Béla Lajta graduated as an architect at the University of Technology, Budapest in 1895. For a short while he worked on the team of his former teacher, Alajos Hauszmann. Between 1896 and 1901 he took study trips to the major cities of Italy, Germany, England, France, Spain and North Africa. Apart from studying historic architecture, these visits enabled him to get in touch with the leading figures of contemporary architecture. In Berlin in 1897 he worked on the team of Adolf Messel and then probably that of Ernst von Ihne. During his stay in London in 1898-99 he got acquainted with English residential architecture and the works of Richard Norman Shaw and M. H. Baillie Scott – maybe with the architects themselves as well. His work after 1909 shows the influence of Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann and German architect Peter Behrens – possibly they were in personal contact too.
His commissioners were mainly the members of his own circles: his family, the Jewish bourgeoisie of Budapest and Jewish charity organisations, but he also got some major commissions from the city administration of Budapest. Several later highly renowned architects worked on his team early on in their careers, such as Béla Málnai and Lajos Kozma. The architects of the Hungarian modernist movement emerging in the late 1920 considered Béla Lajta their most significant forerunner.
Already during his stay in London he won 3rd prize in the architectural competition of the Budapest-Lipótváros Synagogue. After his return to Hungary he became a supporter of Ödön Lechner’s movement for establishing a modern yet home-grown, national architecture. His work before 1905 shows Lechner’s influence in terms of his dynamic handling of mass, his folk art inspired ornamental elements and the powerful polichromy (Fire Station of Zenta / today Senta, Serbia/, 1903-04, the family vault of Sándor Schmidl, 1904, Jewish Cemetery, Rákoskeresztúr).
From this period we know several buildings and plans he made in cooperation with Ödön Lechner (competition entry for the Main Post Office, 1902, Pozsony /today Bratislava, Slovakia/, the manor house of Sándor Klein, before 1904, Szirma). After 1905, however, he distanced himself from Lechner’s way of expression. The villa he designed for Dezső Malonyay (1905-06, Izsó Street, Budapest) unites some typical features of English residential buildings with formal elements of Hungarian folk architecture. His first public buildings, the Educational Institute for the Blind (1905-08, Budapest, Mexikói Street) and the Charity Home of the Jewish Burial Society of Pest (1907-11, Budapest, Amerikai Street) are characterised by stylised medieval forms inspired by North European architecture, the dynamic handling of mass and simple brick or ashlar facades ornamented at emphatic points with folk art inspired or religious motifs. These buildings can be considered the forerunners of the Hungarian architectural movement called ’Fiatalok’. His buildings dating from 1907-08, the Parisiana night club (Budapest, Paulay Ede Street) and the mortuary of the Jewish Cemetery at Salgótarjáni Street predict some features of his last artistic period.
His mature work, striving to look beyond the eventualities of the fin-de-siècle and to create a modern yet enduring style is characterised by reducing mass to basic geometrical shapes, arriving at monumentality through the simplicity of form and the refinement of the choice of materials as well as clearly projecting the interior arrangement of the building onto the divisions of the facade. Lajta arrived at simple geometrical monumentality partly through studying historic architecture, so his work often uses abstract allusions to typical elements of the architecture of the ancient Middle East, Greek and Roman antiquity and other historic periods. He never gave up using ornamentation, thus his characteristically transformed, mostly folk art inspired motifs make a significant contribution to the general character of his buildings. The most mature example of these is his grand oeuvre, the building of the Trade School of Vas Street (1909-1913, Budapest, Vas Street), a representative project within mayor István Bárczy’s school construction program.
The three residential blocks (Népszínház Street, Szervita Square, Rákóczi Street) designed in 1911-12 are of similar significance – the latter two provide well constructed solutions for metropolitan buildings combining trade and residential functions. Between 1911 and 1914, in collaboration with Ervin Szabó, he worked on the project of a Budapest Municipal Library, which was planned to be a unique building both in terms of size and the cultural and social purposes it would serve – never to be built due to the outbreak of World War 1. Family vaults and funerary monuments are also a significant part of his oeuvre, whose forms of expression developed alongside with his architectural work, from the organic curves of the fin-de-siècle to severe geometric bulks, providing Lajta an opportunity to mature his artistic attitude to ornamental design.