Some beautiful things are more dazzling when they are still imperfect than when they have been too perfectly crafted.
-Francois de La Rochefoucauld, Collected Maxims and Other Reflections
To experience 20th-century Hungarian architecture and history, most tourists in Budapest take a free walking tour or buy a ticket on an overpriced sightseeing bus. But who wants to be a typical tourist? Not me, for one, and that's exactly why I walked an hour and a half north of Budapest's center on Christmas Eve* to the suburb of Pestújhely in District XV, to see what remains of the 115-year old Észak-pesti Kórház (North Pest Hospital). Because there's no better way to experience Budapest's visually rich and politically diverse history than to visit its abandoned sanatorium, I say.
Also known as OTI Dr. Vass József Munkáskórház (Dr. Vass József National Social Insurance Institute Worker's Hospital), this complex takes up a few blocks at seven hectares. The perimeter is tightly secured with high fencing and barbed wire, but I managed to get inside, jumping right into a field of soft, orange mud where a few buildings had just been demolished. I fought off what felt like suction cups on the soles of my shoes, gingerly making my way through the mess to scurry out of sight because the campus is in a moderately dense residential neighborhood.
One of the first buildings I ducked into was original to Pestújhely hospital when it opened as a sanatorium, one of seven sturdy buildings designed in the eclectic style by Sándor Baumgarten and Zsigmond Herczeg in 1903 (think Antoni Gaudí meets Hungarian countryside, it's magical). It appears that all of the original buildings remain, with a few in use, some locked up, and the rest in varying states of rehabilitation. I skipped the shabby building in the southeast corner; the white, boxy building for staff housing built in 1936 by Farkas Molnar and Joseph Fischer in a muted Bauhaus style did not look particularly interesting to explore up close. The next few buildings I visited were concrete-and-rust Soviet-style ones from 1945, when the Red Army's occupation of Hungary began. Soviets took control of the facility, transforming it into a modern, predictably bland hospital; the nine buildings they added were sterile and sharp, just like bed linens and syringes.
But the building I was most curious about was tragically locked up (no, I didn't consider crawling through a basement window with no way out to be an option). Yes, the pre-fab concrete battleship of a surgical hospital with 260 beds dumped onto the site in 1980 per orders from above in Moscow was not open for visitors such as myself. Regardless, the handful of empty and abandoned buildings on the site were interesting to wander through, imagining institutional life as a sanatorium then under the care of Soviets, which I hope was better quality than their building materials. *shudder*
When Soviet occupation ended with the breakup of the USSR in 1991, the Russians hightailed it out of Észak-pesti Kórház, leaving behind an odd mixture of buildings with Hungarian design flourishes and Cyrillic signs but no clear ownership. Since left vacant twenty-seven years ago, an air of dreary hopelessness has set into the Pestújhely hospital grounds like gangrene.
But then again, that could just be the depressing nature of an architectural triple-whammy: institutional architecture designed and built by the Soviet government to express power in a country they're occupying. Yikes.
*The Istvántelek train graveyard is a half-hour walk northwest of the hospital, so I managed to visit both sites in one day.
Postcards from the sanatorium Circa 1903
The first building I visited was one of Pestújhely hospital's originals, a tiny jewel box of a place with roughly-plastered walls, whimsical Art Deco windows, and a delicate wrought iron and colored glass sun room in the back (in header photo). The building was probably a medicine dispensary, and it radiated cheeriness despite decades of abandonment.
This circa 1945 building may have been a nursing home or doctor's office, it's fairly generic. Nonetheless, the building is spacious and filled with light, and the terrazzo tile floors and bright pops of color are incredible.
Building 3: Gėgészeti pavillon
This circa 1903 cream puff of a building was one of the pavilions where patients recovering from tuberculosis could rest at Észak-pesti Kórház. The interior is an odd mish mash of styles, with thick walls (to muffle screams, maybe?), dark corners, and glass doors etched in Victorian patterns.
Around the site
The future of Észak-pesti Kórház is unclear, or at least to those of us that don't know how to google in Hungarian, although things seem relatively promising. Many of the site's buildings are protected by a heritage designation, others have been rehabilitated and are in use (state-run medical offices, mostly), and a few are prime candidate for new uses. Some of the flimsy Soviet-era buildings are beyond repair, but the 1980 building is.... definitely an issue to be wrestled with.
Oh, and there are supposedly Red Army tunnels below the buildings. How so very curious...