WASHINGTON — Clad in an authentic Hungarian blue vest, Suto Levente Lehel, a 14th-generation family furniture-maker and wood artisan from Transylvania, shows off his carefully carved cabinets and furnishings to passers-by on the National Mall.
"I take this chisel and carve and then use paint to bring the piece to life," Lehel explains to visitors.
Lehel is among a team of carpenters who came to Washington from Hungary to build a traditional Hungarian village on the National Mall as part of the 47th Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Bringing traditional craftsmen from their native countries to build structures for the annual festival has been done before, but never to build complete traditional buildings as they have for this year's "Hungarian Roots to Revival" program.
"This is not standard procedure," said Jozsef Siklosi, the architect who designed the buildings, which blend features from traditional Hungarian styles and more modern American structures. "We tried to have an architectural component that far exceeds regular installations."
The carpenters spent about a month in Hungary working on intricate wood carvings that adorn many of the buildings, and then traveled to the United States a month prior to the festival to construct the buildings.
"It's a part of the identity, and the buildings give you the feeling of what it is like in Hungary," Lehel said. "It's important to show others our tradition and pass on our culture to the younger generations."
The Dance Barn is inspired by the traditional Hungarian dry mill, but its wooden columns are more contemporary to fit the barn's function as a performance venue and a dance studio for lessons during the festival. The 23-foot Peacock Tower is a fusion between the traditional Hungarian peacock facade and the Chrysler building in New York, a city that is home to tens of thousands of Hungarian immigrants.
The designs and construction were completed in close collaboration with curators from the Smithsonian Institution who specialize in Hungarian history and culture. Because construction methods were largely traditional, carpenters who were trained in the Hungarian tradition were needed, Siklosi said.
"In order to stay with the tradition of the Hungarian culture, we went right to the source. We wanted to bring the experts here," said Jim Deutsch, co-curator of the Hungarian program.
After the festival, the buildings will go to various Hungarian American community organizations, where they will function as communal spaces, Siklosi said. The Peacock Tower, he said, will be donated to a summer camp in Fillmore, N.Y.
Other themes presented this year include exploring endangered languages and a look into African-American diversity, style and identity. Festival coordinators expect more than 1 million people will attend the free event, which runs through Sunday.
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