The background story of the Thermal Power Plant:
The Hungarian art deco masterpiece, the power plant, could most likely be the latter, it often appears in action and sci-fi films as the headquarters of evil, or as a popular filming location for horror films and video clips, even though few more clean and well-thought-out buildings were built in its time.
The construction of the power plant, located on the banks of the Danube, in the neighborhood of the Kopaszi dam, was decided in 1911 by the Budapest city government. Even when choosing the location, the authorities were guided by considerations to make it the best: due to the nearby railway line, the transport of coal was ensured, the water necessary for the operation was provided by the Danube, and the prevailing wind patterns were also taken into account so that the smoke would not spread towards the city. Visiting the industrial complex completed at the end of the 1930s was a truly exclusive occasion, as the building is currently closed to visitors. Apart from the famous switch room with a glass roof, reminiscent of Captain Némo’s Nautilus, we toured the entire building, and we can safely say that a true masterpiece was born from the meeting of form and function here.
The construction started soon after, initially based on the plans of Kálmán Reichl, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences at the time, who also designed the Óbuda Gas Factory, and in 1914 the first burners lit up, which already received electricity from there. But history intervened, the World War that broke out just a few weeks after the handover halted construction for years, and the new boiler houses and generators were only completed in the 1920s.
With the new power plant, technical development could also have received a big boost, if the First World War had not broken out a few weeks after the plant’s handover, which severely broke the momentum of development. In 1917, new boilers and a turbine-generator machine group were put into operation, and in 1918, BÁV Rt was also absorbed. After the end of the war, in the 1920s, development began: new boilers were erected and World War II began. construction of a boiler house as well. It was around this time that the present-day image of the settlement, with the characteristic clock tower, was designed by Borbíró Virgil after Reichl‘s death.
Coal and slag can be transported both by rail and water, the required amount of water can be obtained from the Danube, and the location of the area ensures that the smoke from the chimneys cannot pollute the city’s air. The first section of the Kelenföld Centrálé was handed over in 1914. As the number one power plant in the country, it also represents the most advanced technology in the world. Thanks to the continuous expansion that lasted until 1937, it could maintain this role for a long time.
However, the man who lived before the turn of the century thought differently, he saw technical progress as a victory over elemental forces, which could be crystallized as a symbol mostly in the building of a power plant. The influence of Reichl’s buildings in Kelenföld strongly represents this spirit. The hall of the boiler houses, engine houses, but especially the power-generating turbines evokes the sanctity of churches. Walking through the halls, we can feel the presence of divine — or at least superhuman — power, which is deepened by the sometimes unusually suffocating and tense silence, sometimes by the maddened and raging roar of machines left to themselves. It is rare to meet a human being here in the semi-darkness between the gigantic pipe systems. The network of interior spaces takes on its final meaning in the glass hall of the control room. This is the sanctuary of the man who has gained power over the machine — and through its nature — where the pressure of the steam heated in the boilers and the voltage of the current excited in the coils of the turbines are tamed into the data of instruments. If the engine houses and the control room sometimes evoke the fantasy world of Verne’s novels, the mass formation and external appearance of the buildings try to avoid excessive monumentality and the alienating effect of the industrial environment. The enormous dimensions resulting from the essence of the task are adapted to human scales by the well-chosen ratio system. The most characteristic detail of the building complex, the row of boiler houses, seems to be made up of large building blocks, the chimneys are reminiscent of a flock of steamships, and the brickwork walls are lightened by densely divided glass surfaces.
A gigantic historic artifact, a labyrinth of huge halls swimming in semi-darkness, muted machines, and narrow industrial canals. This is the switch house of the Kelenföldi Power Plant, which with its opal glass roof has advanced to become a typical example of the art deco style.
Since Reichl died in 1926, the design was taken over by Borbíró (Bierbauer) Virgil, who is responsible for the inclusion of the new style, art deco, and Bauhaus elements. During his study trip to Germany and the Netherlands, he was able to gain a lot of inspiration, especially the Berlin-Rummelsburg Klingenberg thermal power plant, whose reddish brickwork and glazed switch room inspired the design of the Budapest power plant. The power plant, representing the most advanced technology in the world, was also truly special architecturally. Following a new ideal, it was important for the designers to create harmony between function and form. They wanted to design a building that would serve the needs of the power plant operating here in every corner, but they did not renounce artistic and architectural sophistication either.
The same transparency appears throughout the thermal power plant. Behind the logical structure of the building lies the philosophy that the worker has the right to see through everything. Because of this, the building can be seen in three dimensions, the slabs and walls do not restrict the view, they only direct it where necessary. The space looks endless even upwards thanks to the floor made of glass cubes. In the 1934 issue of Tér és Forma, he puts it this way: “transparent simultaneity extending in all three directions of space”, which fully expresses the composition of interior spaces.
An important element of transparency is the epoch-making ceiling, which is made up of glass elements woven into a steel mesh. The light shining through the glass roof is thus able to reach the lowest level through the glass slabs. We can no longer see the roof in its old glory, because of II WW. During World War II, the roof was covered with bitumen so that airplanes could not see into the thermal power plant. If they had noticed the operation of the building, they could have paralyzed Budapest’s electricity production.
The power plant, which has been empty since 2005, was almost reverentially quiet when we entered this deserted sanctuary of electricity on Saturday morning. Not only is the building apparently in order from the outside, but its interiors are also in surprisingly good condition, and although most of the former equipment has already been taken away, their remains can still be found here and there, as can the inscriptions and switchboards.
Once the corridors of the switchboards were bathed in light, it was only during the Second World War that the glass roof was covered with bitumen so that airplanes could not see what kind of building it was. Now in the semi-darkness, the endless rows of black cabinets reminded us of the sarcophagi of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, but not only did we feel like we had wandered into an ancient tomb, but the workers here also reportedly called the place the Mummy Corridor among themselves.
Behind the logical, transparent structure of the building was the philosophy that the worker has the right to see everything, and how it works. In the transparent, airy atmosphere, we can perceive not only the usual forward and backward directions in buildings, but the space seems endless upwards, and the glass cube floor under our feet also expands the space.
And then, after an unexpected turn – already fed up with the sight of the building – we entered through a very narrow door and entered the switch room, and our feet were rooted to the ground. Of course, we’ve seen it a thousand times in pictures and movies, but it was a completely different experience live. The world suddenly seemed logical, orderly, and controllable, and the chaos inside us calmed down a bit. The sun shone through the glass roof above us, and we walked for long minutes in the embrace of the green side walls dotted with signs and circuit diagrams that are mysterious to the layman, and long-dead lamps.
In an article from Tér és Forma (Space and Shape) in 1934, the following can be read about the thermal power plant:
“This is a spatial composition with a very modern taste, which can only be fully experienced by an artist living in the age… But what is most important, all this was not specifically wanted, but strictly a result of the task itself. The designer did not think about all of this in advance, but achieved it by fully immersing himself in the specific requirements of the task and reassessing them: he helped the realize what was required by the goal as perfectly as possible with his work. And that is precisely why we managed to achieve artistic effects – it was precisely from self-restraint, from resisting the temptation of “decorations“ that did not flow from the task that the true objective solution became an artistic solution.“
Compared to previous industrial buildings, the power plant was considered epoch-making because it not only wanted to celebrate the “sanctuary” of industry (for example, the cathedral of the Ullstein printing house in Berlin, the building of the Valero silk factory here) but also wanted to serve the operation of the place by organizing new spaces. Peter Behrens‘ “form derived from tasks” approach can be seen in action, it was important for the designers to create harmony between function and form. After the closure of the power plant, the building became vulnerable for this very reason. Today, we can consider the Kelenföld Power Plant as a gigantic historical artifact, which we dare not touch, but only try to decipher.
At the thermal power plant, we can discover the influence of two buildings: in terms of its logical spatial organization, Alvar Aalto‘s newspaper printing house built in Helsinki, with its facade brickwork and glass-roofed control room, is related to the Berlin-Rummelsburg Klingenberg thermal power plant. The structure of the building is a steel structure with a pillar frame, surrounded by concrete, classified from the point of view of fire protection and economy. The interior design is a reinforced concrete partition wall system, the purpose of which is to direct the potential explosion of the transformers to the outside so that it does not damage the internal structure of the building. The floor plan of the building was developed according to a logical flow diagram from the control center to the transformers and the choke coils.
The building’s oval floor plan control room has a complex structure. From below, we see an opal-looking illuminator, through which light streams into this day. The spirit of the place radiates an uplifting technical achievement, while each fragment forms a system following a logical and simple concept. In the control room, all the switches and signaling devices of the II. until World War II. At that time, a bunker was erected in the space, which, although not protected from bomb attacks, provided security to the workers there against the glass structure breaking in due to air pressure in the event of a hit.
Although one of the wings of the building is abandoned, its owner takes great care in guarding and preserving its condition, it did not become an illegal garbage dump, and vandals did not completely destroy the listed building.
History of the Kelenföld Thermal Power Plant:
The building complex of the power plant was built between 1913 and 1933, based on the designs of Kálmán Reichl and later Virgil Bierbauer. Between 1922 and 1943, additional steam boilers and turbines were installed. In 1953, the supply of hot water and steam to industrial plants began, and from 1958, hot water service was provided to the housing estates under construction. The country’s first gas turbine started operating in 1972, and coal burning stopped in 1980. During this period, the 146-meter-high chimney was built, of which only the steel frame has been standing since 2018. In accordance with the changes in the energy demand of the surrounding districts, it underwent modernization and capacity expansion in several steps. The equipment of the currently operating high-performance and modern gas-steam cycle unit of the power plant was put into operation in 1995 and 2006, respectively.
After the shutdown of the power plant in 2005, the chimneys left over from the era of coal burning were demolished, as well as the former outbuildings and extensions that were left out of the industrial monument classification.
The Kelenföld Power Plant Budapest XI. In the Nádorkert district, the first modern generation technology started producing electricity in the 1910s. It belongs to Budapesti Erőmű Zrt, which is owned by the French Électricité de France. The Kelenföldi Power Plant – an industrial monument.
Holiwood Movies recorded at the Kelenföld Thermal Power Plant:
The power plant has been the setting for many feature films.
The control room of the power plant is featured in the movie Chernobyl Diaries (American horror, 2012, director: Bradley Parker) and the 2013 series Dracula (Dracula, English horror series, 2013-2014). Some scenes of World War Z (American action film, 2013, director: Marc Forster) were also filmed here, but they were left out of the final version of the film. In the action film Deadly Battlefields (Outside of Wire, American action film, 2021, director: Mikael Håfström), the power plant is a military base. In one part of the series Strike Back (English action film series, 2010-2020), the control room of the power plant was decorated as the headquarters of the British commando. In the series Fleming – Shaken, not stirred (Fleming, English TV series, 2014), the corridors and staircase of the power plant are shown as a World War II training base and a submarine dock. The film Spy (American action-comedy, 2015, director: Paul Feig), the miniseries Houdini (American-Canadian biographical miniseries, 2014), and Terminal (English-American thriller, 2018, director: Vaughn) Stein) the control room appears again. In the action film Six Underground (American action thriller, 2019, director: Michael Bay), the power plant appears as an abandoned Ukrainian industrial estate.
Interesting articles about the Control Room of the Thermal Power Plant (in Hungarian language):