Sunday, 15 September 2013

Serbian sojourn - north to Subotica and some stunning art nouveau

Front entrance to Raichle Palace, now the Modern Art Gallery, Likovni Susret
Subotica is a city of just under 100,000 people, located in Serbia's northern most province of Vojvodina. The border with Hungary is just a short distance away and until the end of the First World War Subotica (or Szabadka in Hungarian) was part of that country. A strong Magyar influence is very visible with street signs in both Serbo-Croat and Hungarian, more than 30% of the population speaking Hungarian and most of all in the city's truly stunning art nouveau architecture from the beginning of the twentieth century.

 I first became aware of this architectural treasure trove of a town about five years ago when I happened on a picture of its synagogue (more of which later) and I have wanted to visit since then. Well just last weekend I fulfilled that desire and saw not just the synagogue but many of Subotica's art nouveau buildings, the most striking of which is the Raichle Palace at Park Ferenca Rajhla 5. Built in 1904 to the designs of architect Ferenc Raichle as his home and architectural studio, he combined expensive materials and vibrant colours to produce an art nouveau masterpiece. The facade of the building stops visitors in their tracks as they gaze at the riot of colour and decorative detail, not least the external lobby and entrance portal. The rear of the building is also beautiful although comparatively sober with its blue decorations on a cream background and is easily viewed from the courtyard of the Boss Cafe at the rear of Raichle's former home.

Today the Palace is home to the Modern Art Gallery - Likovni Susret which means that its possible to see the interior of this wonderful building - and also to take photographs. Although many of the original features have been lost there are still glimpses of the past and the ceramics, Murano glass mosaics, wrought ironwork, woodcarving and stucco. When I visited there was an exhibition of contemporary art, but the Palace is the star of the show and a small exhibition on Raichle on the first floor helps visitors imagine the splendour of his work.

Raichle Palace, Ferenc, Rajhla 5
The Hungarian legation stands just a few doors away from the Raichle Palace. Formerly known as the Salomon Sonnenberg Tenement Palace it was built in 1909 and designed by architects Izidor Strassburger and Lajos Gombos. I always associate the word "tenement" with low quality social housing and it seems strange to link it to the word "palace", but palace this certainly is. I especially like the doorway with its strong colours, "chess board" decoration on the upper pillars and metalwork over the glazing. The building also features Zsolnay ceramics - another tell tale sign of Hungarian influence. Photographs of the exterior are allowed but don't get too close to the door or look as if you might go inside, or the polite but stern security guard will ask you to move away.

Entrance to the former Sonnenburg Tenement Palace, now the Hungarian Legation
Before the Second World War, Subotica had a considerable Jewish community. The current community president estimates it to have numbered about 4,000 whilst I have seen references to 6,000 on various websites. Today there are about 250 community members. Yad Vashem refers to 4,000 Subotica Jews being murdered either by the German occupiers or in death camps between 1941 and 1945. Many of the survivors chose to emigrate to Israel after 1948, leaving just a remnant.

The community may have been decimated but it has a proud legacy. This includes one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in the world. The Subotica synagogue was built in 1902. It is one of very few surviving pieces of art nouveau religious architecture. The central dome is an imposing 40 metres high. There were once seats for 850 men with a further 550 seats in the women's gallery, demonstrating the former size and confidence of the community. The interior is decorated with highly stylised floral motifs including tulips and carnations as well as with peacock feather designs. These are typical Hungarian art nouveau features whilst the green and yellow dome is reminiscent of many buildings in Budapest, including the Decorative Arts Museum.

Subotica Synagogue
Sadly, the synagogue has been in a very poor state of repair for many years. Restoration work is being undertaken and the roof is now secure but the interior is in a shocking state with many of the decorative features in danger of disappearing. Funding has been secured to carry out some of the required works but the president of the community told me that at least a further 2 million Euros will be needed to complete this important project. Come on wealthy donors - this is a unique part of European Jewish heritage that must be saved.

The architects of this unique building were Marcell Komor and Dezso Jakab, both Jewish and both pupils of Hungarian art nouveau master Odon Lechner. Not only were they able to combine the dual identities of Subotica's Jews in the synagogue design - Hungarian and Jewish,  but they also made use of ground breaking modern steel structures and a self supporting dome. The stained glass windows, also in danger of being lost were the work of Miksa Roth whilst Zsolnay ceramics were used on the roof and the facade. Today the synagogue is rarely in use and the community holds services in another nearby building.

I began this post with a reference to the synagogue and my long held desire to visit. I was thrilled to be able to see not only the exterior, but also to go inside. But I was also filled with sadness at its poor condition and at the empty rows of seats still in place in the women's gallery (most of the men's seats are gone) and the appalling loss of this once vibrant community.

Bimah and Ark, Subotica synagogue
Just opposite the synagogue is another of Subotica's art nouveau treasures - the City Museum. Commisioned by Doctor Miksa Domotor and built as a house for his family in 1906. It was designed by the Vago brothers, Josef and Laszlo and carries the bird motifs for which they were famous. In later years it was home to a printing company but was taken over by the city in 2008 and since then has been the Subotica's City Museum. Domotor was an interesting character himself, researching serums and carrying out work to combat both diptheria and trachoma. He was also involved in businesses including seltzer water and marble production as well as editing a magazine on bee-keeping!

Detail of the former Domotor Palace, with bird motifs of architects Josef and Laszlo Vago

And then there's the City Hall. This massive structure was built between 1908 and 1912. and covers over 5,800 square metres with a highest point of 76 metres. Another Komor and Jakab design, it was built between 1908 and 1912. It combines art nouveau features with references to Hungarian folklore and includes ceramic floral motifs, wrought iron work and beautiful stained glass windows. The City Hall is at the very heart of Subotica and as well as fulfilling a civic purpose it is also host to cultural activity, the city archives, shops (including what may just be the only McDonalds in an art nouveau building!) and a bank. Komor and Jakab also designed several of the art nouveau structures at nearby Lake Palic, which unfortunately I did not have time to visit in addition to the former Subotica Commercial Bank Palace.

Detail, City Hall
Side door, City Hall
As well as being home to some fantastic architecture, Subotica has also been home to a number of famous people. Award winning writer Danilo Kiss was born here in 1935, the child of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Montenegrin Orthodox Christian mother. Kiss survived the war, although many of his relatives did not. He died unexpectedly in 1990 but is one of Serbia's most well known authors. Clearly a literary town, poet and prose writer Dezso Kosztonlanyi was also born here in 1885. He used the city as the model for his fictional town Sarszeg in which he set two of his works. On a different note, the Visit Subotica website claims horror film star Bela Lugosi as one of its sons although other cities also claim him.

Detail, former Subotica Commercial Bank Palace
Walking around this small but beautiful city it was possible to get just a glimpse of how life might have been back in the last few years before the First World War when many of the events that were to turn Europe into a battle field for decades to come were yet to take place. The achievements of those years are still visible in the built heritage. More people should visit.

For more pictures of Subotica please click here. And thanks to Elinor in Budapest for some of the architect's details!

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