I have a fascination with old things. Old things, dead things and things that file distinctively under “kitsch”. And anything – particularly, anything – that looks like it might have fallen straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. So, you can imagine my delight when fortune smiled down on me and offered me the unusual opportunity of visiting an aching old art-deco power station, on the outskirts of Budapest.
Kelenföld Power Station is indeed a magnificent ruin. One with hollow limbs that moan upon passing, with startling symmetry that flows coolly from one chamber to the next, and a truly quite majestic vintage styling. Glass floor tiles pepper the hallways, throwing light into the echoing halls and gliding lightly underfoot. A whirlwind jaunt around this partly-abandoned power station gives a brief glimpse into a forgotten era, preserved with all its glory intact.
Kelenföld opened in 1914 – a masterpiece of industrial design – which now survives as an homage to an era long past. Built in a time when electricity itself was in its infancy – perhaps now, 100 years on from its construction, and in a world where electricity is so vital to our modern existence, we can appreciate even more so the analogue beauty that Kelenföld guards within. The plant itself, the brainchild of two Hungarian architects, Kálmán Reichl and Virgil Borbíro, cannot be torn down – now registered as a protected building under Hungarian law. And additionally, as such, it cannot be restored, and so it is left, like a sealed tomb, to weather the winds and calmly rust away.
Now privately owned, but still partly in operation providing 4% of Hungary’s energy needs, Kelenföld offers unique tours of the building and grounds, sporadically throughout the year, to just a handful of lucky guests – which is how I came to visit this charming old ruin. Tours are given exclusively in Hungarian, and so we are handed a simple printout in English containing some light information on the building and how it came to be. It was a rare occasion in which I was glad I did not speak the language, as I was able to slip away almost immediately and explore alone, before anyone got in my way.
It is truly quite haunting to wander the hallways alone, following the flow of the building. The main turbine hall, lined with antiquated and beautifully symmetrical machinery greets me on arrival, whilst further up a rattling spiral staircase – doors within doors, within doors; a ethereal optical illusion. Stark summer sunshine cuts through gnarled slats and greasy windows, exposing dust-laden air and bleaching the already faded walls a fainter shade of mint. Crude metal stairways lead off to a varying labyrinth of floors and rooms where smashed iconic Zsolnay tiles, wires and other relics lie strewn on the floor in clusters. I can recognise street names labelling the walls, transformers and turbines, which must have once served Budapest’s central districts.
Following a narrow green galley, we enter a circular room with a magnificent oval glass ceiling; a whimsical vintage space ship, suspended in time. The control room is, by anyone’s musing, the most impressive room in the station. Its circular interior and tin-can aesthetic, paired with such novel and intrinsic details – even paper still loaded in the ageing print slots. Dials, switches, knobs, and hundreds of unique, finicky little buttons, that beg to be pushed. Bright natural light floods the room, whilst a small bunker sits centre stage, providing protection from the threat of falling glass if an explosion were to have ruptured the magnificent ovular ceiling. Stairs lead down to further cavernous space, shielded from light, and a further warren of small, crumbling rooms.
Outside a wind-whipped elevator shaft tells a tale of decay. The exterior does not give away the interior’s secrets, much rather, conceals them in a humble, forgotten shell. It is only when taking a step closer and deciphering the details – warped plastic skull signs with scrawling red text – that it becomes apparent the secret that lies behind the brickwork. The rolling glass exterior extends out, reflecting the summer’s sky, and looking for an instant like it were blissfully new and finely polished.
We stop to take in one last view from one of the exterior balconies, treading through piles of cigarette ends, rubble and glass, and gazing down over the forecourt of the factory to the iconic Danube river sparkling alongside in the early afternoon sun. Now, having survived war and diligently served the residents of Budapest, Kelenföld is allowed to fade into retirement – remaining only as an occasional film set, sporadic tour venue and charming industrial treasure.
The cost at the time of writing is 2500 Hungarian Forints (8 Euros). The tour is given entirely in Hungarian, but you do not have to stand and listen if you don’t want, you are free to go off and explore. The tour lasts around 1-2 hours and is located 30 mins travel time (by public transit) from central Budapest.