Artwork of the Month, July 2023: The Napraforgó Street Housing Colony (1931)

In the Budapest suburb of Pasarét, just some 400 metres away from the church of St. Anthony’s, discussed in an earlier article in this blog, is a quiet residential street of villas built in the early 1930s. This unassuming road, Napraforgó utca (Sunflower Street), occupies an important place in the history of interwar architecture and urban thought in Hungary, for it was an experiment in the uses of modernist design in addressing the acute housing problems of the post-war city. Somewhat neglected in the decades after the Second World War, it was declared a national historic monument in 1999, and in the last ten years or so it has become a subject of particular interest due to its putative association with the Bauhaus.[1] The title alone of the Napraforgó Street Bauhaus Association (Napraforgó Utcai Bauhaus Egyesület), set up in 2017, indicates the importance given to this connection. On the occasion of the 2019 Bauhaus centenary, the Association organised walking tours and an open-air exhibition in the street.

View of Napraforgó Street, Budapest

Lajos Kozma, László Vágó and others: Napraforgó Street, Budapest, 1931, photo taken shortly after completion – photo: Fortepan / Ákos Lőrinczi

For all the references to the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius (1883–1969) and other staff of the school were not directly involved in the street, but a number of the houses were built by Hungarian architects, such as Farkas Molnár (1897–1945), Lajos Kozma (1884–1948) and József Fischer (1901–1995) who were either sympathetic to the ideas being propagated by the Bauhaus or had been students there. Molnár in particular had been a significant presence. He went to study at the school between 1921 and 1925, and he played an important role in organizing the first Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar in 1923. In 1929 he was invited by Gropius to take part in the meeting of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in Frankfurt and, on his return, Molnár founded the Hungarian branch of CIAM together with Kozma and Fischer.

The Napraforgó utca development is thus an important sign of the productive relations that existed between Hungarian modernist designers and architects and their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe, a topic of repeated scholarly interest.[2] However, aside from its symbolic function, it merits attention because if we explore it a little further, we encounter competing ideas about housing that were circulating between the wars, not just in Hungary, but more widely. Before exploring that specific issue, however, it is useful to consider the history of the street.

The idea was first proposed to the Budapest city council by the architects Péter Kaffka (1899–1992), Lajos Kozma and László Vágó (1875–1933) in 1929, and permission was granted the following year. Construction started in February 1931 and was completed by October, eight months later. The development consisted of 22 houses in total. The leading three architects behind the project designed six houses (Kozma was responsible for three of them), and then a range of other architects were each invited to design a single house. The individuals involved formed a diverse and eclectic range of figures. Some, such as Gyula Wälder (1884–1944) and Károly Weichinger (1893–1982) had established reputations both in Hungary and abroad, but others such as Ármin Hegedűs (1869–1945) and Gedeon Gerlóczy (1895–1975) were hardly household names, and few of them would have been seen as leading exponents of Hungarian modernism. One invited participant of note was Virgil Bierbauer (1893–1956), more usually known for his role as the editor of the architectural journal Tér és Forma (Space and Form), which played an important role in the late 1920s and 1930s as a conduit of ideas and information about contemporary international architecture.

The New House Colony in Brno, 1928

Bedřich Václavek, Zdeněk Rossmann and others: The New House Colony (Kolonie Nový Dům), Brno, 1928 – photo: Martin Strachoň / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0

Despite Bierbauer’s involvement, and that of Molnár, Fischer and others, it is, in fact, slightly misleading to see the development as an exemplar of the Hungarian Bauhaus. In comparison with similar near contemporaneous projects, such as the New House Colony in Brno, with its application of a uniform design language, the Napraforgó Street was a pluralistic enterprise.[3]

Lajos Kozma: House 5 Napraforgó Street

Lajos Kozma: 5 Napraforgó Street, Budapest, 1931 – photo: Tér és Forma (1931) p. 317

Some of the houses, such as numbers 5, 6 and 8, by Kozma, 15 (now 13) by György Masirevich (1905–1989), and 20 by Fischer, were based on the vocabulary of basic cubic forms, horizontal ribbon or plate glass windows, flat roofs and plastered concrete familiar from functionalist projects of the time, such as the estate in Dessau-Törten that Gropius had developed in the late 1920s. Others, however, were in a completely different idiom.[4]

Houses numbers 9 and 11 (now 9), by K. Róbert Kertész (1876–1951) and 14, by Hegedűs and Henrik Böhm (1867–1936), were brick-built structures that owed more to the ideas of the Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856–1934), whose work, consisting of simple geometric structures executed in brick, had gained considerable positive attention across much of central Europe.

18 Napraforgó Street by Weichinger

Károly Weichinger: 18 Napraforgó Street, Budapest, 1931 – photo: Tér és Forma (1931) p. 316

Numbers 18 (Weichinger) and 22 (Ede Novák [1888–1951] and Béla Barát [1888–1945]) were, with their pitched roofs, utterly conventional designs that seemed to have almost nothing in common with the Bauhaus-infused ideas of some of the others. Photographs from the time of construction provide little indication, but the houses were painted in different colours, a feature that Bierbauer praised shortly after the street was completed, and which recent restoration has sought to bring back.[5] The significance of this will be explored shortly.

Péter Kaffka: House in Napraforgó Street, Budapest

Péter Kaffka: 3 Napraforgó Street, Budapest, 1931 – photo: redoctober / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 2.5

A Bauhaus project?

Most immediately, a brief overview of the development demonstrates the plural nature of architectural practice in the early 1930s. The creation of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in 1928 may seem to have marked the emergence of a kind of uniformity of thinking, in which functionalist design had become the norm for progressive design, but the reality was very different. There were competing ideas, and although some of the architects involved in the Napraforgó Street colony were more conservative than others, it is misleading to attribute the differing approaches to design to divergent political stances alone. The example of Virgil Bierbauer offers a clear illustration of this.

Bierbauer was a tireless campaigner for greater openness in Hungary towards the most progressive international architectural practices, using his editorship of Tér és Forma as the principal platform for this mission. As the development was being finished, Bierbauer wrote an account of it in Tér és Forma, with extensive illustrations and plans of the individual houses.[6] Despite the diversity of the eventual project, the original idea, he noted, had been to demonstrate the advantage that would come from uniform design, which would be cost-saving for the owners and would also make possible a more efficient installation of basic urban infrastructure. This aim had not been fulfilled because, he admitted, too many different individuals were involved. The building contractors did not always keep to the plans, slightly modifying them, in part because some of them wished to buy the houses when they were finished. There was also little co-ordination. In future ventures, he concluded, a single architect should assume responsibility for the whole project.

In subsequent articles he returned to the development, but it was not in order to renew his call for uniformity. In 1933, in a review of the Milan Triennale of Decorative Arts (Esposizione Triennale delle Arti Decorative e Industriali Moderni) he again addressed the theme of colour and diversity.

… no individual of the same nation who has free will can be expected to solve the same task in the same way! This is what only naivety, servile orthodoxy and dogmatism can deny, that the new architecture with a single basic idea, working for today’s people and not for the past, will be differentiated, it will become colourful in the world, just as all architecture became colourful in the past, at all times and everywhere

[ … ]

If I think back to our Sunflower Street experiment, but even more so to what this housing estate is like now with the colours of living life, I see that we also have to find our way in this direction.[7]

What was impressive about the Italian designers’ work in the exhibition, he stated, was their ability to evoke the same genius loci and cultural diversity:

In its great simplicity, monumental and yet with Italian serenity, complete pathos and Latinity is expressed … What they created is today’s expression of a specific environment. Everything they created is distinctly and undeniably Italian, mainly through their fanatical search for colour.[8]

It is important to note here that Bierbauer was praising the classicizing design that bore the official imprimatur of the fascist state, one of the more uncomfortable aspects of his writing, which commentators have often chosen not to dwell on. For present purposes, however, what is of more pertinence is the comparison he then draws with contemporary German design. Specifically, he concludes, ‘When I think back, how harsh and brutal was the forced colour of the exhibition housing complex in Stuttgart, how monotonous was the grey and white exhibition in Breslau …’[9] The comparisons he was making were with the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart in 1927 and the Breslau Werkbund Estate of 1929. The reference to colour was more than just a figurative turn of phrase; it was about the presence or absence of chromatic variety in housing design.

Bierbauer had recognised a basic difference in design aesthetic. Not only were the houses in the Napraforgó Street characterised by the plurality of design languages. That lack of uniformity was reinforced by the use of colour. As such, it becomes increasingly questionable as to whether connecting the colony to the Bauhaus can be upheld. Scepticism may be strengthened when we consider the place of Napraforgó Street in wider debates regarding housing design and policy between the wars.

Housing politics and the minimum dwelling

The projects with which Bierbauer compared the Napraforgó Street development were a very distinct kind of undertaking, for they were meant to be prototypes for possible mass housing. These were different from the modest street of single-family middle-class homes that Kozma, Fischer and their peers had designed. For the Stuttgart and Breslau estates were just the most recent attempts by architects to address the major concern of national governments, municipal administrations, and urban planners: the severe shortage of housing in major cities.

Indeed, the same issue of Tér és Forma that contained Bierbauer’s essay on the Napraforgó Street project also included an essay by the architect Oszkár Winkler (1907–1984) on housing policy as well as a review of an exhibition that Molnár and other members of CIAM-Hungary had organised in Budapest on collective housing: Kolház-Kolváros (Collective House-Collective City).[10]

Exhibition of kitchen and dining room from the Kolház-Kolváros Exhibition, Budapest, 1931

Exhibition of kitchen and dining room from the Kolház-Kolváros Exhibition, Budapest, 1931 photo: Tér és Forma 4.10 (1931) p. 333

The exhibition was meant to promote new models of efficient living based on scientific analysis of user needs, but the term ‘kolház’ betrayed the political motivations of the organisers, since it suggested a commitment to radical leftist politics inspired by the Soviet Union. It was not followed up with any sustained debate or practice and instead of ‘kolház’ a more common term became ‘lakótelep’ (housing estate), a depoliticised label that was used to describe projects such as the Weissenhof Estate or the earlier Dammerstock Estate (1929) in Karlsruhe.[11]

The question of mass housing was a subject of recurrent interest – in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, Tér és Forma published an article on ideas of future mass housing after the end of the war – but ideas were seldom translated into actual buildings.[12] In this respect it is worth comparing Hungary with neighbouring Austria, site of the most ambitious project to address this problem: the construction of vast housing estates in the 1920s by the Social Democrat council in Vienna. As the architectural historian Eve Blau has rigorously documented, architects working for the municipality devised ingenious solutions to the problem of how to design affordable apartments for the working-class inhabitants of the capital who had previously lived in slums or had even been homeless.[13] The design language may not have been the most innovative, as critics of the time as well as later commentators noted.[14] Nevertheless, the architects successfully designed and built some 60,000 apartments that provided their tenants some comfort and basic facilities and amenities.

The provision of mass housing was a highly politicised issue, and debates were informed by ideological commitments. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this in central Europe was not in Austria or Hungary, but in Czechoslovakia, in particular, the writings of the Marxist critic Karel Teige (1900–1951). In 1932 Teige published an extensive study, The Minimum Dwelling, in which he called for a new dwelling type that would fit the needs of the urban proletariat.[15] Central to this was the idea of the collective home (kolektivní dům, abbreviated to koldům) in place of housing organised around the nuclear family.

Teige was driven by the conviction that modern architecture should be concerned primarily with designing for the proletariat. Too often, he argued, architects expended their energies on undertaking commissions for bourgeois clients. This was a criticism he levelled at the Baba Housing Estate built by the Czechoslovak Werkbund between 1932 and 1936.[16] Modelled on the example of the Brno Nový dům colony, it was meant to serve as a showcase of mass producible housing. Nevertheless, the estate consisted of just a group of 32 middle-class family houses. Teige was fierce in his criticism of it. ‘It might have been relevant at the time of Weissenhof,’ he stated, ‘but not today: it has long since been surpassed by subsequent examples of both our own and international architectural achievements.’[17] Consequently, he went on:

At a time when the building of a healthy family house of good quality, fully equipped with modern conveniences, is no longer a problem for architects and builders, who prefer to serve clients with sufficient money to build private villas, it is inconceivable and unjustifiable by any kind of argument – even from a ‘purely architectural standpoint’ – to build a model housing project of villas for a few wealthy individuals and call it an exemplary and socially relevant act, and an example of architectural progress to boot: the whole thing is nothing other than a sop to bourgeois money and taste.[18]

His rhetoric was forceful, but his observations were not necessarily inaccurate, and they applied to Hungary as much as to Czechoslovakia. Despite their avowed interest in the challenges of designing for mass society, many architects invested much time and energy working on commissions for wealthy private clients, such as Mies van der Rohe’s (1886–1969) Villa Tugendhat in Brno (1930), built for the industrial magnate Fritz Tugendhat and his family, or the Villa Müller in Prague (1928–30) by Adolf Loos (1870–1933), built for the industrialist František Müller. The Hungarian ‘Bauhaus’ of the interwar years consisted almost entirely of private villas, such as the House of Book Lovers (1931–32) designed by Farkas Molnár for Ernő György, or József Fischer and Eszter Pécsi’s (1898–1975) Rózsi Walter Villa (1936) designed for the eponymous opera singer, both examples being in Budapest. In these and other examples, functionalism was no longer functional at all; it had become the aesthetic of a progressive social elite.

A small number of apartment buildings were constructed in Hungary, but lack of official government interest meant that they remained exceptions.[19] The reason for this was undoubtedly political, and the ‘Kolház-Kolváros’ exhibition was an indication of this. The deeply conservative interwar Hungarian government of Admiral Miklós Horthy was resolutely opposed to the collectivist politics that shaped mass housing projects. This reflected its broader outlook, but it had a particular pertinence when it came to the issue of housing policy. For the government declared that Hungary was a ‘Christian nation’ and that the construction of a Christian state was a central goal. As Paul Hanebrink has pointed out, what this meant in practice was vague and ill-formulated.[20] The majority of Hungarians were Catholic, but a significant minority were Calvinist or belonged to other protestant denominations, and these different groups and churches were often at variance. There were, however, important points of convergence: antisemitism, which was often formulated in legislation, and a hostility to socialism. Against the latter, the social teaching of all churches emphasised the role of the family as the bedrock of the nation, and this translated into a marked lack of support for social housing of the kind that had been pioneered in Vienna or that was espoused by Teige and other leftist designers.

It is in this light that we should consider the Napraforgó Street development, for in many respects it exemplified the kind of bourgeois colony that Teige criticised so vehemently in Czechoslovakia, but which was entirely uncontroversial in Hungary and even gained official support. K. Róbert Kertész, one of the architects involved, was in fact a member of government of the time. He had been deputy secretary of state of the Department of Religion and Education from 1923 to 1924, and between 1922 and 1932 he had also been head of the art department. The owners of the houses consisted of middle-class professionals as well as army and police officers, precisely the kinds of figures who were to provide the backbone of the Horthy regime. It is therefore no surprise, perhaps, that the conservative newspaper A Munkaadó (The Employer) gave a highly positive report of the celebratory opening of the street.[21]

It would be misleading to suggest that there was comprehensive housing policy in Horthy’s Hungary, as there was in Austria. Once the Social Democrats in Vienna had been defeated and the dictatorship had been installed in 1933, an end was brought to the mass housing projects associated with Red Vienna, and they were replaced with low-density suburban estates of single-family houses.[22] Nevertheless, in Hungary, there was, likewise, a preference for small-scale developments. After the Kolház-Kolváros exhibition of 1931 there were no further serious proposals for mass housing, and there was no debate of the kind that flourished in Czechoslovakia. The article by Winkler in Tér és Forma focused solely on practical questions, rather than the political and ideological reflections of Teige. As if signalling a lack of willingness to engage in such debates, the same issue of Tér és Forma included sympathetic profiles of a number of modernist villas.

It is therefore probable that the Napraforgó Street development was possible not only because certain kinds of modernist practice were tolerated even by the reactionary government of Admiral Horthy. It was also deemed acceptable because the clientele and the overall concept of the development mounted no challenge whatsoever to the social vision of the ‘Christian Hungary’ that the Horthy regime was trying to create.

Matthew Rampley

[1] In addition to articles and chapters in books, a monograph was published on the project in 2019: András Ferkai, Modern házak és lakóik: A Napraforgó utcai kislakásos mintatelep története [Modern houses and their inhabitants: The history of the Napraforgó utca small-scale model housing estate] (Budapest, 2019).

[2] See, for example, Hubertus Gaßner, ed., Wechselwirkungen: Ungarische Avantgarde in der Weimarer Republik (Marburg 1986); Éva Bajkay, Von Kunst zu Leben: Die Ungarn am Bauhaus (Berlin and Pécs, 2010); Beate Störtkuhl and Rafał Makala, eds, Nicht nur Bauhaus: Netzwerke der Moderne in Mitteleuropa (Oldenbourg, 2019); Ralf Burmeister and András Zwickl, eds, Magyar Modern: Hungarian Art in Berlin (Berlin and Budapest, 2023).

[3] Bedřich Václavek and Zdeněk Rossmann, Katalog výstavy moderního bydlení Nový dům (Brno, 1928). The development was the subject of a recent bilingual study: Dagmar Černoušková, Jindřich Chatrný and Pavel Borský, Nový dům Brno / New House Brno 1928 (Brno, 2018).

[4] The website of the residents’ association has a useful list of each of the houses. Available at: (accessed 19 July 2023).

[5] ‘With the colourful serenity of Napraforgó Street in Pasarét, today’s Hungarian architects have also shown the value of colour in architecture. Budapest’s most cheerful street is this street bursting with colour.’ Quoting Le Corbusier, he added, ‘Everyone is tuned to certain colours that dominate their psyche. Everyone is consciously or subconsciously attracted to certain colour harmonies, which form the needs of their emotional world. And so, we can give everyone the opportunity to get to know themselves by recognizing their own colours.’ Virgil Bierbauer, ‘Színzongora: Le Corbusiertől’ [Colour piano: From Le Corbusier], Tér és Forma 4.11 (1931) p. 368.

[6] Virgil Bierbauer, ‘A Pasaréti úti kislakásos telep’ [The small housing colony on Pasarét Street], Tér és Forma 4.10 (1931) pp. 305–16.

[7] Virgil Bierbauer, ‘A milánói V. Nemzetközi Iparművészeti Kiállitás’ [The 5th International Exhibition of Applied Art in Milan], Tér és Forma, 6.7–8 (1933) pp. 214–215.

[8] Bierbauer, ‘A milánói V. Nemzetközi Iparművészeti Kiállitás,’ p. 215.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Oszkár Winkler, ‘Újabb tanulmányok a lakásproblémához’ [Newer studies on the housing problem], Tér és Forma 4.10 (1931) pp. 317–26; Károly Stern, ‘A CIRPAC Magyar Szekció kollektiv-ház kiállítása’ [The Collective House Exhibition of the Hungarian Section of CIRPAC], Tér és Forma 4.10 (1931) pp. 331–34. CIRPAC, the Comité international pour la résolution des problèmes de l’architecture contemporaine, was a sub-committee of CIAM.

[11] Molnár wrote an approving account of the Dammerstock Estate, by Gropius, in Tér és Forma: ‘Karlsruhe Dammerstock-lakótelep,’ Tér és Forma 3.1 (1930) pp. 4–9.

[12] Pál Granasztói Rihmer, ‘Új lakótelepek szervezése és esztétikája’ [The organisation and aesthetics of new housing estates] Tér és Forma 16.10 (1943) pp. 157–60.

[13] Eve Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna 19191934 (Cambridge, MA, 1999).

[14] Josef Frank, ‘Der Volkswohnungspalast’ (1926) in Frank Schriften (Vienna, 2017) Vol. I, pp. 254–67; Manfredo Tafuri, Vienna rossa: la politica residenziale nella Vienna socialista, 19191933 (Turin, 1980).

[15] Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, trans. Eric Dluhosch (Cambridge, MA, 2002).

[16] Petr Urlich, Vladimír Šlapeta and Alena Křížová, Baba Housing Estate 19321936 (Prague, 2017).

[17] Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, p. 101.

[18] Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, p. 102.

[19] András Ferkai, ‘Hungarian Architecture between the Wars’ in Dora Wiebenson and József Sisa, eds, The Architecture of Historic Hungary (Cambridge, MA, 1998) pp. 251–62.

[20] Paul Hanebrink, In Defence of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism and Antisemitism, 18901944 (Ithaca, 2009).

[21] ‘A Napraforgó-utcai mintatelep’ [The Napraforgó street model colony], A Munkaadó 11 November 1931 p.  5.

[22] Andreas Suttner, Das schwarze Wien: Bautätigkeit im Ständestaat (Vienna, 2017).


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