Budapest Courtyards


I’ve just been in Budapest with the Bath University 3rd year architecture students. Usually before going somewhere new I get quite excited and devour a few books so I know a bit about where I’m going but for Budapest I hadn’t had time so I had no idea what to expect. There isn’t an Eiffel Tower, Guggenheim or Colosseum that defines the tourist image of the city and I had no list of must-see buildings to look forward to. The lack of expectation was quite liberating and we spent 4 days just walking and exploring.

I like cities that don’t present everything to you on a plate and I got the sense that Budapest wasn’t too bothered whether we were there or not. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming but the city has a self-confidence that means it doesn’t have to sell itself too hard and you have to do a certain amount of work to find out what it has to offer. The thing I found most intriguing was the parallel world of courtyard spaces behind the facades that you glimpse as a big door opens fleetingly for someone to go in or out. In Pest most of the streets are flanked by quite uniform 19th Century neo-classical tenements that don’t give any suggestion of what might be going on beyond. What makes the Budapest courtyards distinct from other similar European models that might be found in Vienna or Paris is the open balconies that wrap around them to give access to the flats. Each courtyard has a different character, often quite scruffy and un-gentrified even if the building facade has had a make-over.

The tenements vary from 3 to 5 storeys and were mainly built between 1800 and 1900. The aerial photo shows District V and VI to the north of the medieval centre of Pest. This area was laid out as a planned extension to the city in 1805 on a grid designed to maximise the number of roughly square plots. Each has a courtyard at its centre and there were strict building controls governing factors such as height, aesthetics and room sizes with the intention of maintaining a well-ordered city. The flats facing the street were occupied by the gentry and the poorer classes would live in the flats facing the courtyards, sharing a bathroom in the corridor and getting their water from a central well. The social mix is reminiscent of the Georgian town house in Britain where people of vastly differing wealth and lifestyles would live in close proximity, a microcosm of society under one roof.

Because they are hidden away from the street the courtyards allowed unseen discussion of political ideas and were often the birth-places of unrest, not least in the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It is thought one reason other models of housing were used in the communist era was to avoid creating places where people could gather and plot against the regime.

The Derra-house (1828), a neoclassical courtyard tenement (József Sisa and Dora Wiebenson, eds. Magyarország építészetének története, 1998 p.192). I found this drawing in a paper called Borrowing Ideas: The Changing Form of Metropolitan Housing in Budapest by Csilla V Gal which gives an excellent history of housing in Budapest over the last 200 years.

Over the past decade a number of derelict tenements and vacant lots have been taken over as ‘ruin pubs’. I had a great evening at this place, which is one of the originals. If I hadn’t spent all day poking around courtyards I wouldn’t have recognised Szimpla as a re-inhabited tenement block because the courtyard is enclosed and everything has an accretion of lights, junk furniture and nick-nacks but it is all still there. The bar is in what was a ground floor flat and you can climb one of the staircases, out onto a narrow balcony and back into a different flat full of old sofas and home-made lighting. The front facade of the building is gloriously decayed, its stucco completely gone to reveal the strange shapes of the wonderfully crude brickwork behind.

And finally a restaurant recommendation – Cafe Kor. My friend Akos took us here one evening and said it was his favourite restaurant. It’s great value little bistro serving excellent Hungarian dishes with friendly service.