From Venice to Moorish ornaments – Uránia National Film Theatre turn 125

Hungarian version of the article: Mór jegyek egy csipetnyi Velencével: 125 éves az Uránia Nemzeti Filmszínház épülete

Written by: Eszter Szilvia Paár

February 17, 2021 at 9:00 AM

An iconic building in Budapest and one of the most important works in the oeuvre of the architect Henrik Schmahl has served Hungarian culture and entertainment for 125 years. The unique building with Moorish ornamentation is home to both the Uránia National Film Theatre and the University of Theater and Film Arts. The structure will now be given a new function. With the closing of the Ódry Stage, it will become a theatre for student productions. However, this article will offer a deep dive into the history of this marvellous building and its place in Budapest, rather than the details of a complex reorganisation.

Known as the Palace of the Uránia Cinema, 21 Rákóczi Road was designed by the Hamburg-born architect Henrik Schmahl (or Heinrich Schmahl). At the beginning of his career, the architect worked in Miklós Ybl's office. While his name is less well known, he later planned excellent independent works, including defining buildings such as Párisi-udvar in Budapest or the Eötvös Károly County Library in Veszprém (formerly the Bishop's Court). The most up-to-date information about the architect's oeuvre, including the Uránia building, can be found in Kristóf Kelecsényi's monograph published in 2020 and his study in Építőművészek Ybl és Lechner korában ('architects in the age of Ybl and Lechner'), co-authered with Ágnes Torma. 

Main auditorium of Uránia around 1902 (Source FSZEK Budapest Collection)

The building, which houses the Uránia National Film Theatre and the University of Theater and Film Arts, was not, of course, built to be a cinema, but a residential building above a bar. In 1896, not only the state but also many private entrepreneurs were preparing for the upcoming National Millenium. It is no wonder that several buildings connected to the entertainment industry were built in the Budapest of the 1890s.

The main facade of Uránia on Rákóczi Road (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)

Oriental windows on the main facade of Uránia (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)

The building was commissioned by the successful architect from Nagyvárad (Oradea, Romania), Kálmán Rimanóczy, the grandfather of the famous modernist architect Gyula Rimanóczy. Antal Oroszi, a well-known figure of Budapest's nightlife and writer of vaudeville songs and light musical plays, was the first suitable candidate to let the “concert and dance hall” to be built in the building. The nightclub known by the name Oroszi Folies Caprice opened in the building and caused a smaller sensation, at least according to the 11 October 1896 issue of Pesti Napló: 

“The latest attraction. In a few days, a spectacular new locale will be opened in the capital. This newly built nightclub on Kerepesi Road [now Rákóczi Road – the author] will be called Oroszi Folies Caprice. The building, a testament to the architect Schmahl's work, was built in the Moorish style and exhibited ornamentation bordering on overkill. The hall is an auditorium with boxes on the ground and first floors. The chandelier and the side lighting, designed by the architect Schmahl, are unique and unparalleled." 

Details from the auditorium in Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi) 

Details from the auditorium in Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi) 

Details from the auditorium in Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi) 

Although the music hall's opening was a sensation, the nightclub closed after Antal Oroszi went bankrupt, and the auditorium was left without a tenant. In 1899, the Uránia Popular Science Society took an interest in the property.

"By lucky coincidence, the excellent Moorish-style theatre at 21 Rákóczi Road was empty due to the lack of a tenant for the auditorium."

Read an internal report of the company. As its name suggests, the Society aimed to bring the results of the natural sciences to the general public in an entertaining way. The Uránia Science Theatre was founded in the building, and the National Film Theatre still bears the same name. The company used pioneering technology, and talks were coupled with diorama screenings.

The approach was new in the period and enjoyed great popularity. In fact, these still and later moving image projections can be considered a predecessor of modern cinema. While on the subject of the history of the cinema, the building is of note in this regard. It was here that the first Hungarian film, A táncz ("the dance'), was first screened and even recorded. Gyula Pekár and Aurél Kern used the roof terrace of the building for the film, which Béla Zsitovszky recorded. The film featured various dances by Sári Fedák, Lujza Blaha and Emília Márkus, among others. (Unfortunately, this important milestone of Hungarian film history has been lost to the vicissitudes of history.) 

Thus, the building has served educational purposes for decades, and not only through the educational theatre. In 1905, the Hungarian National Royal Academy of Performing Arts, the predecessor of today's University of Theater and Film Arts, moved into the upper floors of the structure, which had originally been flats. So Uránia has been an important place in Hungarian acting education for more than 100 years.

Although the Uránia Science Theatre operated successfully for a long time, its popularity gradually dropped at the beginning of the twentieth century as the entertainment industry underwent major technical changes.  In 1929, the theatre hall was transformed into a cinema. Béla Jánszky and Tibor Szivessy, who carried out the large-scale renovations and alterations, modified the excellent work of Henrik Schmahl with great respect, but due to the nature of the alterations, many original details were lost.

The main facade of the Uránia cinema in 1961 (Photo: Fortepan/No.: 102384)

Uránia seen from Rákóczi Road in 1981 (Photo: Fortepan/Image No.: 188451)

However, the interiors created still represented a high standard and created the most modern cinema in Budapest. The building operated for decades without alteration or renovation, and by 2000 its condition had degraded severely. Renovation began later that year – likely due to the symbolic nature of the year – and was completed in 2002. The restored building reopened as the Uránia National Film Theatre and continues to serve this function today. 

A poster fell from the facade of the building in 1985, pulling elements of the building's stone railing with it (Photo: Fortepan/No.: 198163)

A poster hung from the facade of the Uránia cinema was torn down by stormy winds in 1985, pulling heavy stone features to the street (Photo: Fortepan/No.: 198164)

As noted in the Pesti Napló article quoted above and the report of the Uránia Public Science Society, the palace was built in what is known as the Moorish style. This architecture predominantly used in the design of synagogues in the 19th century but made its way to certain entertainment and commerce-focused buildings as well. However, Uránia is more complex than to be described with a single style.

Henrik Schmahl, who designed the building, came to Hungary from Hamburg as a trained master builder. Little is known of his training, but he does not seem to have had any academic training. This may seem a disadvantage at first but proved to be an advantage. As he was never schooled to adhere to the strict rules of style taught in institutionalised training, he managed styles more freely than his colleagues. This culminated in the unique design language seen on the Uránia Building.

The Uránia National Film Theatre and adjacent buildings (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)

Reliefs depicting the muses on the main facade of Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi)

Reliefs depicting the muses on the main facade of Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi)

As a student of Miklós Ybl, he primarily became known for his Neo-Renaissance style buildings, similarly to his master. However, oriental forms also came to prominence in Ybl's oeuvre, as can be seen in his work the Parish Church of Fót, one of Hungarian Romantic architecture's most outstanding structures. The elements of Byzantine and Islamic architecture observed in the building may have influenced the young Schmahl. However, the architect mainly turned towards oriental styles after his time in Ybl's office, in his independent work. The Del Medico family of Italian descent first ordered a Venetian-style “palazzo" building from the architect, which aroused his interest in Venetian and Spanish Gothic architecture and led to several buildings in the neo-Gothic style.

Details from the auditorium in Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi) 

Details from the auditorium in Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi) 

Persze elsőre furcsa lehet, hogy a gótikát említjük a keleties formák forrásaként, de valójában egyáltalán nem az. Mind a velencei, mind a spanyol gótika használ ugyanis keleti formákat, az előbbi bizánci, az utóbbi pedig iszlám hatásra. Így már a Schmahl által tervezett neogótikus épületeken is láthatunk keleties elemeket, nem csoda, hogy később az iszlám építészeti formák kifejezetten hangsúlyossá váltak építészetében. Az Uránia épületén is egyértelműen spanyol hatás fedezhető fel, legvalószínűbb előképe ugyanis a granadai Alhambra, illetve a londoni Alhambra Theatre.

Details from the auditorium in Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi) 

Details from the auditorium in Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi) 

Details from the auditorium in Uránia (Photo: Kristóf Kelecsényi) 

The kinship with the stunning complex in southern Spain is obvious, with many interior and exterior decorations of the palace appearing on the Uránia building. This has led to speculation that Schmahl visited Spain and saw the Alhambra with his own eyes. True, the book Plans, Evaluations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra by Owen Jones and Jules de Goury, was accessible in Hungary at the time; the architect may have gathered inspiration from a printed source. In any case, Henrik Schmahl created something unique in Hungarian architecture with his unique design language, and the Uránia building is an excellent example of his work. 

Cover photo: Uránia National Film Theater turn 125 (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)


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