; and removing or limiting the use of gallery walkways were all without exception the results of international reform experiments in the years when the Lenke Square block was developed. The theoretical basis behind the search for architectural solutions was provided by a scientific view of architecture that was shaped in the wake of discoveries by medical science in connection with tuberculosis. These ideas considered providing residences with light and air to prevent disease to be a fundamental requirement for good health.

At the same time, the development of the Lenke Square block in accordance with reformed building modes for large cities is also connected to concepts related to the transformation of home ownership. The organization of cooperative building associations was launched at the same time as the construction on the block, and led to half of the apartment houses here being converted into condominiums by 1918. Due to this, the principles of housing reform appeared in a concentrated form in this block, in the architectural sense on the one hand, and in the ownership dimension on the other. This took place in a trailblazing manner in an environment where reform concepts in both respects had only previously been implemented to a limited extent.

From Property Investors to Property Development

The area, which is approximately 1 1/6 acres, had been owned by the produce wholesalers Ármin Herz and Jakab Beimel since 1879 as a real estate investment, counting on its expected development. The master architect József Fischer and the building contractor Alfonz Detoma then purchased it with an intent to develop on the 28th of March 1907. They submitted their application for the subdivision of the lot on the 9th of July 1907 and received their permit on the 23rd of October 1907, resulting in it being split into five lots. However, the issue of subdivision did not end with this. They submitted a renewed application for subdivision to the city in April of 1908, which was now directed at partitioning the block into a total of fifteen lots, each of which would have been significantly smaller than the approximately quarter-acre lot size prescribed for this area in the building code. Although it was not included in their first application for subdivision in 1907, the idea for this already existed in the summer of 1907. This is clear because the design for the building at the corner of Lenke Square was already in line with this lot size, as the residential building only reached the halfway point of the lot on either side. Presumably, they expected a planned amendment to the building code that would allow for smaller lots than what was prescribed for the area. Thus, according to their intentions, they would have further partitioned the five lots first created, which were between approximately a quarter and 3/8 of an acre, into sizes between approximately 1/16 and 1/6 of an acre. However, they did not receive the permit for their now explicit intentions in April of 1908. Although the Engineering Office of the capital judged the application to divide the block into small lots that would be developed along the perimeter with a shared courtyard as permissible from both hygienic and aesthetic considerations, the public building committee and then its board rejected the plan at the end of October 1908. Its reasoning was that the lots thus created would be too small, no one building would have its own courtyard, and the sustainability of the shared courtyard’s function was doubtful in their opinion. However, the incongruity of the corner building completed at the end of 1908 according to the concept of small lots needed to be resolved. They submitted a renewed petition for the subdivision of the essentially halfway undeveloped corner lot on the 21st of June 1910, restricting their request for small lots to just this one section. Unlike previously, they received the permit, with the capital citing the amended building code that placed the area in a new zoning category and justifying its altered decision through the case-by-case permitting of subdivision into small lots in the vicinity. The two smallest properties on the block were constructed on the two new subdivided lots as a result of the partition entered in the land register at the end of March 1911. These properties were approximately 1/16 of an acre each, alongside the approximately 1/6 acre corner lot, so the original subdivision concept was realized only in these two properties.

The Urban Block as a Conceptual Unit

The buildings of the block were completed between the end of 1908 and spring of 1912. Jószef Fischer prepared the designs for every building with one exception, despite the fact that they sold off three lots during the years of the project. The lot on the corner of Fardrusz Street and Átlos Road sold to the Házépítő és Telepítő Bank (Building Construction and Settlement Bank) Co. was the only one that Fischer did not design, as the bank commissioned Zoltán Reiss for this. However, it was also integrated into the development of the block in terms of the timing of its construction. It was begun along with the planning work for the block in the summer of 1907, so a nearly perfectly unified building complex was built up as a result of a single development project lasting nearly five years.

The idea of unified development first took form in the application submitted in April of 1908, the second in the succession of petitions for subdivision. The outline of the residential buildings surrounding the entire block could be seen in the plan for partitioning attached to the application. It comprised a ring of buildings set next to one another around a large interior courtyard that they enclosed. Due to the development pattern restricted to the edges of the block, the courtyards of the individual parcels remained open to one another and were connected without any barriers. The second design plan enclosed also depicted the floor plan arrangements of every building on the block as a uniform whole, along with the courtyard’s garden-like landscaping. In other words, a floor plan concept had already been established for the buildings to be constructed on the individual lots, organically connecting them to one another and thus creating a complex unit.

This same concept appeared in August of 1908 in the modified designs for the corner building at Lenke Square that was built first. The first design plan for the building was prepared by József Fischer in July of 1907. In terms of the development model, there was no substantial difference between the original and the modified plans. The stairways in both of them projected out from the rear façade extending into the courtyard, so light and air was able to pass through them from every direction. The approach to the walkway connecting the four apartments on each level to the stairway did not change either, at most the size of the courtyard was reduced. The dimensions and the arrangement of the floor plan for the apartments did not change either. What was transformed radically was the façade as well as the site plan accompanying the design. The site plan depicting the entire block in the permitting plans submitted in the summer of 1907 only showed the outline of the building planned for the corner lot. Only the lot borders and their dimensions were included for the other parcels, with a mention of the plan for subdivision submitted in a separate petition. However, in August of 1908, the site plan depicting the block that was now fully owned by them showed the outline of the planned construction project for the entire block, cutting through the lot borders.

The firm foundation for the implementation of the concept covering the entire block was provided by the effort to retain a unity of ownership. József Fischer and Alfonz Detoma retained ownership over four of the seven lots in the block following the two times it was subdivided. The sale of the first of the other three lots took place in August of 1908. The first sale involved the wide lot at 7/b Átlós Road, and the new owner was the Parkház Házépítő Szövetkezet (Park House Building Construction Association) that was established to purchase the lot and erect a cooperative condominium on it. The second sale of a lot took place at the end of September 1908, when a private individual purchased the corner lot at the intersection of Átlós Road and Fadrusz Street. Following the sales, József Fischer and Alfonz Detoma remained the owners of three lots, since at that time the block was still only divided into five parcels. However, the final sale of a lot was connected to the subdivision of the Lekne Square corner lot and took place in May of 1911. While one of the newly created small lots was retained by József Fischer and Alfonz Detoma, the other was sold off. The buyers again were private individuals, but they also commissioned József Fischer for the construction, as had been done by the owner of the second lot that was sold.

Although a portion of the block was in the possession of outsiders due to the sale of the three lots, the limited nature of the sales suggests an intention to maintain ownership. The affiliation of the company of Fischer and Detoma to the entirety of the block suffered hardly any damage despite the sales. The architectural design of the block remained in their hands unchangingly through the planning work, considering the fact that two of the three new lot owners commissioned József Fischer with the design of their buildings. It was only the corner lot on Átlós Road that escaped József Fischer’s design control after the property they sold was resold in the middle of 1910. Thus, József Fischer prepared the plans for six of the buildings on the block split into seven lots, and due to this, it was possible to create residential buildings that were in harmony with one another in many respects.

Façade and Floor Plan Arrangements

Maintaining both ownership and design together did not only provide a framework for unified development, but the idea of a unified block informed the architectural design of the individual buildings in terms of both exterior appearance and floor plans. The façade elements employed by Fischer provided a composition and rhythm to the structures. This had an impact not only on the aesthetic appearance of the individual buildings, but also in terms of the entire block. The architect joined the aesthetic and ideological debates surrounding the issues of beauty, modernity, and monotony that appeared in discussions of contemporary housing reform. He did this through the use of rhythmic elements that provided coherence over the large surfaces in such a way that avoided the threat of monotony through their varied composition. He was able to employ a set of characteristic elements aligned to the conceptual uniformity of the block, but in slightly differing combinations while still retaining a sense of harmony. This exterior appearance that can be considered unified was only broken up by the building designed by Zoltán Reiss. It was already one floor taller than the buildings designed by József Fischer, with four instead of three stories rising above the ground floor, and the façade also differed fundamentally in style from the other sections of the block.

The other dimension of design striving for uniformity was represented by the floor plan arrangements infused with the housing reform movement’s principles for hygienic residential architecture. The hygienic ideas of the time did not only result in leaving the interior courtyard open, but also in the placement of the stairwells, walkways, and living rooms in the individual buildings. The basic principles appeared in the presence of light and ventilation in the courtyard and stairways to prevent communicable diseases; the minimization of traffic within the building and contact between residents through a reduction in the number of apartments accessed by each stairway; and the avoidance of courtyard building wings and courtyard rooms facing the walkway that were considered unhealthy. József Fischer introduced various facets of the reform ideas in the individual lots, providing different variations in each one.

The building on the corner of Lenke Square was designed in 1907 and was the first to be constructed at the end of 1908. Reform ideas in its design were fundamentally represented by the stairway projecting out from the building’s courtyard façade. Due to its placement, it was provided with constant light and air. From there, it was possible to access the apartments from a gallery walkway, but József Fischer did not have the living spaces open from here, but instead the kitchens and servant’s quarters. The living spaces faced the street without exception. At the same time, the arrangement fit in with hygienic reform principles in other respects as well. Since the building was constructed in accordance with the smaller lots that were only later permitted, the two side wings remained shorter, resulting in fewer apartments per floor, a total of four. In this way, József Fischer was able to implement the reform principle of a small number of apartments being accessed by one stairway without having to increase the number of stairwells.

The second building to be erected, at 5 Fadrusz Street, followed this same development pattern, but not on a corner lot. The stairwell was placed outside the plane of the façade, so it was possible to access the four apartments per floor by a gallery walkway. However, József Fischer went beyond the implementation of housing reform hygienic principles here. Not just service rooms opened towards the courtyard, but the two end apartments also each had a courtyard-facing room with a loggia. The gallery walkway did not extend in front of these because the two end rooms projected further into the lot than the line of the courtyard façade. He took advantage of the benefits of the connected courtyard in the middle of the triangular block to the greatest extent with this floor plan arrangement, breaking away from the principle of the superiority of street-front rooms. He was able to fully assert hygienic principles through the placement of the rooms with loggias, since the essence of the interior courtyard, in addition to its garden-like landscaping, was the flow of sunlight and air, which would have only had a limited impact on the living spaces due to the traditional placement of service rooms on the courtyard side. This model with a gallery walkway was also followed in the building on Lenke Road that had two stairwells projecting into the courtyard, which also accorded with the efforts to have as few apartments as possible accessed from one place.  

He went even further in the design of the third building, the cooperative condominium planned in the summer of 1909 for the Park House Building Construction Association at 7/b Átlós Road. Here, the arrangement was progressive even compared to the development concept appearing on the 1908 site plan. Its status as a condominium may have spurred this, with demands for higher quality making further experimental innovations possible. Two stairwells were designed symmetrically on the wide lot, placing them within the building. Due to this, the number of apartments accessed at each stairway landing was reduced to two, and the gallery walkway was eliminated because every apartment had an entrance from a stairwell. In addition, there were no wings on the building extending into the courtyard, which remained entirely open to a depth of 15 meters. Every apartment had courtyard rooms provided with loggias looking onto the interior green garden space.

The final two buildings to be constructed according to the designs of József Fischer were shaped by the restrictions of their narrow lots. Due to the small sizes of the lots, the buildings only had a single apartment on each floor. The apartment on each floor was accessed through a stairwell in the interior of the building, and they had courtyard rooms with loggias according to the design tested in the summer of 1909. These structures concluded the development of the block, in which József Fischer had created a residential building complex providing apartments with two, three, and four rooms and servant’s quarters, with the majority being in the category of three rooms and servant’s quarters.

The corner building designed by Zoltán Reiss stood out from the Fischer-style unified architectural ensemble in both its construction and floor plan arrangement, although it did fit in with the housing types offered on the block with its three and four-room apartments with servant’s quarters as well as two-room apartments with an entry hall and servant’s quarters. In place of innovation, this building followed the usual arrangement for Budapest apartment houses. Its greater level of lot development came not only vertically, with an extra floor, but also horizontally. It was the property that covered the largest percentage of its lot and thus had a narrow courtyard. Here the connected courtyard development style was hardly apparent. The lot did remain open to the large interior courtyard through a narrow section between the side wings that enclosed its courtyard alongside the two neighboring lots. However, its own courtyard was quite small, and except for the narrow opening, it was almost completely surrounded by this residential building with gallery walkways. The gallery walkways were also designed in a different manner than the approach followed by József Fischer. They ran in front of every apartment, two of which were accessed from the stairwell, while an additional three opened from the walkway. The design of the stairways did not follow progressive principles either, but instead the usual pattern. The main stairway was located in the middle of the building and there was a servant’s stairway in the back. Due to its position on the corner of the lot, it did not have courtyard rooms, which due to the large proportion of development on the lot would have been courtyard rooms in the classical sense, opening only onto the walkway.

The Trends of Reformed Building Development

The implementation of ideas aimed at reforming urban blocks required single ownership of larger territorial units instead of divided parcels, demanding residential construction on several lots, and if possible extending to an entire block. Thus, to realize these reformed blocks, there was a need for properties not restricted to a single lot that were owned by the city or large social institutional organizations, whether they were philanthropic companies, foundations, or non-profit residential construction associations. Budapest was not alone amongst European cities in the fact that that its expansion, which had been proceeding since its unification in 1873, was characterized by the lack of private construction projects covering entire blocks. The capital’s Engineering Office even declared in connection with the Fischer and Detoma company’s second application for the subdivision of the Lenke Square block of lots that “every building is to be separately, independently erected” (BFL IV.1407.b 535/1908-III. Report of the capital Engineering Office, 19 July 1908). The official regulations for residential buildings did not include provisions for real estate development at the scale of full city blocks, as the units were represented by separate lots in the building code.

Up-to-date development projects oriented towards reform did take place in Budapest at the scale of lots, though, and the Fischer and Detoma full-block project was a part of this trend. Similar to other European cities, these efforts appeared in the 1870s, then popped up from time to time between the 1880s and the first half of the 1900s. Here also an intensive period of construction followed in the half decade before the outbreak of the First World War in conjunction with the arrival of the international movement for housing reform, although the offerings from these projects were still considered rare. József Fischer’s conception of his project preceded the peak of housing reform in Budapest, although its completion came at around its high-water mark. However, it also went beyond the restrictions of individual lots in contrast to the scale of other, more limited construction projects of reformers, rising to the level of the block in a trailblazing manner. The municipal authorities that generally had room to manoeuver in the field of urban block reform only began social housing projects at the city block scale in the case of Budapest in 1910, and there was no example of this during the initial years of the development of the Lenke Square block. Even a 1908 draft building code, which was made as a part of an initiative begun in 1904 to revise the 1894 building code that was still in force, only included the stipulation that “the position of the neighboring courtyard is to be taken into account, and if there are no special reasons present, the courtyard being constructed must be placed next to the neighboring courtyard” (Tervezet. Építésügyi szabályzat Budapest székesfőváros területére [Draft. Building Codes for the Territory of the Capital of Budapest]. Budapest, 1908. 44. 189.§). In addition to this, it also contained aspects of reformed building development that could be implemented on the scale of the lot, such as courtyards open towards the street. Although this stipulation pointed towards the replacement of enclosed courtyards by connected courtyards, the draft only became enacted as the new code in 1914. Under these circumstances, József Fischer wanted something radically new in terms of the development of city blocks and lot sizes, attempting to push the official regulations towards the reduction of lot sizes and in the direction of new kinds of development and housing possibilities.

The Appearance of Condominiums

Another housing reform trend, cooperative building associations, appeared in parallel with development projects handling the block as an architectural unit. The Fischer and Detoma company sold the lot at 7/b Átlós Road at the end of August 1908 to the Park House Building Construction Association. The association had been created with the goal of purchasing the lot and constructing a building upon it, allocating the apartments in it to its members at a low rent. They hired József Fischer to prepare the designs, and the residential building was completed at the end of April 1910. Immediately after this, a building association was formed for the neighboring corner lot at 6/a Átlós Road. This lot had been sold by Fischer and Detoma to private individuals in the autumn of 1908, and was then purchased in the summer of 1910 by the recently established Házépítő és Telepítő Bank (Building Construction and Settlement Bank) Co., whose activities included the organization and construction of condominiums. It established the building association while construction was proceeding in 1910, and it then purchased the building from the bank, so the building became a condominium operating in the form of a cooperative association. These two building associations operated side by side on the block, which had been fully developed by 1911 except for the two newly formed small lots. Transformation of ownership status then received renewed momentum during the First World War. József Fischer and Alfonz Detoma, who were no longer active business partners, converted the two apartment houses that had been erected in 1909 into condominiums during the course of 1917–1918 within the context of their joint company. The rules of apartment house management related to the regulated housing market during the war and financial difficulties may have been behind their decision. The new owners of the buildings, which were next to one another at 6 Fadrusz Street and 65-67 Lenke Road, were two newly formed building associations. Due to these two changes in ownership, the majority of ownership on the block was in the form of associations. Only three buildings were not included in this, the one on the corner lot at Lenke Square and the two small lots that were separated off from this.

This unique concentration of associations came together in a part of the city where a total of twenty-six building associations operated at the time. Four of these were on this block, so while condominiums comprised a tiny percentage of multi-dwelling buildings in the city overall, building associations operated in four of the seven properties on this block simultaneously at the end of the war. This trend indicated that József Fischer was not averse to having associations involved in ownership within the reform process. Just a few months after beginning his planning work for this block, he held a talk in January of 1908 at the Association of Hungarian Architects on the issue of building associations entitled “Cooperative Residential Buildings”. In his lecture reported on in Építő Ipar (Construction Industry) (Építő Ipar, 15 March 1908, 111–113) he called associations the ownership form that would define the future, and he opened a path towards this in the reformed city block he conceived.

A Model Block for Housing Reform

By the end of the period that closed with the First World War, this city block could be considered a kind of model. In terms of both its architectural approach and ownership patterns, it embodied the principles of the housing reform movement in parallel with housing construction reform processes occurring in other European metropolises. On the one hand, it carried out a reform in development patterns in accordance with the principles of hygienic housing. A large, shared, landscaped center of the block was created through the connected courtyard model, significantly reducing the proportion of the lot that was built upon. On the other hand, there was a transformation affecting ownership status that took place in the spirit of housing reform’s ideal of “one’s own home”. Due to this, the apartment houses on a significant portion of the block were replaced with condominiums that employed the notion of “one’s own home” in a version adapted to multi-dwelling buildings. This development project following reform principles was able to be implemented despite the fact that the capital’s building codes restricted planning to the scale of individual lots and had not yet accepted reforms to development patterns. However, the small-scale enterprise of Fischer and Detoma operated for only a total of seven years, adjusting to these circumstances and adapting them to their objectives. Through the tools of ownership and design, they achieved their goal of a reformed construction project at the scale of a city block that followed the most up-to-date principles of hygienic housing. Representing the idealism of the housing reform movement through a development approach viewing the city block as a conceptual unit, they attempted to be pioneers at the forefront of the reform of official regulations. However, even they could not repeat this model. After the boom in housing construction ended in 1912 and war broke out, no time remained for it to be repeated in a broader sense. Projects at the scale of a city block in the sphere of private construction proved to be a rare phenomenon in the period that ended with the war.

Ágnes Nagy (Translation from Hungarian: Charles Horton)