Architectural references from Art Deco to OMA abound amid the pools and diving platforms at the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen's new spa
There is something about swimming in central Europe, with its baking continental summers, access to thermal waters and the culture of Turkish baths left by the Ottoman Empire. Switzerland has amazing public pools, some on the banks of lakes where you can jump from one to the other. Hungary is water obsessed too. Budapest has atmospheric 100-year-old open-air spas in the city centre, and swimming is the country’s second most successful Olympic sport after fencing, followed by canoeing. It won gold for water polo at the Brazil Olympics in 2016. Keep half an eye on competitive swimming and you’ll find a Hungarian in the line-up. For a nation of 9.7 million it does well. But look at its geography and you might be puzzled. It is landlocked, and lacking many of the mountain lakes that form an integral part of, say, the Swiss Alps.
Hungary did once have access to the Adriatic Sea, when a sliver of its boundaries extended to what is now Croatia. But after its coastline was lost in the carve-up of Europe following the First World War, and Communism restricted travel even between Eastern Bloc countries, Hungarians had to find their own ways to enjoy water. Holidays at Lake Balaton, central Europe’s largest stretch of fresh water, are a national tradition, and spas are designated medicinal in ways that are now unknown in the UK. You’ll find ‘waterparks’ too, ones that will shatter your illusions about the slightly sorry type you might spend an afternoon at with the kids in Newquay or Blackpool. People go to them for a week at a time.
Enter Peter Bordas, director of BORD Architectural Studio, and László Papp, mayor of the far eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen, who has been continuing his predecessor Lajos Kósa’s mission to radically reshape the city as a gateway to Transylvania and beyond, drawing tourists and business – BMW Group opened a new 400 hectare site here in May. At 16, Bordas was a champion BMX rider for Hungary and, speaking on Zoom with a cheeky glint in his eye, it’s obvious he’s still driven by thrills – snowboarding, cycling, sailing. The pair’s latest creation is Aquaticum, a waterpark in the Nagyerdei forest north of the city. Imagine the excitement of having these project images appear in my email inbox after a summer cooped up at home in the UK.
Before we talk about the architecture, you need to understand Debrecen. With 200,000 people, it is the second most populous city in Hungary. It has the largest university. It’s the cultural and scientific centre of the region with influence on neighbouring countries because of its airport. It has always been an important place, yet it is located in the dry Great Hungarian Plain, 30km from the nearest river and 100km from the nearest mountain. The city emerged from the meeting point of three international trade routes, connecting Vienna, Bucharest, St Petersburg, Istanbul, Poland and the Balkans. ‘In Debrecen,’ says Bordas, ‘everything is big. The city is set out along two avenues crossing north-south and east-west as lots of gardens and agricultural plots.’
In the 1930s the municipality developed a recreational urban park by inserting a stadium, zoo, artificial lake, thermal baths and waterpark in 300ha of ancient oak forest. Residential blocks were added during the Communist era. However, by 2010, the area was lifeless and abandoned. The stadium closed in 2000 and the key to the pitch was lost. Over the years the swimming facilities were extended in a haphazard way and were in a terrible condition.
Since then the mayoral office has gone about transforming the whole site through a series of 10 international architectural competitions, of which Budapest-headquartered BORD Architectural Studio has won four. It started with the stadium between 2012 and 2014, followed by enlargement of the artificial lake and renewal of the open-air theatre, and completion of the area’s first international school to attract businesspeople and their families. The council has also built a velodrome, and retail and restaurant units. The competition for the waterpark was launched in 2015.
‘When I was younger, I couldn’t tolerate it if a building didn’t have dynamism,’ explains Bordas, who commissioned a video of a troupe of parkour tracers climbing, leaping, vaulting, rolling and free-running all over the new Aquaticum buildings. ‘I liked movement and visible structures. The waterpark didn’t need to reflect existing buildings around it because they are not valuable enough.’
The brief was to create a popular spa suitable for all ages, but because the park is protected by the Natura2000 EU natural reserve programme the scheme could not extend beyond the 1930s plot. BORD’s concept was to distil the experience of everything you see and feel in forest – the colour of water, the sky, greenery, trees up close – onto the site and ‘compress [it] into a pack’; ‘an oasis locked up in a box’. The 12m tall blue painted glass walls have water rippling over them to create moving reflections. The tall green walls opposite every blue one recreate the experience of being in a mountainous valley enveloped by luscious shrubbery and falling water. The triangular openings are the negative space you would create by using your hands to part open a waterfall, like passing through a curtain. Grey tiles in the swimming pools reflect the blue of the walls and sky. The looping rooftop sundeck is at tree crown level, giving visitors forest and city views. This vertical element is particularly thrilling in the context of being in the middle of a huge, waterless natural plain.
‘There aren’t any waterfalls in Hungary, so this was an extra dimension,’ says Bordas. ‘The blue walls expand the experience of the building and make it more appealing in winter when a pure concrete wall would be especially cold and uninviting.’
The other principal idea was dictated by the decision not to chop any trees down in pursuit of rearranging the site layout. The main pool sits in the same position as the original, the orientation maintains its east-west linear plan, and facilities are built up vertically by a central boxy composition of uprights, planes and surfaces that come together spaced out around rectangular shapes of water as a 196m long mega fun palace instead. The structure is open. Water and flora appear on horizontal and vertical planes, people move in, out and through, as does light, shadow, breeze, wind and rain. Zoom out to forest scale and this tightly packed but porous structure behaves like a gleaming rectangular high-level boulevard, a giant concrete stepping stone between the lake and the stadium. The children’s area, lazy river pool, paddling pool, kids’ pool, wave pool, playgrounds, sports courts and toilet blocks are scattered in a mosaic to the north and south between newly planted trees. The enormous length, water pools, crossing overhead structures, pipes and gangways lend something of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex to the project, combined with the sparkle of the Case Study Houses settings in the Hollywood Hills.
Yet the way the central piece lands so unapologetically is very OMA. And in the exposed underside of the painted reinforcing steel structure, there is old-school Rogers. The contrasting deeply sensual pleasure of Zumthor’s Therme Vals is evoked in the way the golden yellow mineral-rich thermal water pool is positioned at the far forest-facing end of the block so you can swim from outside to inside through the triangular opening while being enclosed by trees, nature and a separate, slower, quieter, tranquil atmosphere. But as the greenery grows and takes over the building, trailing the industrial steel frame awnings, wrapping around the coloured tube waterslides, disguising their ageing, falling and dripping from every surface, it turns into Ricardo Bofill’s La Fabrica in Barcelona too. And wait! I detect Art Deco as well in the carefree spectacle of the open-ended, imposing entrance-side portico with its semi-circular pool underneath and four jumping platforms. It’s there also in the flying catwalks for glamorous scantily clad bodies to bask in the sun. Where do you place the architecture of the low long entrance building with its rolling wave green roof? NL Architects, Hopkins, Pagade Architectes? You decide.
This is a condensing building; a wild, energetic, ‘dynamic’ (as Bordas says) tour of architectural experiences, neatly packed together and laid onto a crisply mown lawn. It’s monumental, subverting, a perfect backdrop for selfies and marketing the city. The municipality recognised during the competition that the design would be a draw for visitors. And this summer they came, from all over Transylvania, Poland, Ukraine and western Hungary, which is often conceptually cut off from the east because the river Danube divides the country in two. You can catch a carrot and ginger smoothie for breakfast at the green health bar, or a beer in the afternoon. Even the mix of grapevine, Japanese maple, creeping ivy and bamboo planting take you around the world in only a few steps.
The project is also clever, using surplus heat and gas from the natural thermal water to power it, so that in summer 70% and in winter 50% of its energy comes from renewables. It is BORD’s first zero-emission scheme. Aquaticum’s success arises from the richness and extent of its architects’ searching, travelling, keeping in touch with their senses and replicating those feelings. While we are stuck at home or in our offices, the project is a reminder to not necessarily resume the old ways of long hours and drudgery. Get out, see stuff, push yourself and experience the extreme – perhaps jump off a few things too.
total water surface
total floor area
total cost (9.5bn HUF)
Architect BORD Architectural Studio
Client Debreceni Gyogyfürdő
M&E BORD Architectural Studio
Structural engineer Hydrastat Mernoki Iroda
Glass design Zsofia Szonyegi
Graphic design of glass surfaces Rotblau Labor