The City Park’s 200 years

Changes in spatial structure and park use in the life of an urban park


(From previous issue No.33)

“Eine ansehnliche Stadt muß in ihrem Umfang einen oder mehrere große offene Plätze haben, wo das Volk …eine freie und gesunde Luft atmet, und die Schönheit des Himmels und der Landschaft sich wieder zum Genuß eröffnet.”

Urban parks have been changing continuously during their century long history, depending on the nature of their social mandate, the changes in garden art and the varieties of forms, the economic context, the general behavioural norms as well as usage needs and expectations. The visiting of the parks, their use, the recreational habits vary as well according to the different periods and regions. But are there any eternal, unchanging values in the public welfare services urban parks offer? In today’s rushing, technicized and digital world, can the mentality that led to the birth of the public park movement at the end of the 18th century be considered a value? The idea born in the grip of Embourgeoisement, the quick urban development, the industrial revolution, the deteriorating living conditions and the quality of the environment: The Hirschfeld concept, aiming to raise the urban population and provide it with the luxury of aristocratic parks found listening ears everywhere in Europe. Public gardens (Volksgarten), urban parks and in general urban green and open spaces – with their development history of over two centuries – are fundamental criteria of a liveable city.

The first urban parks

Through the English landscape garden movement, garden art has not only become one of the most important artistic movements (Gesamtkunstwerk) of the 18th and 19th century, but also became the tool of social renewal. In the 17-18th century royal and aristocratic gardens and wildlife parks opened their gates Europe-wide to the public. From the end of the 18th century significant refurbishments were underway in these gardens and parks. But not only the new style in garden art has been taken over, releasing the gardens, the plants from the strictly determined, architectonical form variety of the late baroque. In the parks, already open to all visitors, the urban society needed pleasant experiences and recreation. Hirschfeld, an important garden-theoretician of his time, was deeply convinced that the urban park that he called people’s garden, the experience of the open nature, liberates, enriches and educates urban citizens. In his book he explains that every city needs gardens and parks that can be used freely, but most of all allées, squares, promenades where urban citizens can breathe fresh air and which – just like a social melting pot – bring different social classes together. Gardens, according the Hirschfeld, are educational areas in the open space, where the inhabitants of the city can learn natural sciences, culture, history, good manners, behaviour and morals.

‘A city for the city’

It was in this zeitgeist that Heinrich Nebbien (1778-1841) from Lübeck lived, learned and worked, who wrote his name into the Hungarian history of garden art by the garden design of the City Wood (Stadtwäldchen) in Pest after the refurbishment of many Hungarian castle gardens in a classicist landscape garden style and also the landscaping and development of aristocratic estates based on global and aesthetic considerations. The City Park’s (Városliget), or as it was called then, the City Wood’s history took a turn 200 years ago, which embraced the spirit of that age, or, what is more, was far ahead of it. The former rich royal wildlife park turned into a wilderness, a marshy, sandy, desolate area in the times of the Turkish occupation. Upon the decree of Leopold I. it came under the ownership of Pest city at the end of the 17th century. The area, called Ökördűlő (Ochsenflur/Bullock’s Slope), long used exclusively for pasturage, has been afforested upon the order of Joseph II. At the end of the 18th century, the area is already referred to as the City Wood and many a resident went there for a walk and an excursion. In 1794 the city judge János Boráros proposed to refurbish the City Wood as a garden club and resort, but this plan hasn’t been taken too far. A couple of years later József Batthyány archbishop rented the area from the city, and in change for the right to sell wine he launched the landscaping of the area, the drainage of marshlands, road constructions and the planting of allées. The works were directed by Rudolf Witsch city engineer. The Royal Beautification Committee founded in 1808 and led by the palatine Joseph put the transformation of the City Park into a public park on the agenda of urban development. In 1813, at the tender announced by the Beautification Committee, the designing right was accorded to Nebbien who finished the plans in 1816.

Layout. Nebbien’s work from between 1813-16 (Source: Archive of Plans of the Budapest History Museum Kiscell)

Nebbien’s work from between 1813-16
(Source: Archive of Plans of the Budapest History Museum Kiscell)

In the spirit of the idea ‘City for the City’ he intended to design the model of a people’s garden or urban park serving the welfare of many generations, the sublime display of the experience of nature, as a special value of European garden art and at the same time as a national memorial site. During his travels Nebbien eagerly studied the English landscape gardens. Although as regards his possibilities, he could not compete with the great garden designers of the time, P.J. Lenné or Prince Pückler, but he did compete with them in the field of professional skills, complex vision and designer quality, and he could be considered a leading creator in every aspect. However, he was not only a designer, but he participated personally in the execution, the construction and followed the works. His theoretical work is also significant, since he prepared a detailed description on the plan of the City Park (a technical description, as it is called today), to which he added an introduction on design theory where, besides the short summary of the history of garden art, he also presented the importance and role of public parks. In the study, he drew a detailed picture of the designing process, the designer’s way of thinking, as well as the functional and space-shaping ideas. The design theoretical manuscript was created in 1816, that is, much earlier, than the similar writings of Sckell and Pückler. Nebbien, as a garden designer and an estate landscaper, considered himself a follower of Kent and Repton. He considered Kent’s picturesque creative method, the exploded structure and his brush work an exemplary value, while Repton seized him by his complexity, the unity of painting, gardening and architectural knowledge.10 Nebbien did not like Brown who had a vast knowledge on gardening, or even landscaping, but his gardens, due his lack of picturesque vision and skills of spatial composition remained monotonous and boring. Nebbien’s way of thinking as an estate landscaper can be discovered in the case of his landscape architectural works as well; the principle of economy, or, as we would put it today, sustainability, appeared even in the design of the City Park. The vast meadows and turf fields were – similarly to aristocratic gardens – well suited for cattle breeding, and the fresh milk produced this way can, according to Nebbien’s idea, be consumed in the manor proposed for the island. Nebbien’s work could only be partially realized, but certain parts and elements of the park, especially its atmosphere, evoked the romantic approach to nature of the beginning of the 19th century. After all, this might be the most important value of the 200 year-old City Park. Although the capital grew around it and built again and again on some of its sections, or used the Park for temporary exhibitions, for the city residents, the park always represented the experience of nature. For Nebbien it was evident: what makes the city liveable, is when the residents can find the origins, too; what is completely different from the city: Nature, that is, the green bringing a refreshment for body and spirit – and yes, exactly as a part of the city, within their reach, formed for offering an experience, in an organized  and sustained quality.

“The park sought to serve the friendly and cosy contact of all people who can meet here in the heart of beautiful nature.”

This is the essence of Nebbien’s landscape architectural plan, in his garden art description on Hungarian public gardens and the 200 year-long history of the Park this experience of nature remains dominant all along.

/read the rest of this post in issue No.33/

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