The adventure of reconstruction

"Despite its mass, Budapest's first reinforced concrete public building is, from a structural aspect, a surprisingly delicate creation; its designer did not give it a huge safety margin and yet we have not found a single instance of decline in its state that can be traced back to its structural design." This statement is from chief engineer Gergely Lakatos who informed us about the reconstruction work on the Liszt Ferenc Square building, which was originally planned to be in pompous Neo-Baroque style but, luckily for later ages, was finally constructed in Art Nouveau style. According to Lakatos, the expert who coordinated the project right from the very start, the original building engineer Szilárd Zielinski calculated with a precision particularly noteworthy even by today's standard; he did not think in terms of heavy-handed, excessive reserves.

A pioneer of reinforced concrete architecture in Hungary, transport and public works structures dominated Zielinski's work (including Városligeti Bridge, inaugurated in 1869); thus, unsurprisingly, both safety and economy were significant factors in his planning. Several of his bridges share the same structural solutions employed in the Liszt Academy; the roof structure of the building employed classical joiner's techniques but here with beams and ties made from concrete and reinforced concrete. The skeleton of the music palace is still considered an engineering marvel, as in those days they had neither concrete mixers nor high performance concrete pumps available – not to speak of high-end computers capable of precisely calculating static strengths as well as modelling all possible eventualities.

In 2011, after lengthy preparation before the reconstruction work itself, the team of experts was able to uncover structural problems in only two areas: cracks running the length of the internal wall of the main façade bearing the Liszt statue (which weighs several tonnes), and earlier repairs carried out in the roof structure of the wing of the building. "The cracks may have been caused by an earlier fault in the water piping, while asides from the original insufficient waterproofing, damage caused during the war may have contributed to the decline in the state of the roof structure," commented Lakatos. Based on structural research preceding commencement of the work, which was unprecedented in Hungary in its detail, the reconstruction took in rehabilitation of the original structures, and also extended to those elements with problems which, though invisible to the naked eye, did not comply with calculations based on current European Union regulations.

Architectural planners Éva Magyari, Béla Pazár and Ferenc Potzner were faced with a significant challenge in the structuring of the internal spaces of the building and in its functional arrangement, particularly in the basement and levels above the second floor, areas less well known to the general public. Part of the reason for this is that these areas were rebuilt and reconstituted in the 1910s after the building had been inaugurated; the institution of higher education founded by Ferenc Liszt expanded dramatically, there was an explosion in the number of enrolled students, and consequently there was ever greater demand for classrooms, as well as storage space due to library acquisitions. Service apartments were among the first to be sacrificed on the altar of education, and then the grandiose first floor residence of the director also went.

Ad hoc alterations to the building began in the 1930s and were concluded in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Chamber Hall, which originally had a rigging loft, safety curtain and orchestral pit, suffered most from the addition of outdated materials and use of unprofessional solutions, with the damage hampering its functionality. Storerooms were set up in place of the orchestral pit and understage, while the rigging loft was split up into classrooms.

In order to offset the damage this did to the acoustics, a "sounding board" was installed in the hall, although it did not bring about the hoped-for results: in actual fact, it succeeded in totally ruining the former prestige of the venue. (From this moment on it mattered whether an artist was categorised as either a "Grand" or a "Chamber Hall" musician.)

Existing parts of the building had to be demolished in a few places in order to reinforce the structures and to allow the concealed installation of new electrical and mechanical componentry. Lakatos notes that these parts were primarily brick walls and sections of the floor structure. The new structures were made by preserving the original listed claddings and interior design solutions. In order to maximize utility, the reinforced concrete structures of the wings on Király Street and Dohnányi Street, which were affected by the roof space development carried out in the 1970s, had to be demolished.

"In order to extend the spaces open to the public, we rethought the two courtyards. We have established a space for teaching during the day, and a buffet area serving the Grand Hall during the evening, on the ground floor of the multi-storey inner courtyard on the Király Street side," the chief engineer said. A new lift connected to the courtyard on the Dohnányi Street side also improves access for the general public. Heavy duty glass panels have been installed in the floors of both courtyards; these channel natural light into the orchestra changing room on the lower floor on the Király Street side and the library on the Dohnányi Street side.

Climate control of the concert halls also proved to be a serious challenge. Lakatos said about the former solution that was in place for many years: "Ventilation of the Grand Hall of the Liszt Academy was achieved by a natural draught in the inner courtyards and specially installed air ducts that were connected to the courtyards, as well as originally two large fans built in to the loft spaces of the side balconies, which – depending on the direction of rotation – either sucked or blew air. In winter, the current of air was warmed by loft space radiators. However, the fans were so noisy that mechanical ventilation could not be employed during performances and rehearsals, and thus the system was severely compromised." Air flowed through circular openings hidden in the laurel wreath-decorated ceiling. Heating chambers operating on a similar principle were located in the cellar; air flowed from the courtyards via the heating chambers and through pipes set in the walls, to be diverted by air spoilers formed from stuccoes beneath the galleries, from where it filtered into the hall itself through shaped ornamental grills.

"It was only after the cessation of regular concerts that one could experience for oneself the fact that the heating system of the Grand Hall was incapable of warming the approximately 7500 cubic metres of air space by itself. Complaints about deficiencies in the heating unearthed in the archives even in the years after the opening became immediately understandable. We were astonished to discover that the only way to resolve this situation was increasingly frequent public concerts, since the audience filling the hall actually significantly contributed to the warming effect," the chief engineer remarked. In the original setup there was also a cooling effect during the summer because the air deep in the shaded courtyards was always cooler. However, this effect was considerably reduced by the presence of an audience, as proved by the increasingly urgent calls for a stable temperate environment for the organ, as research studies of the archives reveal.

In the end, historic European stages served as a precedent for the climate control of the concert hall. As in other distinguished locations, the original solution in Budapest proved the best and the most realistic to implement: fresh air arrives in the hall through the ceiling and is vented at near floor level – not in the reversed manner applied in today's cinemas and concert halls, which induces an unpleasant chilled sensation and raises a cloud of dust.

The walls, repainted in the last century, presumably for ideological reasons, have regained their original ornamentation thanks to in-depth research work on the part of restorers. The Grand Hall, in all its glorious pomp, has become a sanctuary of Apollo, while the till-now-concealed rich Art Nouveau decoration of the Chamber Hall steps forth as a cheerful yet worthy companion. Remaining faithful to solutions that were originally applied, the painters and restorers have used genuine gold leaf in the restored outer areas, while in the interiors the appearance of gilding has been achieved through a so-called high copper content beaten metal process. The tapestries and drapery are fashioned to recall the opulence of 1907. The result of the reconstruction in its external and intrinsic overall impact is such as to make the institution a candidate for any of the most prestigious international heritage protection awards – and all to the greatest satisfaction of music lovers.