A Trapped Whale: Budapest Architecture

Nestled in the middle of warehouses, the Balna Whale Commercial Center moves Budapest Architecture into the future through its innovative design and off-site construction methods.  

Getting there

Budapest is an interesting city on the bank of Danube river.  I had an opportunity to visit Budapest several years ago.  It is characterized by old world architecture, efficient transportation system and friendly people.  However, the tragic memories of Hungary’s role in the second World War are unescapable. The Balna Whale is an attempt to use Budapest Architecture as a means to move into the future.  The Balna is a cultural and commercial center located halfway between the Liberty and Petofi bridges on the Pest side of the Danube river.  The Balna is easily accessible by mass transit.

Budapest Architecture on the Danube

Four storage warehouses were constructed on the Pest side of Danube river between 1874 and 1881 to store food grains.  Their location on the Danube river allowed transportation of such grains using the river waterways.  The importance of warehouses declined as newer and faster modes of transportation systems emerged in the recent past. Only three warehouses remain at the present time because one of the four warehouses was demolished after the second world war.  

Entrance to Balna Whale
Entrance to the Balna – Whale 2

The Balna Whale

The Balna was conceived as a place to revitalize the warehouse district.  Before it became known as the Balna or Whale, the new building was known as CET, an acronym for Central European Time.  The program for the new center called for a mix of uses such as art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, event spaces and parking. The only condition was that the new project needed to retain at least 60 % of the original warehouses. 

Dutch Architect to the Rescue

The project was designed by the Dutch architectural firm of ONL headed by architect Kas Oosterhuis.  Kas is a pioneer when it comes to reimagining the way we design and build buildings.  In a world characterized by “Innovate or perish”, some architects such as SANAA and Jean Nouvel continue with their modernist roots, while others such as BIG and ONL rely upon digital design technologies to lead the way.  ONL has utilized parametric design processes to create dynamic buildings that mimic natural systems. 

The roof structure
The roof structure 3

Working with Complexity

The architect wanted to capture the flow of river Danube through his architecture.  He designed a five-story structure with two underground parking levels and three above ground public levels.  The result was a whale shaped structure nestled between two parallel warehouses constructed of concrete, aluminum, steel, and glass.  Two existing warehouses were remodeled, while the third one was reduced in size to improve access for the new complex.  Much like its natural counterpart, the whale emerges and expands between the two warehouses to form its head.  The curving arched roof is made of triangular shapes of tubular steel structure and glass panels. Due to the complex geometry, panels vary in size and no two panels are similar. This level of complexity was only possible through CNC based off-site construction methods.  ONL is also exploring SWARM based modeling, where a change in one variable would prompt an automatic adjustment in the entire system, similar to a flock of birds in flight.

SWARM modeling
SWARM modeling 4

Architecture’s Role

The Balna appears to be a trapped Whale that is trying to emerge out of the warehouse district, similar to the City of Budapest that is trying to emerge out of its checkered past. Nevertheless it is successful in many ways.  It is a fun building full of exciting uses.  Architecturally, it provides wonderful spaces for shopping, relaxation, and amusement.  It is a unique structure that reminds one of Budapest’s waterfront and its history.  Its organic shape and innovative architecture point to a promising future for Budapest and its inhabitants.

  • Title Image:  Is it a Whale or a Building? – LordToran, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • 2   Entrance to Balna Whale – VargaA, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
  • 3   The roof structure – VargaA, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
  • 4   SWARM modeling – By D. Dibenski – images.fws.gov ([1]), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3440966

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