On traditional modernism of Wimmer and Szönyi

Irena Dorotjaková

Architects Franz Wimmer and Endre Szönyi[1] had a joint architecture studio in Bratislava and both were members of the Pressburger Kunstverein. Aficionados of the inter-ware architecture can certainly come up with some works created by these two men, although their architectural work is not what one would call pure Modernism. The building of Central Passage (Centrál pasáž) at Laurinská 17, which became the first of Bratislava passages in 1929, a family house with a bay window in Kapitulská street or the addition to the St. Trinity Church are just a few of their most remarkable designs, although we should not forget the rental housing blocks of flats at Ferienčíka 1, Flöglova 5, Palisády 21 in Bratislava or the Eva swimming pool and the garden village Floreat in Piešťany. These two architects of the so-called German school did so much more for architecture, and their designs were sound, traditional, a little unobtrusive, with the elements of German Classicist influence.

The architectural work by Wimmer and Szönyi has been a focus of study of Eva Borecká, who has been doing research on the topic of architecture of Classical Modernism, for over a decade. Their work and personal lives are described in more detail in her book titled Tradičná moderna na Slovensku. Architekti Franz Wimmer & Endre Szönyi (Classical Modernism in Slovakia. Architects Franz Wimmer & Endre Szönyi), that was published by Akademické nakladatelství CERM in Brno in 2018. In the presented publication, the author offers a comprehensive picture of the lives and work of Wimmer and Szönyi in years 1919 – 1938[2], in their contemporary setting and context, gives an account of the social situation in the inter-war period and the events of the first decades of the first Czechoslovak Republic, with detailed description of the circumstances under which their key designs were created. The book has eight chapters: Introduction; Early Beginnings, World War I; Studio F. Wimmer & Szönyi, Architekten; Economic Crisis; Foreboding of World War II; Solo activities of Endre Szönyi; Conclusion; Annexes, which are further divided into sub-chapters. The book has a soft cover and has 126 pages, including comments, bibliography and a summary in English.

Eva Borecká concentrates on the most significant projects of the architects, which she analyses in detail. In addition to the main topic of the book, Wimmer and Szönyi, the author also characterizes the social situation and construction activities at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in Pressburg, the boom in construction activities after World War I in Bratislava, the work of the Pressburger Kunstverein society, the economic crisis or the construction activities culminating at the brink of World War II, or the activities of Forum journal, etc. The research is limited to the period when the architectural creations of the two architects had the biggest influence on the look of Bratislava in the inter-war period, and considering the designs of these architects from the period, they were their top work. The author put their designs from Bratislava into the same group with those from Piešťany, which are the most numerous ones, maybe due to the fact that the Piešťany spa flourished between the wars. The author comments on the architectural work of Wimmer and Szönyi in the introduction: “Creative work of these two men followed the traditional composition principles – the ground stones for creating harmonic perception in architecture. Although they were open and accepting towards new world trends in architecture”, after all, they both studied abroad, “their lives and work were influenced and limited by the place, time and thinking of the society and community in which they lived and worked”.[3]

Because of his publicist activities, some people might be more familiar with Endre Szönyi. He was the chief editor of the tri-lingual Forum journal published in 1931 – 1938, which was well recognized and remains a valuable source of Slovak architecture historians. With Szönyi’s articles on foreign architecture the journal had an international outreach. His well-known book Tak rástla Bratislava (The growth of Bratislava), Szönyi’s swan song, in a way, was published by Vydavateľstvo Slovenského fondu výtvarných umení a year before his death, in 1967 (it was later published in the Pallas edition too). Maybe that is the reason why Szönyi is the better known one of the two, although the fact that Andrej Szönyi lived in Bratislava for the rest of his life, whereas Franz Wimmer relocated to Germany after the war and died much earlier might have played a role as well. The reason behind the “neglect” or suppression of the importance of the architect Franz Wimmer may also be that it is was unacceptable, even impermissible, to talk about emigrants in the socialist Czechoslovakia, especially if they originally claimed to be members of the German minority.

The effort of Borecká to level up the disparity in the volume of information about the two architects is recognizable in the book, as the author concentrated on adding facts about Wimmer who appeared to be more in the background and his work is not completely known yet. Borecká mentions that since 1929 Franz Wimmer had a parallel job with the German Polytechnics in Prague as a professor of medieval construction and architecture, where they welcomed his expertise in preservation of historical sites and buildings.[4] However, he did not ease up in his design work either and the architects continued their cooperation on a long-distance basis. Borecká states: “When he received the title of professor, they changed the name of the firm to: prof. F. Wimmer & Endre Szönyi, Architekten”[5]. The reasons why Wimmer decided to relocate to Prague are not known, although it could be that he was given an opportunity and he used it. Borecká thinks that hypothetically his motive could be that he wanted to make contacts in the capital, as state contracts were awarded from Prague. Not all of Wimmer’s projects from the Prague period are known yet and even Borecká concludes that Wimmer’s Prague period, as regards his architectural work, has remained unknown so far.

Student years and first (independent) designs

Franz Wimmer (1885 – 1953) and Endre Szönyi (1885 –1968) were contemporaries; however, the course of their studies was different, as were the trips across Europe that they made either during their student years or in the years after. As a result of the events at the time, both were conscripted and fought in World War I, although one in the Balkans and the other in Italy and Slovenia.

Franz Wimmer was born in Bratislava in a family of a reputable citizen of the town, Adolf Wimmer, a town councilman, director of Prvá prešporská sporiteľňa (First Pressburg Savings Bank), a founding member of the Pressburger Kunstverein and an owner of a general store at Michalská 2. Endre Zapletal (Szönyi since 1918) was born in Jaszberényi in the Hont County and although his father Jozef Zapletal was born in Pressburg, he was a state official and thus the family had to move quite often.

Endre Szönyi studied at a town school (senior elementary school) in Budapest, a business school in Pressburg, received technical education in Switzerland and supplemented it with art studies in Paris. Until the outbreak of World War I, he worked alternately in France and Switzerland, where he learnt of the latest trends and technical advances and also the basics of humanism.

In 1919, he won the competition for a town block of flats for rental housing at Grösslingova 59 – 63 and also realized the aforesaid project, which became the first big building of its kind and set the profile grade of other buildings at the location near Ondrejský cintorín (St. Andrew’s Cemetery). It is a three-bay building with a “U” plan and the Bratislava Art Society advocated the idea that in addition to 2- and 3-room flats, it should also include studios and flats for artists[6], as evidenced by the dormer windows in the attic roof. This is also where cooperation with Alois Rigele, who created three reliefs for the building, is mentioned for the first time. Štefan Šlachta wrote about the building that “despite some formal details, it represents a modern architectural idea comparable to other projects from that period, such as Rondo-Cubistic houses by Klement Šilinger in Račianske mýto in Bratislava or by Balán and Grossman in Legionárska…“[7].

Franz Wimmer attended a “real gymnasium” (a type of secondary grammar school) in Bratislava and studied architecture at the Technical University of Munich. After graduation, he became an assistant of prof. Fridrich von Thiersch; then he worked for the Ludwig Troost’s studio for a little while. Until 1913, he lived alternately in Pressburg and Munich. Even before the war, he got several contract jobs in Pressurg. The first of them was the terrace remodelling of an area with elevation differences and the stairs at Rudnayovo námestie square at the St. Martin’s Cathedral from 1909 – 1912, which are still in use. Another important job was the Church of the Christian Reformed Church in Bratislava, which some historians consider to be Neo-Romanesque while others use terms such as the so-called Rundenbogenstil or round-arch decorative style. Prof. Štefan Šlachta was inclined to think that it was architecture inspired by the so-called Chicago School.[8] The author agrees and states that it is a Post-Art Nouveau style that was popular at the turn of the centuries in Europe (also in Germany, where Wimmer studied) and in the USA, where it was made popular by the architecture of Henry H. Richardson and the World Exhibition in Chicago.[9]

Studio F. Wimmer & E. Szönyi, Architekten

It is not quite clear how after the establishment of the First Czechoslovak Republic the life paths of Wimmer and Szönyi crossed in Bratislava[10], although it was probably sometime around 1919, through their family members and the Pressburger Kunstverein[11]. Their similar ways of thinking probably resulted in the establishment of their joint studio in Bratislava. After the First Czechoslovak Republic came into being, both architects were involved in the renewal process, participated in the activities of the Pressburger Kunstverein and, as stated by Borecká: “they were among its most active members”[12]. Endre Szönyi worked in three of its sections: the museum section, the section for the protection of the country and its population and the arts and crafts section. Wimmer, as a representative of the society in town committees, managed to save many historical sites and monuments of the city from demolition. The society and its membership base also helped their studio to get first architectural jobs. Borecká mentions that in addition to the recorded events and labelled project designs, we also learn about the circumstances behind the origin of some of their designs through documents about the activities of the society. Wimmer & Szönyi studio never got contract jobs from the city and the majority of their work was for wealthy Hungarian and German intellectuals. However, that was probably a common problem of many architects at that time. In her book, Eva Borecká demonstrates the problems with getting contract jobs with a quote from a letter from March 1931, in which the Pressburger Kunstverein asked the city to consider also their 24 architects for the design jobs,  because we have never received jobs from the city, but the Tax Authority never forgets about us.”[13]

Projects in Bratislava

The joint professional cooperation of the two architects started up slowly. There are no sources regarding the division of their competences, however, Borecká believes that the creative roles of two architects in their studio were balanced. The firm also had contractor work in its portfolio. First, they did smaller jobs and remodelling of existing buildings, such as superstructure of the house at Zrínskeho 9 in Bratislava in 1922.[14] The eclectic project of a block of flats for rental housing for the Construction Association of Judicial Employees at Palisády 21 that represents the contemporary traditional approach to architecture and the Hanák residence in the Hradné údolie are from the same year.

An important contract job for the two architects was the building with a residential section and a department store with Central Passage. Borecká writes that “it was one of their best projects”[15]. The design of the building evolved since 1927 and the original sketches had a more embellished façade. The building was completed in 1929, with a simple façade with large undivided windows with simple chambranles. It introduced the phenomenon of a passage to the city and is considered to be one of the first modern department stores in Bratislava. The first passage in the city connected Laurinská ulica with the market hall building. The building had three floors, a flat roof, a long shopping gallery through its centre and offered two floors with shops. There was a vault from reinforced concrete with some lighter sections from glass concrete. Glass concrete was also used in the floor of the passage, to let light into the shops in the basement, which gave the Central Passage[16] an industrial look.

In Bratislava, the two architects also designed and built the Atlon cinema and the family house of Dr. Fleischhacker in 1924 and the Memorial to the Heroes Fallen in World War I at Murmanova výšina, Ulica francúzskych partizánov in 1925, on which they cooperated with the sculptor Alois Rigele. The memorial was unique because of its location, also from the landscaping perspective, and was considered to have the nicest view of the city.[17] Borecká states that 1925 was a breakthrough year in architecture in Slovakia, as the contact with modern European architectural movements became more evident and architects Wimmer and Szönyi followed the ideas of Adolf Loos who believed that: “… a room must look cosy, a house comfortable. A court building must evoke respect, bank buildings reliability.”[18]

The most important projects in Piešťany

Piešťany experienced a period of success in the 1930s. The spa became a place where the wealthy would meet, which was reflected in the overall appearance of the town. Both architects knew the owner of the spa, Ľudovít Winter, and this contact helped them to get to know clients from Piešťany. Thanks to this, they designed several villas or rental housing blocks of flats for doctors and hotel directors in Piešťany, but also the Eva swimming pool and the New Cemetery. They prepared the designs for the New Cemetery in Bratislavská cesta in years 1931 and 1932; however, due to delays, the works took several years and it was completed sometime in 1936 – 1937. The cemetery is divided into sections for Jewish, Catholic and Protestant communities, where each of them has its own ceremonial hall for the memorial service. The central building has a traditional design with a portico with columns and a belfry.

The family house for the renowned painter Janko Alexy in Banka near Piešťany from 1932 was the first building in what originally was meant to be an artist colony, which Janko Alexy wanted to establish. This was the only house that was built in the end; nevertheless, it was an example of the comprehensive author work of Wimmer and Szönyi. They designed both the interior and the exterior, and the house had the characteristic features of their creative work: a high roof, an arcade portico, window shutters and a homey feel. Unfortunately, after it was remodelled twice, its original appearance disappeared irrecoverably.[19]

The 1930s were a period when hygiene was promoted, in various forms, and the modern life style based on sports and hygiene was reflected also in architecture. In 1932, in cooperation with a Prague architect and swimmer Václav Kolátor, Wimmer and Szönyi designed the thermal swimming pool Eva in Piešťany, which was completed a year later. The symmetrical design of the premises is located along the river Váh and the path in the spa park and the importance of the solution lay in “understanding the upcoming trend and acknowledging the function in the façade and the mass of the building”[20].

The town was supposed to resemble a Mediterranean resort and Borecká explains that in that period, the legislation had a “positive outlook on large urbanist concepts”. In 1936, the two architects worked on a rather large urbanist project for the joint-stock company Floreat, which was a response to the English garden city movement. Garden village Floreat was to become an example of pleasant living while surrounded by a greenbelt, however, only ten houses from the original concept were built in the end. The author concludes that this traditional type of unobtrusive housing is still in demand, as “in contrast to many more avant-garde and modern houses, they have retained their original design until the present day”[21].

Larger projects of Franz Wimmer and Andrej Szönyi from the 1930s “are a special combination of two opposite approaches in architecture – conservativism and liberal avant-garde or Traditionalism and Functionalism“[22]. Eva Borecká is of the opinion that “their designs are not on the front lines of the fight for new architecture, and we cannot expect any avant-garde explosions either”, nevertheless “they constitute a low-key but typical layer in our architectural heritage”[23].           Eva Borecká’s book offers quite a comprehensive picture of the two architects and their top creative period; there is basically nothing to criticize. It provides new facts, describes previously unexplored projects and buildings, adds information about the cooperation of the two architects with other architects and construction companies, and also about important clients and investors. Annexes contain a clearly arranged material Characteristic features – craftsmanship details, with various interesting designs of fireplaces, and A list of designs of the architects. Some people might object to the fact that the author describes the context in multiple passages, maybe in too much detail with respect to the subject-matter of particular chapters; sometimes she even repeats certain information, with some variations, which disrupts the structure of a chapter. However, the paper on Franz Wimmer and Andrej Szönyi by Eva Borecká is a valuable and useful source for historiography of architecture in Slovakia. In addition, if there were basic materials on the work of majority of the 20th century architects prepared at least in the same scope, it would be excellent information source for Slovak architectural scene. The world nowadays is fundamentally different from the world a hundred years ago, when Wimmer and Szönyi started their professional careers as architects. The creative processes in architecture – designing and construction – are different, and the architecture as such is different too, not only because of the new techniques and technology, materials or forms. The approach to architecture is fundamentally different, as current architects create their design with the awareness that the buildings are not to last forever and that is why the traditional characteristics of the 20th century architecture have been abandoned. However, it was the traditional approach that was inherent in both Wimmer’s and Szönyi’s designs and still is, unobtrusively, but definitely, evident in the urban structure in Bratislava and Piešťany.


[1]  In her book, the author uses Endre as the transcription of the first name, although he also used the transcriptions Andreas and Andrej. Szönyi was born as Endre Zapletal, however, he changed his surname to Szönyi on 28 February 1918. BORECKÁ, Eva: Tradičná moderna na Slovensku. Architekti Franz Wimmer & Endre Szönyi (Classical Modernism in Slovakia. Architects Franz Wimmer & Endre Szönyi). CERM, Brno 2018, p. 22.
[2] It is not quite clear when exactly their joint studio started its work, as there is no identified job from years 1918 – 1921 for which they were contracted together. Borecká states that the first known drawing signed by both architects is from 1921, where they remodelled a yard wing of Wimmer’s parents’ house at Michalská 2 in Bratislava. Ibid., p. 30.
[3] BORECKÁ, Eva: Tradičná moderna na Slovensku. Architekti Franz Wimmer & Endre Szönyi (Classical Modernism in Slovakia. Architects Franz Wimmer & Endre Szönyi). CERM, Brno 2018, p. 8.
[4] Ibid., p. 46.
[5] Ibid., p. 47.
[6] Ibid., p. 25.
[7] Ibid., p. 25.
[8] In his article published in the ASB journal in 2008, Šlachta mentioned that when prof. R. Benson from the USA visited Bratislava in 1992, he stopped in front of the Church of the Christian Reformed Church and referred to its architecture as “the Chicago School architecture. Šlachta was convinced that “… a young architect that returned to his home country after a time abroad certainly would not design a neo-style object in 1913. Neo-styles were prevalent in the late 19th century and at that particular time, they had already become obsolete.” Source: https://www.asb.sk/architektura/historicke-stavby/franz-wimmer-kostol-reformovanej-cirkvi-vbratislave.
[9] BORECKÁ, Eva, 2018, p. 15.
[10] Ibid., p. 23.
[11] On page 24, Eva Borecká characterizes the society as follows: “Pressburger Kunstverein resumed its activities in 1919, adopted a new charter and attempted to “promote cultural life in the city, on lines similar to new European art trends, to support restoration and maintenance of old and contemporary works of art and participate in creating artistic culture worthy of the city’s past and its future position in the country”. The new charter also covered the issues of preservation and restoration of historical sites and buildings, protection of cultural and natural sights in the city, consultancy and advisory work for exhibitions. The objective of the society was to unite all artists, regardless of their nationality, race, social status or religion.”
[12] Ibid., p. 9.
[13] Ibid., p. 47.
[14] Ibid., p. 30.
[15] Ibid., p. 42.
[16] The building with the Central Passage was given quality remodelling in 2006 according to the design prepared by architects Rudolf Netík and Katarína Poláková and their colleagues, in which its original look was preserved.
[17] BORECKÁ, Eva, 2018, s. 35.
[18] Ibid., p. 35.
[19] Ibid., p. 54.
[20] Ibid., p. 56.
[21] Ibid., p. 58.
[22] Ibid., p. 8.
[23] Ibid., p. 87.

Keywords: Bratislava, review, book, Wimmer, Szönyi