On November 14, 2020, Elemér Zalotay, a prominent Hungarian architect of the 20th century passed away. The architect’s oeuvre has been placed and processed in FUGA for several years and now curator Júlia Őry and art historian Zoltán Fehérvári draw the extraordinary path of Zalotay.
*The essay was published originally in Hungarian in the architectural platform Építészfórum
A week after his death, his nephew notified us that Elemér Zalotay, 88, succumbed to complications caused by Covid-19 in the Swiss elderly home where he had lived for a couple of years. His oeuvre – 610 issued pieces of drawings, photos, documents – is taken care of by Bálint Nagy, art director of FUGA. Under his leadership, several exhibition materialized along with a book about the architecture of Zalotay. Currently, the Zürich-based BALTSprojects Gallery is working preliminarily on an exhibition in cooperation with us that has been postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. Unfortunately and painfully, Elemér cannot see it happening.
This current essay summarizes Zalotay’s entire life path, details our knowledge collected, in past tense.
The profound and extensive processing and analysis of the oeuvre, to place it in Hungarian and universal history of architecture are the future’s inevitable task. A task whose institutional, professional and financial needs must be set and created.
Elemér Zalotay was born in Szentes, on October 30, 1932. His father, Elemér Zalotay sr. (born Elemér Schupiter in Szászsebes, today Romania), was an archeologist-museologist, while his mother, Erzsébet Bányai (née Baumgarten), was a painter. With no architects in the family history, Zalotay, according to his own statement, prepared to become an architect from the age of 11.1 In 1952, Zalotay registered for the Technical University of Budapest (“Műegyetem”) and because of his intellectual background, he supposedly needed favoritism to get into the university.
According to his surviving drawings, during his studies he already worked on the topic that defined his entire work in the forthcoming decades: the solution of the ongoing housing crisis. For the understanding of the historic context: the first housing crisis in Hungary popped up immediately after the First World War as the ethnic Hungarians of the lost territories crossed the new borders into today’s Hungary. The havoc of the Second World War affected badly the already outdated dwellings stock. What is more, many more ethnic Hungarians arrived after the war, including the parents of Zalotay from Northern Transylvania.2 The new democratic Hungary emerging from the ruins, prioritized not only the clearance of the wounds but to improve the housing situation. Hence, housing estates started to be built based on type designs created according to the most up-to-date principles of modernist architecture. The short-lived democratic establishment was followed by a Soviet-style socialist era of Rákosi that kept laying emphasis on the need to solve the housing question. The limited budgetary situation and the forced industrialization created an unthankful environment for architects and planners who had to abandon the more updated type designs based on reinforced concrete in favor of more traditional construction technologies, ascribed to savings of materials, such as concrete and steel rebar. Following the 1951 architectural debate the style change brought socialist realism into the spotlight as obligatory canon.
His early drawings of different layout versions of towers, including the earliest dated in 1952, are telling as regards his personality and his commitment to modern architecture as none of them was made in the style of socialist realism. In accordance with his lasting works from his student years, he carried out even his obligatory schoolwork coherently in modernist style that provoked his teachers’ disapproval and harsh critique.
As a student he participated in the revolution of 1956, he served as a militiaman (“nemzetőr”). He was arrested on November 17, in front of the embassy of Yugoslavia. His mother intervened in his favor at the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Imre Horváth. Her notes detail that as a militiaman his son helped the relatives of security force members taken hostage at the Technical University, did the groceries for them, stopped lootings and he did not participate in the armed resistance after November 4.3 Her intervention was successful – the fact that his mother’s relatives who stayed in Transylvania were workers’ movement cadres4 might have helped – and he was freed on January 28, 1957.5 Nevertheless, before crucial national holidays (after the crackdown of the revolution), the police kept detaining him.
He was allowed to finish university, he defended his thesis work on a plan for an empty plot on József nádor Square in the autumn of 1957. By 1957, the socialist realist style preference was gone but numerous ideological prejudices blossomed. According to Károly Benjámin, who reviewed the plan, “on the forming of the facade strong foreign influences prevail and even though the facade could be acceptable in itself, it is not adaptable to the location in any case“6. However, the reviewer acknowledged that “the plan raises many issues. The shown appendix proves that the appointee carried out proper preliminary studies but it is apparent that the solution is not adequate.” 7
The continuous housing system8
The armed struggles of the 1956 Revolution ended with a significant damage in the housing stock. The Kádár consolidation (János Kádár, General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party from 1956 to 1988) once again laid emphasis on the improvement of quality of life and the housing situation. The local architecture now freed from ideological barriers began to thrive. The Government Decree 1002/1960 of January 10 of the same year stated the goal of the construction of the mystic one million new dwellings. To enforce the decree’s goal, many recommendations and experimental solutions emerged in the early 1960s.
Elemér Zalotay’s grand, ambitious plan of a suspended architectural structure, a continuous housing system in a dimension of a city was one of these experimental solutions. It did become the most original and controversial idea of the architecture of the 60s and the piece of his oeuvre that generated a wide public discourse.
His idea evolved by time, multiple versions were drawn but the initial idea remained the same: a 3-5-kilometer-long, 30-50-floor linear structure covered with a green façade would consist 25-30 thousand dwellings and placed between the hills of the Pilis and the river Danube, along the line of Csillaghegy and Békásmegyer localities and the Danube, into the middle of a fresh afforestation. The city-scale complex – that would include retail spaces, schools, laundry services, restaurants, cinema, theatre, auditorium, sport fields, speed rail – would offer livable and humane dwellings: “one can enjoy the advantages of urban living – if he wishes – but he can also withdraw when he needs quiet as all inhabitants would feel as if their flats were a single unit on a wooded hilltop of the Pilis.” 9
According to our knowledge, Zalotay first published his concept in the Élet és Tudomány in one of its 1959 volumes10, and later he introduced his ideas in depth in the periodical Kortárs that gave space for a discussion on housing construction. 11
The baseline was the Unité concept by Le Corbusier however on a significantly bigger scale. He imagined it in a structural system completely different from the Unité concept12, hence he published it in the international publicity named as Corb Plus.13 “I tried to create a dwelling in accordance with Le Corbusier’s principles that does not have an overwhelming impact on nature but still satisfies the needs of the modern urban human.” 14
The reinforced concrete structure would have required an extraordinarily massive and gigantic material need. He managed to achieve the opportunity to draw up his concept in detail as an independent planner at MÉLYÉPTERV. The architect himself never denied the futuristic nature of the idea, however, he affirmed its constructability with his calculations. 15 On December 12, 1961, together with static Imre Böröcz, they applied for a new patent with the so-called suspended building at the National Patent Bureau. The underlying principle of the structure is a dwelling suspended on high-strength and slender superstructure based on a low demand of raw material. The dwelling was planned in a way that its future inhabitant can set it up as well. With this, as their calculation shows, they could come up with outstanding cost savings regarding the then housing prices, thus it could pave the way for building remarkably bigger homes.
As the only professional journal of Hungary, Magyar Építőművészet, was not willing to publish, he managed to print his writing in other periodicals where he laid emphasis on the professional specialties and advantages of the plan. 16 One of the most important publications was in the Magyar Ifjúság (“Hungarian Youth”): the youth is the easiest to convince about the advantages of the plan. 17 In the portrait film about Zalotay, directed by András Kovács, (Ma vagy holnap, lit. “Today or tomorrow”, 1965, scriptwriter and director: András Kovács) again mostly young people (those subletter, renter, co-renter or night-lodger working class youth who long for a home, a condign living space, verdant environment and quiet) expressed their support for the plan. 18
After he produced multiple small-scale experimental versions of the continuous system, but decision has not been made yet, Zalotay lost his temper and in an open letter he accused Károly Valentiny, head of the Ministry of Construction Planning Department, of intentionally blocking the realization. 19 The letter triggered a brisk echo in media. In five volumes of Új Írás, nine opinion articles and one related article were published. The professional commentators20 tended to support the plan and the continuation of the experiments. The debate eventually was closed by the year-end article of Népszabadság, the then official party daily, which meant state force. 21 Deciding in these times was the selection of the Soviet prefabricated concrete panel as the method of mass housing construction. This ended the era of experimentation and searching for alternatives.
In 1966, Zalotay was re-located to Szombathely as an employee of VASITERV. A short but fruitful period started there for him. Three buildings were realized that mirror their planner’s architectural qualities. Bálint Nagy’ noteworthy remark points out that the three buildings salute his architectural forebearers: the Sárvár leather goods factory (1966-67) for the Japanese Metabolists, the Bajt plant nursery (1966-67) for Frank Lloyd Wright, while the Szomabthely Sputnik observatory (1967-68) 22 for the art of Le Corbusier. The observatory “despite its small scale is the most beautiful Hungarian example of the expressionist reinforced concrete architecture originating traditionally in the late works of Corbu.” 23 – writes János Gerle. The buildings are connected through Zalotay’s signature reinforced concrete beams protruding the plane of the façade.
In VASITERV more less-known works were realized too: the replanning and refurbishment of Smidt Museum of Szombathely (1968-69) and the Sárvár Services House (1970). His competition work on Celldömölk city center is exciting but completely forgotten by now. 24 In the 1967 competition they planned to award the first three winners originally, however, during the review they changed the original scheme and while the first three award was given with lowered prize, while Zalotay’s plan was purchased for a price higher than the prize of the 3rd awarded. Of the plan only a site plan and a detailed image description are known: “Urban management plan of the competition work of Elemér Zalotay. Unbound, free placement of buildings and the usage of a wide variation of environmental elements characterize it. A tower of amoeba-like, irregular layout stands on columns in the lake. Its height was the double of the buildings of mid-height recommended by other applications. In order of pedestrian reach, the tower was connected with a long bridge above the lake.” 25 In comparison with the others’, the plan is far the best and shows a significant difference from the simple localization and stiff structure of the original continuous superstructure, and especially in the interconnectedness of the structure and nature.
His last work at VASITERV was his work for the international competition on the Vienna HQ of the International Atomic Energy Agency. 26 The application was sent by director Gábor Iszak under his own name that led to Zalotay suing him, finally culminating in his dismissal. In the aftermath he worked as a private architect. In 1972, it seemed that a simpler version of the continuous system might be built in Véndeki Street, Tapolca. He got in touch with writer Margit Gáspár who guaranteed that the television will report about the building in case it was built. 27 The planned, originally 49-flat building was reduced to 22 units – plans are not known for none of the versions. Furthermore, he got into conflict with the housing cooperative too. Even though he continued the planning as a mandated architect, but he did not finalize it as he fled the country before. 28
One more remarkable fact from the pre-emigration era must be named: in 1971, once again he applied for patent with a “grid-stiffened solid plastic foil bag wall” 29 (we know a photo series about a wooden framed structure connected to it). It is important as the structural frame predates the structural modules of his Ziegelried house.
The archives of VASITERV were given to the Vas County Archives. In 2012, we could request to see the official plans of the Sárvár leather goods factory, the Bajt plant nursery service building and the Szombathely observatory, and we were notified that the documents are under processing, hence more, yet unknown, never realized works might emerge.
Ziegelried, Zalotay House
Elemér Zalotay left Hungary on the summer of 1973 and settled down in Switzerland (at home he was convicted for 3 years for being a dissident). 30 The choice of Switzerland is unknown even by his family members too, however, his brother, Peter’s former wife emigrated to Switzerland either, even though he never contacted her.
About his early years we know were few, according to his patent application sent to the United States authorities, he lived in Bern. 31 About his actual workplace and what kind of works he had in Switzerland, we have hardly any information. What we know for sure is that he became the member of the Swiss Architect Association, and until 1992 he worked for various architectural offices as a clerk, primarily as a static. We could detect only one work so far due to an undated layout that he probably planned as a colleague of an architectural company: a complex consisting 5 buildings with multiple dwelling units in the lakeshore village Kirchrain in Sutz Lattringen, in Bern canton.
He planned his own house in Ziegelried in 1979, in the immediate region of Bern. Prior his emigration he was known for being a devout hiker and skier, 32 and probably such a tour led him to the traditional Swiss Ziegelried, municipally belonging to the village of Schüpfen. Zalotay early on faced with the fact that in Switzerland there is no housing crisis. 33 It is hardly understandable that he settled down in Switzerland as an architect whose sole dedication targeted the problematics of mass housing. His only opportunity was to realize his ideals and ideas on his own home. The lightweight module system of the Ziegelried house is deeply intertwined with the idea of the continuous housing structure. A defining aspect was the construction by his own hands – until the finalization he lived in a caravan on the site.
The earliest photos of the building in snow suggest that it was done by the winter of 1979-1980. The continuously evolving “recycling” building, which open-ended process involved scrap materials and waste, was characterized by the “Do It Yourself” principle that he initiated for the continuous superstructure’s units too.
The original planning application documents of the building were reached with the help of Tibor Joanelly, Zürich-based architect, architectural author, editor of Hungarian origin.34 Many previously unknown details came forward via the drawings attached to the building permit application that was approved by the Aarberg Regierungsstatthalteramt, on February 12, 1979. The end result differed at one noteworthy point as regards the originally approved plans: the reinforced concrete beams projecting from the façade – that is a decisive motive of Zalotay seen on his buildings in Hungary. He published a brochure about the structure of the completed work in which he emphasized the universal nature of the structure: he found it adequate for both single houses and for constructions of towers. 35
However, after a couple of years he had to face with several weak points of the house. In summers, the module could get overheated, while during heavy rains the side façades leaked to a certain extent. 36 This is why he decided to build the aslope glass façades in front of the two sides, hence solving the aforementioned problems. Nevertheless, he built the glass façades without a building permit and as he was limited due to a lack of finances, he planned to construct the façades as thin as possible, and out of scrap material and waste. The first pictures where the glass façades are seen are dated to 1983. 37 The glass façades eventually triggered a local public outcry as the traditional Swiss community did not tolerate a breach of norms. On one occasion, an opposer threw a stone and broke one of the glass panes. The repair Zalotay carried out – obviously because for saving money – without replacing it with a new pane but to “sue” it together with small stones strengthened with cement, just as he re-made his broken glasses. 38 Since that time on, he kept using this method for every damage, using newer and newer materials, creating original patterns. The character of the house slowly but steadily shifted.
The local community sought the demolition of the house which despite the opposition became the cultic reference building of the profession and a reference point of the principles of green architecture. In opposition to the locals, he managed to garner supporters in the professional circles. The first article that targeted the rescue of the construction was written by two young Italian students of architecture, Fulvio Principe and Leopoldo Ambrosi and was published in Domus. 39 According to their writing, they personally participated in the realization of the experimental house. Michel Ragon officially could not have helped Zalotay as he did not have contacts to the Swiss politics and architects. Nevertheless, he welcomed and wished luck for the brave ones who dare because “under the reign of Ubu the King, creativity and innovation are always punished, unlike ignorance, vulgarity and mediocrity.” – wrote Ragon. 40
To the mid-80s a paradigm shift took place regarding the point of view of the architects. The grand movements, the modernism and its critical reaction, the postmodernism were after their respective peaks. The Architectural Review presented the Zalotay house under the title “post-modern is dead”. 41 The individual paths unrelated to the hegemonic canons became more valued and a broader interest awoke towards Zalotay’s experimental home.
Swiss architects started to stand up for the house in Ziegelried, and among the firsts, Urs Grandjean stated that Zalotay’s house “is more precious than anyone else’s in its direct surroundings”. 42 Thanks to the vocal professional support, the authorities decided to protect the building and on August 3, 1992, it was listed for 40 years as a historical monument of Bern canton. 43
The building itself, however, kept evolving thanks to Zalotay’s ongoing manual contribution. It is proven by multiple published photo series. The decoration that had concerned only the glass walls and façade started to cover step to step the interior too; the walls, the floor, and what is more, the living room carpet.
As he could not take care of and stabilize his financial situation at one point, the house was jeopardized by the bank that sought to sell it due to mounting debts. To his fortune, in 2003 Heinz Würsten, entrepreneur in the building industry, purchased the house and ensured that Zalotay can stay in his home until the end of his life. 43 In 2012, the extra protective layer for the roof was built as their joint effort. The building has been abandoned since Zalotay moved into a retirement home in February 2017. The house is listed as heritage until August 2022. Since Zalotay left the vegetation has been intensively overgrowing the structure. If a solution was not found for utilization until the end of its heritage listing, the vegetation will invade and destroy the building. Several alternatives of its reconstruction are possible; however, its fate and survival are completely in question currently.
A remarkable bulk of his oeuvre is of drawings – often large ones – depicting astounding towers and megastructures. The works are rarely dated but we can say confidently that the idea of megastructures accompanied him from the university years until the end. The astonishing works are not only pieces of graphic arts on their own and spectacular visions but each and every one of them is a plan with proper static calculations, plans of realizations, with emphasis on cost-effectiveness.
An early (year is unknown) competition piece for dwelling typology is known in which the tower of rounded layout reminds us of the Budapest Hotel (1964-1967) by György Szrogh, however, Zalotay’s play is probably earlier. (According to our hypothesis, he drew it as a student).
His fantasies of ever-growing high-rises were essential during his entire path as Zalotay followed the achievement of the architectural world with intense attention. Among his imaginary works one can find a green skyscraper rising above the urban pattern of central Budapest along with a high-rise standing in the heart of Manhattan. He also participated on competitions, for example for the Milwaukee City Design planning in 1987. A journalist of Veszprémi Újság reported about his meeting with Zalotay in 1996, who told him about a 35-meter-tall spiral tower built out of steel and wooden, standing on wooden columns in Balatonfüred (where his mother lived). 45
Seeing these plans, it is obvious that Zalotay clearly detected the directions of contemporary architecture, the future tendencies and his drawings either forestalls their age or were made simultaneously with high-rises emerging on other parts of the world.
It is thrilling to imagine: the green façade Zalotay dreamt of is not a utopia anymore. Green roofs and green façades became widespread elements of the PR-slogan-like sustainable architecture. The architects46 of Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) of Milano, finalized in 2014, realized the dreams of Zalotay from his megastructure drawings: they planted one hectare of a forest vertically on the twin towers of 110- and 76-meter, respectively. “The trees of Bosco Verticale contribute to the urban forestation, to the regeneration of the environment, and to the urban biodiversity while parallelly reduce air pollution and increase the humidity. The abundant vegetation filters the atmospheric aerosol particles, protects the inhabitants from noise pollution and cools the dwellings during summer heatwave, hence reducing the energy consumption.” 47 All his plans are complex, deliberate in its details, the towers are planned in a diverse way, with inventive forms. On our last meeting in 2018, he passionately and confidently detailed his plans of a 10-km-tall skyscraper. He worked obsessively until his last day.
Zoltán Fehérvári – Júlia Őry
Budapest, December 22, 2020