Photo collection

After he had graduated from the Budapest Technical University, Béla Lajta decided to follow the example of generations of past architects, seeking to deepen his knowledge in architectural history on a study trip to Italy. During this he acquired a first-hand experience of the monuments of historical periods ranging from antiquity to the renaissance, which played a central role in the architectural education at the time. Currently we know a few hundred photographs bearing the stamp “Béla Leitersdorfer, architect” from the photos, drawings and books he collected during his journeys. These have been preserved as part of a larger photo collection with a mixed origin currently in the courtesy of the Hungarian Museum of Architecture.

The young architect was not a skilled photographer: his collection, which documents locations from Genoa to Venice, from Brescia through Rimini to Palermo, mostly included photos acquired from publishing companies such as Alinari and Brogi. It is also possible that Lajta came by these not on the spot, but hand picked them from photo catalogues far from the depicted places. It is however certain that the two main destinations of the Italian journey from the spring to the autumn of 1896 were Florence and Rome, and Lajta also visited Genoa, Siena and Naples.

In Rome he was also looking at the architecture for a specific assignment: he decided that he would enter the millennium competition organised by the Association of Hungarian Engineers and Architects with a monograph “The history of Italian architecture in the Renaissance period”. According to the specifications of the competition, he began compiling a chapter entitled “Bramante and his school in Rome”. He asked for and received advice on his topic from Frigyes Riedl, his former form teacher and renowned scholar of Italy and the renaissance arts well.  As is clearly visible from his letters, Lajta began working enthusiastically: he studied buildings and the secondary literature available at the time, he began surveying the Villa Madama in Rome, and he discussed his ideas with at least one local expert. But the task must have been too great and new for him, so he finally discontinued it.

However, he did not only collect photos of renaissance artefacts and architectural sights: his collection also includes examples ranging from Roman antiquity to the Baroque period, external and internal details of buildings, ornamentations, garden architecture, sculpture, murals and objects of the applied arts (some of them museum exhibits).  

Having returned to Hungary in the autumn of 1896, Lajta submitted several plans for various (as yet unidentified) architectural competitions, but the lack of appraisal made him so desperate that he decided to seek employment in Germany. Presumably he spent several months in the south of Germany staying in Munich, Augsburg and Nuremberg – it was probably in this period that he came by the several dozens of photographs depicting the Rococo Weissenstein Palace of Pommersfelden.

In the summer of 1897 the latest he went to Berlin, where he most probably worked on the team of one of the leading German architects of the time, Adolf Messel. Here he could get acquainted with a more free-style version of the historicist architecture also practised in Hungary by Alajos Hauszmann and he could get involved in new and exciting assignments – the Wertheim department store designed by Messel and opened to the public in the autumn of that year was a milestone in the development of the building type and an architectural sensation.

After work ’I spend my time lurking among a host of books and photographs, studying and enjoying the beauty in the art of old and new people’, as Lajta put it in a letter to Frigyes Riedl. In July 1897 he had a chance to guide Riedl, Jenő Péterfy and Béla Lederer through the noteworthy contemporary buildings of Berlin. He left Berlin in August 1898 to set off on a longer journey in the north of Germany, which, according to the photos he bought along the way and his letter to his former teacher was to become a formative experience. First he visited Braunschweig and the historic towns of the Harz Mountains (Goslar, Wernigerode), then the Hanseatic towns Danzig, Lüneburg and Bremen, and finally the Westphalien towns of Münster and Xanten.

Having travelled across the south of Holland he arrived in London on October 15, 1898, where he is thought to have spent nine months. Shortly upon his arrival he started to work on the competition plans of the synagogue of Budapest-Lipótváros, studying at the same time the ancient Greek sculptures on show in the British Museum and probably the contemporary British domestic architecture as well. However, there’s no proof for the claim much embedded in art historical discourse on Lajta that he worked on the team of Richard Norman Shaw for any length of time.

At the turn of 1899 and 1900 he stayed in Budapest, but then spent the sum of 2000 Forints inherited from his uncle Lipót on further study trips: in 1900–1901 he visited the World Fair in Paris, then the châteaux of the Loire Valley, later the south of France, from where he went on to visit Spain and Morocco. Possibly he got as far as Egypt and Syria – upon his return in the spring of 1901 he donated a gunpowder keg to the Folk Art Department of the Hungarian National Museum said to be of Syrian origin.