Historical buildings can perish in one of two ways: there are no resources available for their preservation or there is too much money allocated for modernization – all spent in a slapdash manner complying with contemporary trends. The Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest had its fair share of the former, as its post Second World War history is riddled with prolonged, unfinished renovations, half solutions and the degrading use of the grandiose, valuable spaces.
In 1983, the year of the famous art robbery, the thieves made their way into the Old Gallery via the scaffoldings of the back façade. Although the scaffolding was later removed, the renovation was never finished, just terminated, as the money was insufficient to realise the plans in their entirety. And even this renovation was a continuation of a previous, interrupted undertaking: the hasty reconstruction following the war made the building fit for welcoming visitors, but also paved the way for unbecoming transformations, the “storage room effect”. The enchanted world of the Romanesque Hall, the pale and peeling murals, the leaking glass roof and the dusty, broken plaster statues – this whole photogenic decay came about when after the war the damaged collection of plaster statues were temporarily stored in the hall. This transient period lasted for more than seventy years.
In the meantime many things were built, of course, such as public exhibition spaces on the lower ground floor between 1989 and 1998 based on István Mányi’s designs in postmodern style that was then deemed novel. Two inner courtyards of the museum fell victim to this extension, as both were rendered unusable by the two glass pyramids serving as skylights, but the change did treat the building with respect and caused no lasting damage – on the other hand, as this current renovation demonstrates, it created no lasting aesthetic value either. It is somewhat ironic that it was István Mányi himself who decided to discard it, as this latest reconstruction effort was also implemented based on his designs.
The Museum of Fine Arts is a rather complex building, one that takes years to fully get acquainted with. The current reconstruction – naturally – is half finished. Incompleteness, the most persistent tradition of the house, was upheld once again, as historical spaces were left in a spoiled state, for instance, they painfully overlooked the reconstruction of the original decoration in the Renaissance Hall that was radically simplified after the war. István Mányi, however, had the opportunity to settle debts of several decades, and he did so with exemplary care and moderation. The greatest trouvaille is of course the Romanesque Hall that was opened for visitors already in the spring, when work was still in progress in other parts of the building. Half the city went on a pilgrimage to stare and gape at this astonishingly ornate and afunctional pseudo-medieval cathedral with its real turn-of-the-century atmosphere, for which it is almost impossible to find a role in a modern museum. But one does not necessarily have to – its presence suffices and with its nearly church-like profoundness it offers one of the most powerful experiences to the visitors.
With the renovation a lot of things were moved. The museum opens completely for the public only next year, so only then will we perceive how the exhibitions were shifted with a domino effect, with the exception of the picture gallery. In the place of the Egyptian collection we find a spacious and pleasant café and restaurant. The ancient Egyptians moved into another section of the lower ground floor and are now connected via a passageway – how is that for historical allusion – with classical antiquity that has moved underground from the ground floor. Its original space is now used for temporary exhibitions, so the magnificent spaces of the Ionic and Pergamon Halls are liberated from the obscuring backdrops of the temporary shows, and become the homes of old Hungarian art transported here from the castle.
One of the most prominent of the reacquired historical spaces is the Michelangelo Room that opens from the end of the Renaissance Hall, where a small Leonardo exhibition is housed for the occasion of the reopening. This room with its three windows and a barrel vault decorated with rosettes, stuccos and ornamental painting is scenic despite its small size. Now that it has gotten rid of the loft built in for the accounting department, it is incredible that it should have been barred from visitors for decades. One floor up in the same position another room of similar size and structure turned out to be the greatest surprise of the renovation. Preliminary research did not reveal that this room had a similarly rich decoration of paint, that had survived under the series of coatings. The allegorical painting is yet to be interpreted, but the room has been renamed; it now bears the name of Albert Schickedanz, the original architect, and will be used for smaller conferences, readings, viewings. Yet another floor up, the third room opening from the same structure held no such surprises, but it has the same proportions as the other two.
Which goes to show that István Mányi had a very easy and a very difficult job at the same time during the design phase, as in most cases he merely needed to liberate the original values of the building from the later constructions, and these values then began functioning without any intervention. The original organization of the space is so logical, consistent and elegant, that one can only destroy it, adding anything to it is impossible. Except of course in the area where there didn’t use to be anything, namely the lower ground floor that was a later add-on. Here, in addition to exhibition spaces and the restaurant a spacious cloakroom and lounge was created on the opposite side of the lobby. Mányi’s bravest intrusion was the opening up of the façades on both sides, allowing natural light to flow into these new spaces. He did this so cautiously, so clandestinely though, that it cannot even be noticed from the outside. On the lower ground floor we can observe the same approach we see with regards to the windbreakers at the entrance – the pacifying of the earlier arrogant, exaggerated designs, their scaling down to the style of the building. The idea of inner courtyards and pierced abutments of the earlier plans of the expansion lives on in this current gap-like opening, but without the slicing up of the classical building.
Right after the opening the Museum of Fine Arts looks as if nothing had happened: even the new parts seem familiar. The building is so harmonious and organic as a whole, that It is already difficult to remember how a few years ago so many things were so different. Mányi is in a quiet, respectful dialogue with Schickedanz, to whose creation the master of our day wished only to add a few indispensable components that the original artist could not have thought of.
Translated by Péter Papolczy