Reflections on the subject of historic city centres – example Eger


(From previous issue No.39)

Eger was the first city in Hungary, where, from the second half of 1960’s urban renewal was not limited to single buildings or groups of buildings, but extended to whole building blocks. In the downtown area interior public open spaces and public facilities were developed and new public squares were established. The city was also vanguard in the establishment of pedestrian zones comprising more than a single street or square, but a whole network of streets and squares.

Recently the review of the earlier concepts came on the agenda. The renewal of the historic centre with “functional enlargement” is currently under way. Since the autumn of 2012 an action containing 25 elements is in progress. The parking garage next to the market is completed, so is the renewal of Dobó square and several other public spaces, and there is a new cycle way by the rivulet. Several public buildings have been restored, sometimes partially, in other cases restricted to the building front.

It is therefore worth thinking about the background of this initiative, and dealing with the historic urban core of medieval origin. History should not be modified, but from time to time it is necessary to revaluate the heritage, to consider the new results of research and to adapt to the changes of concepts.

The discovery and evaluation of our historic heritage have their own history. The original focus on special, unique buildings and ensembles was gradually extended to the “containing” frame, and at the beginning of the previous century the art of streets and squares was also discovered. For the discovery, assessment and protection of our urban historic heritage the loss of the “Great War” led to significant changes, because our significant historic cities which had avoided the Ottoman rule have now became part of other countries. In the journal entitled Urban Review (Városi Szemle) published by the Statistical Office of the Capital the author of the article on the relations of physical planning and infrastructure development complains that we have lost our communities of long standing urban culture. This tragedy was a warning for our professionals to pay more attention to the remaining domestic values. This process continued after the destructions of World War 2. It happened several times that the ancient fragments and details of long forgotten or later refurbished old buildings were found under the ruins. The losses from the war and other events changed the classification of buildings under protection. What had not been regarded as of irreplaceable value, today it has become so.

Historic town …

The protection of historic parts of cities, downtowns, urban cores was a requirement in Budapest already in 1914. The building code of Budapest contains a section for the Castle District, and there are more detailed rules in the amendments of 1922 and 1926, and more rules were formulated in the Building Code of Budapest, 1940, where the special regulations were extended to the Andrássy Street. The next stage was in 1960, when, in the National Building Code and later in 1967 in the regulation for historic monuments fundamental concepts – including the area of historic significance – were laid down, and afterwards the most significant historic areas were rendered under protection. The comprehensive survey and evaluation of the most important areas was published in the book by László Gerő entitled “Historic urban quarters”. In this book the author classifies 13 urban historic cores as areas under protection.

The professional opinion has undergone several changes since then. For instance, the list of municipalities with valuable urban structure contains 120 cities, towns and villages over and above the 22 towns and cities of monument protection. The authors agree that the Hungarian historic cities are loose, less densely built in than the West European cities (Berzenczey, Gerő, Granasztói, Makkai, Eperjessy). It is so even in Western Hungary, e.g. Sopron, where in the area within the town wall development is more dense, the streets are narrower, all plots are built in, but the building heights, number of stories drop behind the West European cities. The figures for Eger, “the most Hungarian city” (qualification in op.cit. Gerő) are much below the densities of the western and southern European cities. The question “why” is still open, the authors mention the need of further research.

The history of European cities indicates that the density of cities varied in time and space in the south and west too. Fernard Braudel writes for instance: “It often occurs that the wall confines side by side the town a part of plough land and gardens too. This is explained by the need for alimentation in wartimes. This happened in the 11th and 12th century in Castille, where random ramparts were built around groups of villages distant from each other. Enough spaces were left for shepherding the sheep at time of alarm. The same is the rule everywhere, where in fear of siege the ramparts encircle meadows and orchards in Florence for instance, or arable land and orchards and vineyards in Poitiers, where in the 17th century the town wall was still almost as great as in Paris, but the ample encircled space was no longer filled up. In Prague too the houses of the small town could not fill up the space which remained empty within the walls built in the middle of the 14th century. The same happened in Toulouse around 1400 or in Barcelona, where the space with the walls built in 1259 was not filled up until two centuries later around 1550. Similar is the case of Milan within the walls built by the Spanish.”

It would be enough to mention that the Hungarian cities were excluded from development for centuries at that time. In the case of the city of Eger, however, our theme is something else. The analysis of the “ground-plan” of cities was very popular Europe-wide one time, so was in Hungary too. “The study of the city ground plans is the subject of a separate branch of science the so called “planography”. The German and French researchers of this subject went beyond the topographical data explored from the ground plan, and also tried to support the findings with assumptions related to urban development.” (Eperjessy 113 p). Jenő Major, Oszkár Paulinyi, Erik Fügedi, István Jankovich, András Kubinyi, Pál Granasztói, Virgil Borbíró, István Valló, György Korompay, László Gerő are the scholars of this field whose name deserve mention.

Development of the historic city core of Eger, natural drivers of development

Béla Kovács historian was the first to analyse of area of Eger within the walls in his study entitled Medieval streets of Eger in 1965. He thought that the approach and Jenő Major’s experiment to analyse the ground plan of Sopron were strange and unworthy of a historian, but from his analysis he concluded that the street network of the quarter within the walls is medieval. Recently Mátyás Berecz summarized the studies of the city walls of Eger, their present state and needs for further research. Nevertheless, we take the courage to formulate some statements about the city walls of Eger, partly because this study is loaded with interior controversies.

Geological features hindering development in medieval downtown

Béla Kleb: Geological features hindering development in medieval downtown. The blue line is the stream, lightblue surface is the flooded area, green line mar the present hospital i.e. the seculat main square (Dobó square)

In the middle of the 1970’s Béla Kleb pointed out that the deep lying position and the danger of flood made developments difficult in the greatest part of the area within the walls, especially on the sites of the present day hospital as well as the secular main square the Dobó square. There were “palaces’ with large gardens in two parts, along the Széchenyi street/ High street and Kossuth street / Káptalan street on the side of the city border. The former had front gardens, in the latter the canon residences and the Franciscan monastery lined the streets and had large gardens behind, in the south (see Hugó Harael’s map, 1753). The waterside areas, large gardens, steep slopes with cellars - dating from the period of the Tartar invasion – testify the statement of the study that “In the walled city, side by side with residential buildings there were gardens and wine cellars” (op.cit. 557 p). For instance, the greatest part of the No.1 site of Markoth Ferenc hospital was one time a manor. All this is in accord with the European practice of the time.

The further analysis of the terrain, the comparison of the largely varied surfaces (recesses and pits) with the line of the walls allows the conclusion that the builders enclose the smallest possible rationally defendable site, that is, less than the already built up area or the one needed for housing the people. Some built up areas are outside the walls, for instance the spa by the thermal water lake and the village on the Almagyar hill. We think that in case of this city this is the cause of the lower density. Typical breaks of the surface are the following: on the eastern part, north of the Castle hill there is another elevation Tetemvár of nearly the same height (15-18 m difference from the city level) but smaller surface, south of the castle another, lower elevation. The Mekcsey street leading here (and the block lined by Mekcsey Street and Almagyar street, where the southward slope begins from 18 m) is outside the wall. On the western bank of Eger stream the terrace along a north-south axis rises almost straight 10-18 m (it is less steep than in the east where the almost vertical terrain is the result of human activity). Even in the case of the most simple fire arms the walls should be built on the top of elevations. In the northern part the site of the wall is determined by both side valleys (Szala pit and Vécsey valley), because the city had to be enclosed to the south of these lines. The site is further “fortified” by the vicinity of the northwest side of Teremvár to the Eger stream and the smallest distance between the terraces on both sides. The line of the southern city wall is the most uncertain. Here there are no waterways or other surface breaks. The lightly sloping terrain is even. The southern line is determined by the thermal water lake (near the current swimming pool and beach) and the border of the riverside wetland. A later land development resulted the Bishop garden (Folk garden) and the bath. The unfavourable building conditions of this area are indicated by the fact that for a long time this area was not built up. The first significant intervention was the development of railway and the railway station (the line between Füzesabony – Eger was built in 1872, between Eger – Putnok feeder line in 1906-1908). The terrain improvements made the area east of the train station developable, and thus the Csákó neighbourhood was built up between the World Wars, and after some decades the urban area grew southward, and the southern industrial area was established on the dried wetland.

In László Gerő’s above mentioned book there is an old perspective picture of the castle and city of Eger in the 16th century. This drawing clearly agrees with our description, with just a slight difference. The configurations of the terrain are not exact on the drawing. The Turkish bath by the thermal water lake is somewhat farther from the wall than in reality. M. Berecz mentions in his quoted thesis that “the walls were built on the ridge of the elevations.” This is correct at some places e.g. on Tetemvár and the eastern side of gate to Maklár, elsewhere the formulation is incorrect or mistaken. For instance, on the western side the terrain is smoothly rising outside the wall, on the slope of Hajdu hill, and the ridge is only at one km distance from the wall. On the flat terrain to the south and north there is of course no elevation with ridge.

Planned or organic cities, orthogonal street pattern or one adjusted to the terrain forms ?

Our other statement in connection with the historic cities is that these organic cities are not at all haphazard. Growth in nature follows strict rules, and the actual question is whether out ancestors intended to follow a simple geometrical order of building, or else, they respected the existing features and adapted to them the fundamental lines of the street pattern. In the history of mankind the powerful colonial rulers dared to build cities without regard to natural features, like in the case of the Hellenistic colonial cities, and the cities built on flat terrain in the Roman Empire. Later on, the castles of the weakening empire were often built with concern to and support of the natural endowments (e.g. Visegrád, fortification on the Sibrik hill).

Medieval quarters of Eger

Medieval quarters of Eger with the local churches in the centres and the city wall (based on B.Kleb’s Figure and data) Red cross marks the location of the medieval church

In Eger the medieval development within the walls is determined by three routes. The first is the final section of the way from Buda to the episcopal seat, the palace (today Kossuth street). It turns just under the palace (that is, beyond the Franciscan monastery) and runs along the ramp (with this curve it increases the security of the palace). The second is the almost straight Széchenyi street on the western side in north – south direction. The third is below the eastern breakages of the terrain, at one plot distance (Cifrakapu square – Servita street – Dobó István street – Tinódi Sebestyén square – Almagyar street) and follows the changes of the terrain. The street is as far as possible from the rivulet and its occasional floods.

/read the rest of this post in issue No.39/

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