Church Architecture in the Reformed Church Today in Hungary

Zoltán Lőrincz PhD

Taking into consideration that the architectural and art history review of our topic can be viewed form various angles, we cannot apply rigid categories. We, of course, cannot renounce the scientific approach, although, as Imre Makovecz puts it when talking about architecture, that would be a drama in itself. This is even more true for contemporary Calvinist church architecture, and this would also be nothing else than „a big drama”, since it incorporates the struggle of the builders, as well as the last efforts of the congregation and the forced compromise of the architects at the same time.

From a methodological point of view there is no typological categorization as central or longitudinal space. It wouldn’t take us closer either if we approched the question from structure, material or shape, and it would be overly schematizing as well to talk about „urban” or „Grand” as an analogy for „country churches”, as rural churches can also be built by high standards and vice versa. Nóra Pamer2 also distiguishes between city churches and smaller (country) churches. By making such a distinction she sets two directions within late eclecticism: buildings evoking the Middle Ages and the Rennaisance in the thirties, and since this period can be considered as being the immediate precedent of today’s church architecture, her categorization looks tempting. Between 1920-1942 there were 76 churches and 6 houses of worship built on the territory of today’s Hungary. Going by the trends suggested by the architectural and art history scientific literature such as modern, postmodern, high-tech, is simply not feasible because of the nature of the material. Therefore we will try the impossible, as each building is a separate story. All buildings in themselves represent different trends, continue traditional solutions, stick to historic images of a church or walk new paths, that we are naturally going to note. Acknowledging the diversity of churches we will thus choose an approach of cultural history, since these works of art can be incorporated into universal and Hungarian art history as well as into universal and Hungarian history of architecture, but at the same time they are parts of the history of Hungarian culture, of Hungarian church and within this of the Reformed Church. Considering that church building is an internal issue of a particular community (in its macro context, obviuosly), besides that it expresses the „want for art” of the building community and settlement at the same time. This essay will therefore examine the topic from the viewpoint of the builder (client) and that of the architect as well.

During its history, the Hungarian Reformed Church again and again had to face its own position determined by history. This is especially true for the area of „knowledge of art” (Kunstkönnen), where financial restriction so often occurs. During the age of Reformation it transforms interior architecture, while during Counter-Reformation it attempts to save the existing. The following note, written by the authorities on a bulding permission in 1713, has a surprising influence – though understandable from a historical point of view – on today’s church architecture: ”non ad instar Ecclesiae, sed ad formam domus Ordinariae”3, i.e. it is not a huge temple that you can build, but a simple house. The shocking/staggering resolution, however, serves as a lesson for the future. Contrary to the notion of the „family house”-like church, held so important by Sándor Csikesz, the reformed community sticks firmly to the idea of a church offered by that age and prohibited by the authorities. Still, we find the distinctive character of the „sanctified” place, as opposed to the place decalred adiaforic. After 1781 the number of constructions notably rose, which gained further momentum around Hungary’s Millenium. The emacipation of the religion brought along the reproduction of a classical church image, restricted to the imitation of Catholic churches. The constructions occurring so suddenly and simultaneously did not really give an opportunity for a careful theoretic consideration of the Hungarian reformed church architecture. The demand arises, but its architectural and lithurgic specification fails to happen. The situation after 1990 is very similar to what it was after 1781, many churches are built and all at the same time, but after a long pause the task has to be re-thought from a contemporary point of view. The building communities face a completely new problem: the continuous progress of church building and the building practice itself is missing. The strength coming from the model of a reformed Hungarian Il Gesu is missing. Even though the reformed Nagytemplom of Debrecen did have followers, Mihály Péchy rightly hove a sigh when he said: ”it is hard to break the habit, and they still stayed with the angular church borrowed from the Catholics”4, as by the original plans of the architect a lot more cost-effective central church was to be built in Debrecen. Talking about examples, first of all the longitudinal space shaping with a one-steeple supplement is the model to be followed by the congregation in terms of traditional church image.

The most characteristic space design is the centralization of the longitudinal space that became standard in the age of Reformation, and is largely present in today’s architecture. Budakeszi, Boly, Ebes, Kocsord, Tiszaújváros. Demands can be quite different concerning the pulpit, the Lord’s table or the benches. What they consider important in Pécs5, i.e that there is enough distance between the benches and the other liturgical furnishing, as they also think of other events (concerts, performances) to be organized there, as opposed to a more closer, more intimate relation between the two that they are looking for on the Budapest-Kispest-Rózsa square.6 With regard to this it is important to mention the refusing and protesting attitude I often encountered during my gyűjtőmunka, according to which the adiaforic space, the place of the community gathering (domus ecclesiae), should not be an amphitheater or a theater. It is obviously quite difficult to find the adequate proportion of the properly ”non-sacred” and the properly ”reformed religious”. Also, the same question arises regarding adaptation to the popular tradition. The shape standards wide-spread in Transylvania and the area around it  (Felső-Tiszavidék) are the ones that live on most. The well-proportioned steeple and the rich woodwork of Budakeszi is remarkable, and something similar can be seen on the steeples of Törökbálint, Bánk, Drávaszabolcs, Délegyháza, Pátyod and Tiszaújváros. With its roof structure and atmosphere, Budapest-Kispest-Rózsatér fits well in the medium of the place built in with family houses, as well as in the architectural world of the nearby Wekerle development. Ebes evokes the floral Renaissance sunken panels of Transylvania, and something similar is planned for Göd. The steeple of Törökbálint is enriched by a gallery running around it. The alpine style high roof evokes Trasylvanian shapes (formavilág) in Szigetcsép. The reasoning behing this persistent sticking to the Transylvanian folklore is obviously to be found in the history of our people, however, I have not encountered the adaptation of the Renaissance pártázatos pattern of the highlands (Felvidék), that was so widely applied at the turn of the century. One finds a peculiarly closed, cloister-like tömegszervezés in Martfű, and they planned a similar one for Tiszaújváros, but the plan was later modified. In the Széchenyi Garden in Debrecen they form an enclosed unit by building a columbarium. To the Jutasi road church in Veszprém two wings are joined, thus making the building multi-functional. This multi-functional solution is most common in cities and larger settlements. One way of this is to move mobile units to the sacral space, like in Pécs or the Széchenyi Garden in Debrecen.  Another way is when the architectural unit functioning as the congregational house is in close unity with the church. In Kőszeg, Százhalombatta, Budapest-Kispest-Rózsa tér the sacral space is built above the first level of the building, while in  the case of Tiszaújváros, Mátészalka or the Széchenyi Garden in Debrecen the two functions stay at the same level. With regard to the function it is interesting to observe that churches forget to involve the surrounding space and nature. „Mert a teremtett világ sóvárogva várja az Isten fiainak megjelenését” (Rm 8,19). The man of modern ages in our country seems to neglect this, so I can imagine a church building where nature plays an important part there are examples of this in the Western world. E. Fay Jones (1980) in Eureka Spring, Arkansas, USA, built Thorncrown Chapel of  a glazed grid made of wood and iron, almost sublimated, which became part of the surrounding forest and offers the possibility of meditation above religions. The architect evoking the Crystal Palace of London was the student Jones Frank Lloyd Wright and with his work of art he follows his master in his views about nature and natural materials. It would maybe not bother the intimacy and the dignity of the sacral space if with the help of a large glass surface (with proper insulation and soundproofing) nature became a part of the ”second nature”. ”The character of the place, the landscape – the couleur locale – is ne of the inspiring factors of architecture.”7 Uniting with nature and the landscape, melting into it, and the opposite of this, placing human work against nature can both be valid standpoints of architecture. The idea of ”looking outwards” appears in the building of outside pulpits in Ebes or the Széchenyi Garden in Debrecen. In Ebes it is the large square in the middle of the settlement, while in Debrecen it is the area enclosed by tall tenement buildings that are the places suitable for holding an open air religious service. In their colsedness the buildings function as sheer scenes for the liturgy. In Sárvár the outside pulpit in the open air is expanded by amphitheater-like unit, which can be an advantage especially at events organized for the youth.

Because of the financial reasons already mentioned reformed churches are built mostly with teamwork: not with a joint effort of great architects and creators suggested by Walter Gropius, but in the sense that the architectural work is realized through the collective efforts of  the patron, the client and the building community. With building activities of this kind, the architectural work can become simpler compared to the concept of the designing architect (Halásztelek) on the one hand, and it can also be enriched by characteristics of the community on the other. It is almost impossible to track to what extent and how these forces affect each other. In most cases the application of non-professional work, employment of local craftsmen and use of handicraft is an inevitable pressure of financial circumstances, which in turn can be be viewed viewed in a positive way, as it can be a theologically supported standpoint of the church. „Mert ahol ketten vagy hárman összegyűlnek az én nevemben: ott vagyok közöttük.” (Mt 18, 20)

A token of the sense of togetherness of the community, building activites like this are ways of congregation forming.  The concept of the ”Lord’s house” is replaced here (or rather enriched) by the idea of ”our house. The architectural self expression of the community can thus realize buildings of different qualities.

The influence of the Western world and its demands can be detected in buildings where a separate area was built for families with children separated by glass from the church space, as in Pécs, the Széchenyi Garden in Debrecen or Budapest-Kispest-Rózsa tér. In Cserkeszőlő, instead of the originally planned ”nyerstégla falazat kis mértékben mélyített fugázással” they covered the building with ceramics tiles imitating this, which reflects the architectural taste of the Dutch sister congregation.

It is only in a few places where they invite tenders, to our knowledge the presbyteries of Budakeszi, Gara, Pécs and Siófok decided to undertake the numerous tasks that this involves. The main reson for this is usually that the design work is often done for free or for a very low price by architects in the community or through friends. These genorous offers, however, do not always lead to good results. The congregation would obviously like to spend as little as possible, while the architect wants to make the dream of his life come true. These two dfferent intentions then result is odd solutions. Now, that they talk about the end of art in art history, and about a crisis in aesthetics, this problem is increasingly arising in the reformed church architecture. The general lack of visual culture, the insufficiency of this kind of training, the pastor training that lacks art education are the factors leading to this sort of aesthetic crisis, and beyond that to a general lack of taste. The congregations try to build their churches with astonishing effort and will (voluntary work, donations, etc.), but good intentions are sometimes not enough. We need to join the wish expressed by our great predecessors and state it again how important it would be to have well-functioning architectural committees in the reformed church. It is not about the need for issuing regulations and rules, but rather the need for things to work well in church architecture. It would not hurt the autonomy and independence of congregations to have a professional jury assess the competing works. The church – especially in the reformed church – and its building is the self expression of the community and a matter of public concern at the same time. In my opinion it would be worth involving the ”voice of the trade” as well, in terms of counseling, so that it is not only the flute solos – the client on one side and the architecture on the other – that constitute the work of art, but the harmony (consonance) can also be felt.

With the help of the method of cartography we can draw the following conclusions. We can observe how the traditional religious composition is restructuring within social mobility. On the basis of our survey we can state the following. Out of the 48 completed churches 23 were built on the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld), which is thought to be a reformed region. (Ballószög, Csemő, Cserkeszőlő, Bánk – Debrecen, Széchenyi Garden – Debrecen, Délegyháza, Ebes, Fülöpháza, Gara, Kocsord, Martfű, Mátészalka, Nagyhegyes, Nyírcsászári, Pátyod, Pilis, Tiszaújváros, Törtel, Újszalonta, Újszász, Újszilvás, Vasad). Twenty-five congregations thus do not belong to this group, and this shows the change which resulted in the the relocation of the focus of constructions. According to statistics made by the church around five percent of the population of the Transdanubia is reformed, and 18 churches were built here in the period in question. (Barcs, Biatorbágy, Boly, Drávaszabolcs, Érd, Inke, Kőszeg, Leányfalu, Pécs, Sárvár, Siófok, Százhalombatta, Szentgotthárd, Székesfehérvár, Tahi, Tatabánya, Törökbálint, Veszprém). The reason behind the greater activity of the Transdanubians is to be found in the difference in the pace of development (moving from the Great Hungarian Plain to the Transdanubian area) and other forcing factors together (diaspora, filiák forming independent parishes).

Continuing our research three main forcing factors or reasons for building can be noted. In the first group there are the buildings that were built in places where there was no church before, but later the former network of farms developed into a village, the center of the settlement was formed, and the number of Calvinists increased.  Fifteen churches belong to this group: Ballószög, Csemő, Cserkeszőlő, Délegyháza, Ebes, Fót-Kisalag, Fülöpháza, Gara, Göd, Martfű, Nagyhegyes, Tiszaújváros, Törtel, Újszalonta, Újszilvás.

In the second group are the churches that were built on the place or instead of a house of worship. The former buliding proved to be too small, became unsafe, burnt down or was destroyed by a bomb. We can say that these constructions were called for by an external pressuring force: Biatorbágy, Budakeszi, Budapest-Rózsa tér, Csurgó, Bánk – Debrecen, Széchenyi Garden – Debrecen, Drávaszabolcs, Kocsord, Kőszeg, Nyírcsászári, Szigetszentmiklós, Újszász, Vasad.

To the the third group belong twenty constructions where the religious composition of the original population changed, and the Calvinists migrating to a particular settlement wanted to build their own church: Barcs, Boly, Érd-Parkváros, Gyál, Halásztelek, Inke, Leányfalu, Mátészalka, Pécs, Pátyod, Sárvár, Pilis, Százhalombatta, Siófok, Szentgotthárd, Székesfehérvár, Tatabánya, Tahi, Törökbálint, Veszprém. The reasons and events, of course, can be viewed in different ways, but this categorization seems the most likely to work. To this last category belong the constructions of the congregations living in Budapest’s surrundings. The changes that occured after the war, the large industrial plants built in Csepel or Szászhalombatta, the work opportunities that occured in the capital city were factors that strengthened the congregations, which as a consequence started building churches. While only one church was built in Budapest (Kispest-Rózsa tér), 14 were built on the surrounding settlements tizennégy (Biatorbágy, Délegyháza, Érd, Fót, Göd, Gyál, Leányfalu, Pilis, Százhalombatta, Szigetcsép, Szigetszentmiklós, Tahi, Törökbálint, Vasad.) In summary, the most active congregations were the ones around Budapest, less active were the Transdanubians, and last came the ones from the Great Hugarian Plain.

In the following we would like to show the European connections of our topic and we will try to answer the question to what extent did they succeed in creating works that are of good quality by historical standards. Brentini talks about ”Ronchamp’s revolution” in church architecture from the 50’s on8. Its significance is obvious and clearly affected the architecture of not only the ’50s, but the ’60s as well. Views about the rightness of functionalism in the ’70s became more and more controversial9.

The first doubts regarding functionalism were already formulated at the 1959 conference of CIAM in Otterloo10. Peter Smithson, the fater of ”brutalism”, who was present at the conference, rejected any sort of doubt regarding functionalism. All that the ”revisionists”11 of modern architecture wanted was to revise the tenets and dogmas of functionalism, that was said to be modern. Their concept was that function in itself is not architecture (based on the famous saying of Sullivans that ”form follows function”), but there is need for the representation in space of a poetic fiction, too. Referring to the ’70s Günter Rombold talks about the end of the neoexpressionism and brutalism12. Hungarian church architecture is characterized by a certain duality. After a short period of socialist realism in the ’50s, the ecstatic character of the progress in the Western world was very popular in architecture. And as the continuous progress was interrupted, the forbidden fruit seemed even more attractive. The almost dogmatic principles of moderm architecture were criticized as early as the 10th Congress of CIAM. The influence of the ideas of the so-called ”third generation” Aldo van Eyck, James Stirling, Christopher Alexander lead by Robert Venturi) were felt in Hungary as late as the ’70s. As a consequence of the cosmopolitan and almost nondescript character of modern architecture Hungarian architecture developed in two different ways. On the one hand there occured a popular-national demand that was also related to the historical traditions of the Reformed Church, which resulted in the conscious undertaking of folk tradition. On the other hand there is also the criticism of functionalism to it: the relation between the building and its environment, the building and the settlement, and looking at the role of squares and streets became important.

The lack of continuity in modern Hungarian Protestant church architecture automatically rises the question: does it make sense to talk about an inner immanent progress, is there a relation to European trends, or we need to grasp something that marks a separate way, something that cannot be compared to anything.

The renowned architecture historian, Nikolaus Persner states that the former role of such figures as the Sugers, the Medicis or Louis XIV was taken up (and this is especially true for the Reformed Church) by committees or bodies – presbyteries in our case. As a consequence of this ”the aesthetic outcome is inevitably reduced to the common denominator of the committee, and even if it is not, the result will not be an individual one. A patron is probably braver and has more trust in architecture than committees.”13 Taking into consideration the synad-presbytery kind of organization of the Reformed Church, it is inevitable that a committee makes the decision concerning church building. These plans, however, should be reviewed by professionals. As early as 1942 László Ravasz urged the setting up of a professional committe that would be able to consider technical and theological aspects as well. This is by all means a welcome idea, though the question arises in a different way in terms of parishes. The following story is a good example. At the time when the church in Kőszeg was being built we had a lengthy argument at the presbytery about the plans the achitect had submitted. After some time I noticed that a person who had been very actively commenting did not understand something. I put the plans in front of him and realized that he could not read them. After contamplating on it for a long time I must say that we cannot play democracy when it comes to architecture, art or aesthetics. With the power of love a true art expert (who may be the pastor or the gondnok of the congregation) might succeed in convincing the presbytery and turn the individual idea into a common achievment.

Sticking firmly to tradition is an impediment that will take decades to surmount. The sociological aspects of this problem have been treated above.

The famous saying ”Less is more” of Mies van der Rohe, the renowned father of modern architecture, is an advice worth taking with regard to contemporary Calvinist church architecture.


1. Marosi, Ernő’Hungarian Calvinist churches’ in: ’Calvinist Churches’ ed. Dercsényi, Balázs (1992) Budapest, XXVII p.

2. Pamer, Nóra (1986) ’Hungarian architecture in the interwar years’ Budapest, 132

3. The history of Hungarian architecture (1998) ed. Sisa, József Wiebenson, Dora, Budapest, 162

4. Cited by Levárdy, Ferenc (1982) ’The art of Hungarian churches’ Budapest, 215

5. Pastor János Szénási szíves közlése

6. Church architect Béla István Elemér Nagy szíves közlése

7. Vámossy, Ferenc (1974)’Contemporary architecture’ Budapest, 56

8. Brentini, Fabrizio (1994) ’Bauen für die Kirche Luzern’ 137

9. Kallmeyer, Lothar (1979/3) ’Funktionalismus und Widerspruch in: Kunst und Kirche’ 113-122.

10. cf. Newman, Oscar (1961) ’New Frontiers in Architecture CIAM ’59 in Otterlo’ New York

11. Revision der Moderne. Postmoderne Architektur 1960-80 ed. Klotz, Heinrich (1984) Munich

12. Rombold, Günter ’Das Ende des Neoexpressionismus und Brutalismus im Kirchenbau’ in: Kunst und Kirche (1980/1) 2-10

13. Pevsner, Nikolaus (1995) ’The history of European architecture’ Budapest, 433


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