Entrance to the synagogue of the Jewish Institute for the Blind, designed by Béla Lajta (1905–1908), Budapest. (YIVO)

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Lajta, Béla

(1873–1920), architect. Born in Budapest-Óbuda to a traditional Jewish family of tailors, Béla Lajta (originally Leitersdorfer) became the most important protomodernist architect in Hungary, bridging the art nouveau of Ödön Lechner and modernism proper. With Joseph Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, and Ian Kotěra, Lajta was one of the most significant architects between 1900 and 1920 in Habsburg lands. Talented in music, drama, sculpture, and painting, he ultimately graduated from Budapest Technical University in 1896 as a student of Alois Hausmann and Imre Steindl; he then was awarded a travel grant to Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and Russia. Lajta worked in the offices of Alfred Messel in Berlin, Norman Shaw in London, and Ödön Lechner in Budapest.

After winning the Lipótváros synagogue competition in 1899, Lajta returned to Budapest from London. Although his building plans failed to be implemented, he remained in the Hungarian capital for the rest of his life. At first, Lajta was an ardent partisan of the so-called Hungarian Secession, an architectural idiom with a nationalist agenda that incorporated elements from Hungarian folklore. This style soon became the architectural hallmark of liberal Jewish intelligentsia and entrepreneurs, who wanted to show their loyalty to their country. Although the mode utilized genuine Hungarian folk art by transplanting its elements into a new context, its original meaning was lost and the style became a mere fashion. The style then became a target of antisemites, who saw in it a manifestation of Jewish spirit: free association, playfulness, and surface decoration. In 1902, Lajta (with Lechner) created the Schmiedl family mausoleum and the fire station in Zenta (now Senta, Serbia). He also designed a number of gravestones and funeral chapels for Jewish cemeteries in Budapest.

Around 1905, Lajta altered his style. He had toured Transylvania, collecting folk objects and sketching local buildings. To this influence, he added features of Finnish national romanticism. He designed the Jewish Institute for the Blind (1905–1908), blending Transylvanian patterns, Eliel Saarinen’s forms, and Jewish motifs with Hungarian folklore. Two columns ending in menorahs, topped by a copper roof resembling a ḥupah (wedding canopy) mark the entrance to the Institute’s synagogue. (See image above right.)

The Home for the Elderly of the Budapest burial society (1909–1911) reflects Lajta’s shift toward protomodern classicism, while his design of the Parisiana Music Hall (1908–1909) shows an Egyptian–Assyrian influence yet marks (with large unadorned surfaces) the same transition toward protomodernism. The asymmetric brick pattern of a school on Vass Street (1909–1912) shows a German modernist influence; there, the Jewish and Hungarian ornamentation carved in stone appears only on limited and framed surfaces. Lajta’s design of the Henrik and Rezső Lajta department store (1911–1912), a modernist building with horizontal ordonnance, has been compared to the Loos Haus in Vienna. Harsányi House (at 29 Népszínház Street; designed in 1911–1912) anticipates the modernist houses of the 1920s and 1930s.

Béla Lajta’s architectural projects succeeded in portraying the double identity of Hungarian Jews. Combining decorative elements of Jewish origin (menorahs, shofars, Stars of David) and Hungarian folklore elements (birds, plants, and regional architectural forms), he created a new hybrid form of design. Moreover, his style changed as he matured and as general trends of protomodern architecture in Hungary and Europe developed over a period of 20 years, from the Lechnerian folk-inspired art nouveau to early modernism.

Suggested Reading

Rudolf Klein, “The Hungarian Jews and Architectural Style,” in In the Land of Hagar: The Jews of Hungary; History, Society and Culture, ed. Anna Szalai, pp. 165–172 (Tel Aviv, 2002); Ferenc Vámos, Lajta Béla (Budapest, 1970).