Aluminium: The Hungarian Steel


We can only hope that the pram in the picture does not contain babies or small animals.

Enjoy this very special snapshot of the dazzling Corvin Department Store on Blaha Lujza tér. The photo is from 1975, the fine vintage year when Street & River’s Zsuzsa herself began her intrepid travels in a very similar pram, sans the motorcar attached to the wheels. Never been a fan of high-speed infant mobility.

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Photo: Corvin Department Store, Budapest, 1975.

Source: www.fortepan.hu, courtesy of Tamás Urbán

Corvin Department Store looks back on a long history. Its ‘modern’ facade quietly crumbled into retro chic in the past few years and it’s hard to imagine that the windowless aluminium sheeting is a mere shell concealing a completely different building underneath.

The original building at the site was the Apollo Cinema, which moved into the nearby Royal Hotel in 1915 to give way to the new enterprise. The new building, and the department store in it, was owned by a German company and it opened its poncey gates to the public on 1 March 1926. Architect Zoltán Reiss designed a Classicist palace, with a glass roof and decoration designed by Fülöp Ö. Beck and Szigfrid Pongrácz. The building was also home to a restaurant, a cafe, ticket office and photography studio, where fashion shows, art exhibitions and live music attracted the fashionable Budapest public. From 1931, it also boasted the first escalator installed in Hungary!

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The four-storey building was damaged in the war and closed in 1944. But the winds of change brought an even bigger shell shock in peace time: in 1948, the store was nationalised and renamed as Budapest Nagyáruház. In 1956, the revolution was even less merciful than the war and the building suffered severe damage. In 1966, it was transferred into the state-owned National Department Store Company (from 1967 Centrum Department Stores) and underwent major transformation. This is when Reiss’s grandiose Neoclassical palace was clad in functional aluminium from head to toe, in the spirit of… well, we don’t know.  For the average citizen, unversed in property management, this architectural masterstroke normally only begins to make sense in window cleaning season, but then it really does.

Anyway, this is the building we have now. After 1989, the store story becomes more complicated and less interesting. It changed hands several times and somehow lost even that humble lustre it has somehow managed to retain in the years when you could still buy a panty hose for 37 shiny Hungarian Forints (and thought little or nothing of tying a pram on top of the family car to defy the basic laws of aerodynamics).

The building is now home to a number of smaller stores of various profile and quality, as well as a large supermarket on the ground floor.  In 2007, the department store got a new lease of life when the roof was transformed into Corvintető. A year later this popular night club and summer watering hole also took over the fourth floor, which in the glory days used to be the happy home of the employee creche and designated smoking area. Please ponder the synergy of these two essential functionalities for a second.

By the way, if you want to see the Buda Hills without actually climbing them, just go up to the roof on a summer evening, get a fröccs and enjoy.

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