Sunday 12 May 2024

Behind the courtyard door - Budapest's buildings tell tales

During lockdown I remained sane by trying to learn a new language and by travelling vicariously on the internet. One of the sites I most enjoyed took me into the lobbies, courtyards and walkways of Budapest's historical buildings. It told the stories of former residents and of events that had taken place there. Budapest is a city I had visited several times before, but had never seen in this way. Last week, I spent half a day with Vincent Baumgartner, the photographer behind Buildings Tell Tales, exploring some of the buildings featured on this Facebook group.

"She is a curious person. If a courtyard door was open, she'd go in..."

When we met at 9am, Vincent had already been on the streets for a couple of hours, exploring and taking photographs. "I wake up early and go out with my camera to catch the light at its best," he said. I asked how the project had started and how he became interested in architecture. "As a child I would go out walking with my mum. She is a curious person. If a courtyard door was open, she'd go in and I would go with her. She remains curious and we still explore together now," he said, "It must have started there." Some of his earlier explorations took place in Switzerland where he was born to an Hungarian mother and a Swiss father. Despite this, from an early age he was familiar with, and took a close interest in Hungary and Hungarian culture. He explained, "We often came here during the summer, and when I was nineteen, I came to Budapest intending to stay for one year, but ended up staying for five. During that time I completed my BA and also took part in a study programme for diaspora Hungarians, learning more about our culture and history." 

He returned to Switzerland to complete his Masters Degree, and worked there for a year, before his curiosity about different countries and cultures led him to spend a year in Iran. In 2018 he returned to Budapest. "Despite being born in Switzerland, I was starting to feel homesick for Hungary, so I came back, found work and settled here," he said. He currently works in communications for an international organisation.

While walking in the city, he began noticing names and dates carved into brick walls. "My curiosity was aroused and I began photographing this historical graffiti, using old telephone directories and other documents to research the details. I discovered that many of the marks had been made by on-duty police officers in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and that others had been made by famous people," he said. One such famous person was the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Léopold Szondi. Vincent continued, "I discovered a piece of graffiti seemingly written by him. I photographed it and sent it to the Szondi Foundation who confirmed that it was his handwriting." These findings not only led to him establishing the Instagram page Bricks of Budapest, but also to addressing a conference in Cologne.

"Almost everything I posted provoked comments and messages..."

This project sparked his interest in what might be behind those bricks and he began entering courtyards and taking pictures with his phone. Keen to share his findings with a wider audience, he launched the Buildings Tell Tales Facebook page in 2019 and soon began attracting a positive response. "The page quickly got traction and from the beginning, almost everything I posted provoked comments and messages from current or former residents, including people who had left Hungary," he said. Today the page has more than 34,000 followers, about half of them in Hungary and significant numbers in the USA, United Kingdom, Israel, France and Switzerland. "During lockdown I began to take my photography more seriously. I bought some equipment and took some classes. I wanted to better record my findings and to produce aesthetically pleasing pictures," he said. He has been so successful in this aim, that two Budapest local authorities have now granted him access to the buildings in their area of jurisdiction. 

Our walk focused on the city's seventh and eighth districts, once home to a large Jewish community. The huge external doors and sometimes austere exteriors of the apartment buildings can conceal stained glass, terrazzo surfaces, art nouveau tiles and elegant balconies or walkways. Others open to neglect, decay and empty apartments, some of them waiting for the wreckers' ball. Writers, artists, musicians, scientists, labourers and craftsmen once lived in these apartments and all must have had stories.

The level of grandeur denoted the social class of those who originally lived there, although many of the grandest are now in a poor state of repair. One apartment building is said to have housed a bordello that counted European royalty amongst its clients. Its stairwells are now dark, the decorative metalwork rusting and the plaster cladding crumbling. The same building has special historical significance as the wall of the wartime Budapest Ghetto stood in its rear courtyard. The original wall was demolished in 2006, but a portion has since been rebuilt as a monument.

A photographic studio in the attic

Other buildings are well maintained with evidence of repair work and clean courtyards free of litter. In Kiraly Utca, the inhabitants of one apartment block had undertaken historical research focusing on the story of former resident photographer Pal Kis. He worked from a converted attic room, where the ceiling and one wall were constructed entirely of glass to admit natural light. As well as running a successful business, he worked as photographer for the Opera House. During the latter part of the Second World War, Kis was one of many Jewish men taken for forced labour, but he managed to escape and return to Budapest. He was arrested again and deported on the last train to leave the city before the Russian encirclement. He died in the Buchenwald concentration camp in January 1945. While performing forced labour he maintained a secret diary, parts of which are preserved at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Kis' story is posted on information panels in the courtyard of his former home. 

The Kiraly Utca building's residents are clearly interested in its history, while elsewhere people greeted us and one asked for the details of the Facebook group as she wanted to know more about the project. "People are used to me now," said Vincent, "Often when they see me setting up my tripod, they will stop and talk." He has also attracted a significant amount of media attention, including from Hungarian state television, local and national newspapers  and overseas publications.

Since 2018, he has amassed a huge body of both photographic and written documentation on Budapest and I asked about future plans for sharing and developing his work. "I started a website last year and would like to further expand my project by obtaining a guide qualification so that I can lead tours of some of the buildings. I have also had a few exhibitions of my work. My next show will be in the Institute Français in September this year," he said. I asked him if he would consider producing a book, "Yes, that's possible too," he replied. 

You can follow Vincent's work on Facebook at Buildings Tell Tales  and on Instagram at Bricks of Budapest and Buildings Tell Tales

You can find the Buildings Tell Tales website here.

His next exhibition opens at Cafe Le Troquet in the Institute Français from September 7th. More details will be announced beforehand on the above links.

Photographs in this blog provided by courtesy of StudioSB