Photographs of progress on the riding hall and stables of Buda Castle, on the Buda side of the Danube in Budapest, raised my spirits this holiday season. Almost complete, the reconstruction seems a good way to express hope in the future as we enter the new year. The riding hall was designed by Alajos Hauszmann and built in 1899–1900, heavily damaged in World War II and demolished during the communist era. Its reconstruction is part of a larger plan under Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán to restore the Buda Castle, which contains the national gallery, history museum and library today, but still features the dubious renovations by the communists in the 1950s.
Critics of Orbán say he wants to turn the Castle District into a sort of Kremlin on the Danube. An anonymous article expressing skepticism of the huge project ran in 2014 on the Hungarian Spectrum website. Another anonymous post there yesterday reported that Orbán will move his office into the Castle Theater on Jan. 1, the day after tomorrow. The first article, whose author’s name I could not locate, said:
A few days ago [in 2014] the Hungarian public learned that billions of forints, part of which will of course come from Brussels, will be spent on the reconstruction of the Castle District (Várnegyed) and the Royal Castle. The whole project might take twenty years. László L. Simon, the undersecretary in charge of culture, is responsible for the project, named the National (what else?) Hauszmann Plan. The plan is grandiose and, in my opinion, unnecessary. Fueling it, I suspect, is Viktor Orbán’s megalomania.
Another more gentle article, “Budapest: From Rubble to Remarkable,” by Heather Hall on the tourist-oriented website ferretingoutthefun.com, is historical in tone. Hall notes that Budapest (originally twin cities, Buda and Pest, straddling the Danube and joined under the Hapsburg administration in 1873) was largely destroyed in the war but has been rebuilt to such a degree that one might never guess. Hall writes:
Like much of Eastern Europe, Budapest took a beating during World War II. Bombs rained down like a proliferation of hailstones and left smoldering piles of rubble in their wake. Then, in a final act of desperation, German troops blew up the city’s bridges during their retreat from the advancing Soviet army. By war’s end, a staggering 75 percent of Budapest lay in ruins.
Walking around Budapest today, it’s difficult to believe that so much of it is newly built. The Hungarians have slowly and painstakingly reconstructed their beloved city, from the Hapsburg palace atop a Buda hill to the iconic domed Parliament building standing proudly on the Pest side of the Danube. Looking at photos of the destruction, I am astounded at the transformation. Budapest has truly risen like a phoenix from the ashes. The city’s rebirth is made even more amazing given the fact that the Soviets took over Hungary after the war and tried to impose communism on the reluctant population.
After forty years of Soviet rule, Budapest could be chock-full of squat grey concrete structures but, mercifully, it is not.
Hall’s article contains lots of lovely photos of Budapest today. Please read the whole thing.
Returning to the riding hall, I support its reconstruction regardless of the politics that drive it. Any society after such a massive interruption of its society and its culture should be striving for reconstruction. Hall does not reveal whether the city’s reconstruction was initiated under the communist regime – presumably after the Hungarian popular revolt in 1956 – or after the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. Either way, when the strides taken by Budapest to rebuild after World War II are considered, the excellent idea here in America of rebuilding Pennsylvania Station in New York City seems positively quaint by comparison. As described by Hall, the work in Budapest seems well beyond the extensive rebuilding in such places as Warsaw, Berlin and Dresden, of which I am much more familiar.
I expect to visit Hungary someday. I am a quarter Hungarian and my wife, Victoria, is 100 percent Hungarian. Her parents fled Hungary together in the back of a truck after the failure of the revolt and, after a few years in Canada, ended up as welcome emigrés to America, first in Houston, where Victoria was born, and then in Providence. Whatever one may think of Orbán and his policies, his continuation of Budapest’s reconstruction is unassailable. It is constantly resisted by modernists whose worldwide architectural train wreck is shamed by every stone used in any reconstruction, wherever it takes place, be it in Budapest, Berlin, or New York City. Budapest is another example of a growing popular revolt against modern architecture and modern urbanism. Bravo, Hungary!