In the international discourse on contemporary architecture it seems to be evident that intervention into historic buildings is always a sensitive issue. This is particularly the case when the project is not only a simple renovation, but there are alterations or additions to the original building – it is always difficult to find the balance between past and present, between the attitude of sheer preservation of a monument and the voice of contemporary architecture. Additions copying eariler times and contemporary impacts that ignore their context are the two extremities to avoid – the desireable solution lies somewhere in between. There is no ultimate recipe, the questions need to be asked and answered in every particular case. 3H architercture + Váncza Művek have refurbished the Cathedral of Szeged in southeastern Hungary and managed to find solutions worthy of note.
The city of Szeged is located in flooded area and underwent many reconstructions during its history. The challenge was to explore the borders in the historically densely layered urban structure and bring new spirit to the long-used spaces. Being built at the dawn of modernism, the church is an interesting mixture of historical and modern structures, styles, and construction methods – the current architectural concept has made an attempt to clarify the relationship between the original building and the additional layers. Besides restoring the original conditions, the architects considered the building as an open artefact consisting of layers of different eras, to which they added the contemporary layer as equivalent in value. As a result, one can sense a gentle progress in the case of the alterations of the already excisting parts, while the newly constructed elements bear a strong contemporary touch, nonetheless relate to their context.
The main contradiction that needed to be cleared was between modern and historical architecture’s relationship to ornament and decoration. The densely decorated interior of the cathedral stands in direct contrast with the modernist aesthethics, which got rid of any decoration and finds beauty in clearly visible structures and in the material itself. Although contemporary architecture does not stick rigidly to these century-old principles, applied decoration of the past is still alien to it.
The main advantage of the current changes is that they did not ignore decoration entirely, but rather keep them under control: the additions in the liturgical space all fit into the context, show, however, a gentle shift towards a sleeker style – they bring a bit of relief into the thickness of the space. In case of the new furniture, the ornament is integrated into the material. In other spaces, like in the crypt an inverse solution comes into effect: the formerly abandoned spaces were given a new quality. The heavy pillars received unified white plastering and rhythmical illumination, the alteration of light and shadow gives contemporary aesthetics to the old space. These solutions shape the spaces in an organic way toward the needs articulated in the present – the refurbishment did not dissolve the building into fragments, but rather managed to develop it continually, adding meaning and functions relevant to contemporary users.
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