Remembering László Rajk 1949-2019

Herbert Wright remembers Hungarian architect, László Rajk

I am sad to hear of the death of the great Hungarian architect, film set designer and political activist László Rajk. I was lucky enough to have met him, first in 2006. 

Rajk was the son of a communist minister of the same name who was purged and executed after a Stalinist trial. Rajk Junior became an underground political dissident in 1975s. Trained as an architect, the communists did not allow him to practise in his own name, but he designed factories. He took to film set design and would later teach the disciple. He thought all architects could benefit from designing for film. ‘ You learn how to cheat… with perspectives, with lines, it’s very very important’, he told me’. Architects never talk about it’. After the fall of communism in 1989, Rajk finally started his own architectural practice. 

László Rajk's wildly eclectic Lehel Market in Budapest, exterior 2006. Photo Herbert Wright

His most famous work, Lehel Czarnok (2002) in Budapest, is a fantastic deconstructivist market hall, like a fantasy ship floating in the traditional cityscape. It is bursting with elements of colourful hi-tech and whimsical post-modernism. Vegetation erupts outside and light falls through skylights into its three-storey interior. When I visited, twice in the 2000s, it was a hive of activity, full of products from local food to global gizmos, women exercising thrift with traders who would sell you a single egg, and bars full of men smoking despite a smoking ban. This was a place where the neighbourhood came together, even if they said they didn’t like the architecture. 

He also designed buildings elsewhere including the Collegium Hungarium, Vienna (1998), the Acquincum Museum, Budapest (2007), and (commemorating the uprising that was quashed by Soviet tanks) the Memorial to the 1956 Revolution in Veszprém (2006). His unbuilt project in Dublin for the band U2 (2003) looked like Tatlin’s Tower had crashed into a rock outcrop, and then been embellished with sky gardens. ‘ In post-modernism, it’s more important to…  stand up for humour’ he said . ‘This is what I don’t like in Michael Graves, or Charles Jencks. They take it that seriously, which is a basic mistake’.  

László Rajk looks at some of his project models, 2006. Photo Herbert Wright

In the 1980s his underground graphic design work included for ‘samizdat’ publications, posters and comics. Later, his film set designs won many prizes. He worked on many Hungarian films including Béla Tarr’s deeply atmospheric Man from London (2007). Hollywood work ranged from Walter Hill’s Red Heat starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (1988) (in which he made Budapest serve as Moscow) to a Walt Disney cartoon, and he worked on Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015).  

My first interview as an architectural journalist was with Rajk in October 2006, for Blueprint. I found a big man, serious-looking but friendly, in a tweedy jacket. His colourful Budapest studio was full of renderings and models of his deconstructivist projects on shelves. He smoked Gitanes without a filter and sipped red wine. He poured tea from a tea set he had accumulated in flea markets, which were places he loved. 

László Rajk's Lehel Market in Budapest, busy and buzzing with local life and trade. Photo Herbert Wright

I start asking him about Lehel Market and he warmed to the questions straight away. His answers, like his architecture, were full of surprises and a sense of fun. He spoke in deep, rich voice about the historic eclecticism of Budapest, the craft of film set production, contemporary architectural phenomena and more. After two hours I finally turned my recorder off. The resulting article is here.

Rajk was a giant of a man -- in stature, political conviction, perception, imagination and design. Hungary, with its entrenched right-wing populist government, has lost a great mind and friend of freedom.

Herbert Wright, September 2019

Feature image: László Rajk in his studio, 2006. Photo Herbert Wright

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