The Case of The Spontaneous Occupation of the Liberty Bridge in Budapest
Franz Bittenbinder for GruppoTorto
<> Architecture is sharing, both in its production and its result. In fact, what has taken shape through the contribution of architects, clients, builders etc. continues to be subject to a collective process: On the one side, architecture is commonly occupied by many people at once who visit, work or live in it. On the other side, it is experienced throughout the individuals’ eyes i.e. via the three to thirty-three senses1 a human being is assumably provided with. Whereas the design process aims at physical definition (which is arguably objective by nature), it can be said that a building’s actual perception is determined by myriads of subjective impressions.
This banal but nevertheless very important precondition has influenced our entire visual culture especially in terms of architectural representation. Until the middle of the 19th century, however, this has seldom led to excessive records apart from drawings or paintings. Sharing your subjective view of architecture was, indeed, highly limited by your own (or the commissioned performer’s) artistic sensitivity and capacity. In modern times photography introduced a radical change in this respect. People were able to eternize their (camera) point of view by simply capturing the visible spectrum of light onto a chosen medium. The possibilities of the digital screen have finally set things to another level.
Today, we find many studies concerning the effect of contemporary sharing. It is, however, interesting that they focus on the ‘sharer’ subject rather than on the “shared” object. The reason is that the “shared” does not speak directly to us but merely is hinting at clues which are only revealed throughout the reaction of “sharers” in turn. Reversing the familiar perception allows us to think about the effects of excessive sharing in the field of architecture and to examine how monuments can change in terms of connotation, identity and aura. The term of “aura“ is, in particular, fascinating because it summarizes a range of contemporary criticism on our “Instagram age“, in particular, concerning the “true” appreciation of architecture implied by the very physical experience.
“What withers in the age of the technological reproducibility (…) is the…aura.” – Walter Benjamin, 19352
The question arises whether digital sharing implies the loss of the aura, as theorized by Benjamin or does it multiply in the reproduction process. The first concept can be considered more conservative with moralizing undertones, the other rather progressive and “technophile“. The aim is, hereby to find interesting readings to both concepts without getting tangled up with Benjamin’s definitions. In particular, it does not seem productive to stick too closely to his idea of an “intrinsic value of the original’ but to give it a more scientific (although less poetic) interpretation. Transcribed to our times we can assume “aura“ as a complex pattern of sensory experiences “bound to here and now” which is projected onto a work of art/architecture by collective interaction with it. The projection approximates the character of the object itself and affects assigned connotations.
Benjamin’s concept implies that the sharing of physical encounters between individual and architecture can reduce their complexity, first to the visual dimension and secondly affecting the experience of future visitors. By narrowing down the complexity of the aura is “wearing off“. The artefact, i.e. arte-fatto, becomes an emptied body, depleted by constant cycles of sharing in which the pervasiveness of the copy makes the physical dimension less relevant than the collective impressions.
The second concept assumes that sharing can enhance the aura of a building by reinforcing its presence in the collective mind and contributing enriching visual memories to the physical experience. The aura of the object is augmented with every copy. In Don Delillo’s novel “White Noise” we find a mindful example of the described assumption in which protagonist Jack Gladney is accompanied by his colleague to see the most photographed barn in America.
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.” – Don Delilio 19853
Every person that is taking a picture of the barn contributes to its aura that grows with every snapshot. Once you have joined the sharing process you cannot see the barn anymore. You cannot help but see it from a specific mental angle from which a thousand others have shared it with you.
Juxtaposing the two concepts raises an important question. Shall we challenge Benjamin’s notion or embrace his critique of authenticity in our contemporary discourse? In order to discuss the matter more in-depth, we would like trace the notion of the “aura“ in a specific case. We have chosen for this purpose the rather unknown but fascinating Liberty Bridge in the capital of Hungary, Budapest, which has been subject to an intriguing change of paradigms.
The Liberty Bridge was built in 1894 as “Franz Joseph Bridge“ during the Austro-Hungarian Empire connecting the “Buda“ side of the city with “Pest“ crossing the Danube river on an overall length of about 333 meters. The bridge was the first in the city to be rebuilt after suffering heavy damage during World War II. By changing its name to “Liberty Bridge“ it was turned into a symbol of liberation praising the “saviours from the East“ (the Soviet army) who defeated German occupation. Since 1946, the bridge was witnessing the transformation of Budapest into a communist metropolis which only in 1989 regained independence from the regime.
The latest event which has changed the bridge radically was triggered by an act of massive sharing: In 2016, locals and visitors spontaneously decided to occupy the Liberty Bridge during temporary maintenance works. Thanks to social media it took only a few hours and the bridge was appropriated entirely by hundreds of people overtaking car lanes and tram tracks for a gigantic flash mob. The heavily used traffic line was turned into an active public space where picnics happened next to spontaneous yoga lessons. In the evening people came together with food and drinks while dancers and musicians contributed with their art to the vibrant atmosphere of the public ad-hoc performance. Ever since the event became known as “Szabihíd“ (short form of the Hungarian name of the Liberty Bridge, “szabi“ denoting also “vacation“) The more people shared the more people came. A digital wave broke off which grew with every picture or video posted. In contrast to similar public mass meetings in the past, participants represented a generation who grew up after the change of regime “feeling less of the political pressure than what their parents felt towards public spaces during socialist times“4. The event quickly transcended straightforward, partly hedonist meanings: It was able to induce a major discussion in the national debate in which citizens, as well as planners, pointed out the general importance of appropriation and participation in the urban space. Moreover, Szabihíd reached out internationally thanks to the exhibition in the Hungarian Pavilion of the Architecture Biennale in Venice 2018. The greater relevance of Szabihíd was widely recognized. The search for human scale as well as the growing need to co-create the urban environment was, hence, analysed as part of a global phenomenon gaining ground from the 90s. In fact, it has been said that “the 2016 events were spontaneous, but by no means accidental.“5
“Communities searching for their space in the structured order of the city have been already present for decades. (…) In many areas, civic organizations took over the roles of traditional planning and maintenance as their tools dried up with their resources.“ 6
The municipality embraced the bottom-up initiative and agreed to close the bridge for few weekends in summer also in 2017 and 2018. With the continuation, Szabihíd turned into a ‘shared program’ supported by decision makers and planners as well. This can be considered an important step in which the city administration is starting to “use concepts coming from innovative communities.“ 7
Coming back to the initial question there are many aspects about Szabihíd which can help to shed light on the relationship between the “aura“ of architecture and the act of sharing. In order to be more specific about the nature of this relationship, it is necessary to distinguish three different kinds of ’sharing’ in the given case.
The first is physical, referring to the sharing of space along the bridge with hundreds of people ultimately becoming part of the cityscape. The second is temporal i.e. sharing a moment in time in which democratic equality momentarily suspends the differences between locals and tourists, between age, gender, nationality etc. The third is digital, sharing a personal point of view with connected friends and followers and encourage other people to join in. The digital aspect is especially interesting because it relates to the reproduction of the architectural experience in great numbers which is able to induce new or solidify existing connotations of the shared object. From the introduction above we have seen two opposing concepts which assume two very different outcomes from extensive digital sharing.
In terms of the first concept, the copy of the Szabihíd is considered the “playback version“ of the physical monument which has been significantly reduced in its complexity. In more detail, this implies that many aspects which are evident during the physical encounter remain unnoticed in the reproduction. As such, the essentials of the bridge f.e. the painful summer heat reflected by the asphalt ground, the cooling breeze from the river filtered through the iron braces or the feeling of the bulky tracks under your feet. Moreover, most human interactions tend to be narrowed down to the moments of spectacle (acrobatic dancing, jazz combos, mass yoga etc.). The result is not only a smaller extract of architecture but a reinterpretation of the scenery fueled by selective perception. Future visitors who have been “digitally prepared“ are less likely driven by discovery or spontaneity but rather attracted by the festival-like program. Activities which have raised the highest hopes are more likely to deliver the biggest disappointments (“I imagined more crowd, more fun, more spectacle“). The aura i.e. the authenticity of the Szabihíd event on the Liberty Bridge is lost in the hype of the media.
The opposing concept, in contrast, would consider the aura of Szabihíd augmented by every “copy“ which has been shared through social media. The more pictures are taken of people sitting on the pale green suspension beams or drinking beers on the tram tracks the bigger the immediacy to embrace the new way of using the bridge. The collective memory is enriched by a large number of visual impressions reinforcing the authenticity (realness?) of the event and its venue. The “prepared visitor“ can extend his physical experience with stimulating images and reveal hidden potentials of the occupied space which might not be palpable at the given moment. The shared images are accumulated in our memory superimposing each other. There comes the point at which our “attention performance“ reaches its limits. The natural reaction of the human brain is to filter the “essence“ of the superimposition. Ultimately, the fate of the barn befell also the case of the Liberty Bridge. You cannot help but see it from a specific mental angle. In fact, some tourists are even surprised to see the bridge unoccupied. The aura of the extensively shared Szabihíd event has taken over the identity of the bridge i.e. sharing has turned the architectural experience into a symbol (in this case: a symbol of public appropriation). The process of “symbolification“ is symptomatic for European cities which witness increasing mass tourism. Budapest is affected by this tendency but to a much lesser extent than other cities. Venice is a much more extreme example where not only buildings but the whole city turned into a giant symbol.
On the one side, we have seen that the notion of the “aura“ is a useful stimulus to reveal intriguing details related to the effects of sharing in the field of architecture. On the other side, it has become evident that there is a lot of space for diverging interpretations. Its ambiguity can be seen as an inspiring opportunity or highly problematic issue especially considering “authenticity“ as a major evaluation parameter.
The general question arises whether “aura“ can be (still) a viable concept for contemporary discussions in the 21st century. Shall it be limited to its narrower sense as defined by Benjamin or shall we attempt to discuss it in a broader sense? Is it even possible to reanimate the term with a more tangible definition and develop respective parameters?
The case of the Liberty Bridge suggests that it is, indeed, very difficult to operate in Benjamin’s terms only. Nevertheless, there is a big potential in re-proposing the term in a more extended meaning. The reason is that it is one of the few concepts which put perceived qualities of architecture in relation to highly topical reproduction processes. The proposed redefinition as “pattern of sensory experiences“ does not claim completeness but is intended as the first step into a re-valorization of the “aura“-discussion.
In conclusion, we can say that sharing has generally a big impact on architecture because it is able to construct identities around it. Moreover, it can manipulate the perception of buildings telling us very different stories. The constructed identities, thereafter, merge with the physical dimension of buildings. In our minds, the two are inseparable and induce a range of associations which are in constant transformation.
Considering that digital sharing is an increasingly global phenomenon it will be necessary to address more and more the effects of extensive digital sharing on our built environment in the future. Moreover, it is legitimate to ask whether there is a critical mass which induces a more radical change of paradigms. To understand the jump of scale we simply need to look at the large numbers of shared architecture on social media platforms like Instagram. The Eiffel tower, for instance, has currently around 4,7 million posts.8 It becomes ever more apparent that mass tourism has already crossed a critical line followed by many superlatives, this being one of them. One thing is sure. There is a lot more to discover.
(1) Draper, Steve. How many senses do humans have? Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2017. http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/best/senses.html (accessed 07 29, 2018).
(2) Walter, Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn. In The Work of art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008. 19-55.
(3) Delillo, Don. White Noise. London: Picador, 1985, 14.
(4) Göttler A., Oravecz J., Tornyánszki È. (Kultúrgorilla). Liberty Bridge, New Urban Horizons (Catalogue of Hungarian Pavilion at 16th Venice Biennale). Budapest: Ludwig Múzeum, 2018, 11
(5) (6) (7) Szemerey, Samu. From Nuisance to Key Players – Civic Stakeholders in Urban Development. In Liberty Bridge, New Urban Horizons (Catalogue of Hungarian Pavilion at 16th Venice Biennale). Budapest: Ludwig Múzeum, 2018, 117
(9) Instagram, #eiffeltower, retrieved 03.08.2018