Heritage Protection in Socialist Hungary #writings

Architecture between History, Memory and State Doctrine

After WWII, Hungary witnessed the very historical moment in which the massive unfolding of modernism coincided with the rise of a new totalitarian regime. The political takeover of Soviet power led to the implementation of new visions in an unprecedentedly radical manner. The dogmatic and often unreflected reasoning of the authoritarian state had the tendency to go to extremes whatever the agenda dictated. Typical examples of this were the oppression and persecution of reluctant citizens as well as the relentless execution of big urban transformations. The latter included the erection of large prefabricated housing schemes as well as the over-dimensioned roll-out of heavy industries. In fact, ‘industrial sites are still several times (the size) of the average western European city (Bertaud, 2013). The state concentrated on what was ‚new, fast and large in scale.‘ (Benkö, 2019). Hence, funding generally neglected the historic city. It is therefore not surprising that relevant literature on architecture and urbanism is largely concerned with the new as the main phenomenon of socialist times.

On the level of state ideology, historical cities were equated to the capitalist past. ‘The official political rhetoric disowned the inherited arrangement of civil institutions and their buildings.‘ (Benkö, Kissfazekas, 2019, 13) These had to be renewed in order to overcome detrimental patterns of society. To do so, the  ‚general „erase and replace“ maxim of modern architecture‘ was applied, (which) took place in areas either damaged or destroyed in WWII or demolished on purpose.‘ As a consequence, ‘old, small-scale centres of the past‘ and ‘large-scale buildings (alien to the environment) were standing eye to eye with each other.’ (Benkö, 2019, 15). A telling example is Óbuda where 2-storey houses were replaced with more than 10-storey high panel blocks. (image 1)

Òbuda, 1967 – Népszabadság fotóarchivum – Foto: Erdei Katalin (image 1)

The ‚new‘ was, however, only one part of the equation. Existing buildings continued to play a crucial role. Especially in the housing crisis after WWII they represented a large share of the available housing stock well into times of massive prefabrication. Until 1960, 78% of all Hungarian apartment tenants in Hungary lived in buildings that were built before 1945. (Population Census, 1964, 19). 

Additionally, what remains less noted is that, despite the overarching doctrines, many cities were subject to diverging if not opposing approaches. Whereas some cities showed the tendency to embrace (near-) tabula rasa measures Budapest has witnessed only a few radical transformations within its central areas. Among the medium size exceptions, we find the Parade Square (Felvonulási tér) (image 2) which has been since renamed „Ötvenhatosok tere“, owing to the victims of the 1956 revolution. The square was established in 1951 by „cutting out“ terrain from the „Liget“ city park and turning it into a paved plateau (85×360 m). For its construction, a church (Regnum Marianum by Kotsis Iván 1926-30) and a theatre (Városligeti Színkör, 1908) has been demolished. An 8 meter high Stalin statue on a 9 m tall pedestal has been built in its centre. 

1956, 1st May, Parade Square, Foto: Fortepan

But what happened to the existing urban fabric in Budapest? This, as we will see, very much depends from which perspective we look at it. One the one hand, the city, has in fact faced a long-term erosion of historical sites. Entire neighbourhoods were excluded from requalification and placed under the growing pressure of new developments in the periphery. Historical parts were cut off from the body of the city and turned into isolated fragments. One the other hand, however, a considerable amount of historical building were saved from demolition, we even find cases in which active heritage protection has prevailed i.e. relevant restoration programs have been conducted. In fact, if we look at the central areas of Budapest today, we see a city mainly from the 18th and 19th century, not of the 20th century. The question arises whether the lack of financial means had been the main reason that prevented a renewal of the historical city? 

The closer we look, the more it gets apparent that there is more to the sphere of the Hungarian socialist regime than tabula-rasa and the housing estates. There was a part of the system that willingly preserved existing structures and within this people that managed to keep up the pre-war traditions of institutionalised heritage protection on some level. One major example has been the preservation of the building ensemble around Batthyányi square (image 3). Here, seven buildings from the second half of the 18th century could be spared from demolition. Gyula Ortutay, director of the National Center for Museums and Monuments remembers the high pressure of the ruling leader Mátyás Rákosi, who, in 1952 asked Ortutay to come to his parliamentary office. ‘One day – Rákosi said – Comrade Stalin may be visiting Budapest. What is he going to see on the Buda side entering this room? Church towers beside one another? The churches of St. Anne and the Nuns of Elisabeth must be demolished.’ When Ortutay insisted on their heritage value Rákosi ended the conversation replying that ‘in this case they will collapse during the construction of the subway.’ Both churches, as well as the whole building ensemble are still standing today.

Batthányi Square 1960, Foto: Nagy Gyula (Fortepan)

Heritage in the service of state doctrine?

As surprising it may seem, heritage protection did not vanish under the pressure of the new doctrines per se. Quite the contrary! ‚Although not as a main priority, it could be integrated into the socialist value system.‘ (Jankó, 2011, 41) As evidence we find many statements in specialised literature about this very issue. In 1970, for instance, Császár Lajos illustrated the underlying reasoning as follows:

‚Nowadays, in the struggle with outdated worldviews, it is the fundamental task to develop a new historical picture which is based on the ground of Marxism and is understandable to everyone. Monuments, due to their documentation value, play a significant role in this endeavour. (…) With their help, we can better and more accurately understand reality so that intuitive conclusions are able to unfold social lawfulness and finally the socialist truth. […] The respect for the values ​​created by our ancestors, preserved for our future generations and the correct evaluation of own age are able to take out the wind from the sails of nationalism and help to directly build a consciousness, a sense of socialist homeland.” (Császár, 1970)

From this statement we understand that heritage protection was seen by some as potentially useful for building socialist society. The other way round, socialism was seen by some practitioners (at least, as it was publicly stated) as beneficial framework in opposition to the ‘capitalist world’. As such, author and theorist Dr. Géza Barcza, stated in 1969, that the comprehensive heritage protection bill, worked out in 1942 but only entering into force 1949, could impossibly been made lawful in capitalist times. This, he explains, is due to the new social circumstances after the change of the regime, that allowed this law to become the first legislative decree of the newly founded Presidential Council. 

It’s important to highlight that such statements have been influenced by the general antagonism against capitalism which was used to justify (and sometimes transfigure) decisions at that time. As such, art historian Derzsényi indirectly disparages (putative) principles of capitalism in his explanation of the transformation process towards the socialist vision. ‘The individualistic nature of architecture in the realm of capitalism – i.e. often individual in style – was replaced by the urban and landscape-oriented endeavour of the socialist society. Thus, also heritage protection has to be detached from the short-term, ad-hoc actions of the daily work, and can be embedded into the new urban perspective.’ (Dercsényi, 1980, 12)

We could even go one step further: Heritage protection as professional practice had supposedly its most flourishing time during socialism. Indeed, until 1949 not even 50 building were listed as protected heritage. Many of those, additionally have  been located outside the actual state territory (after the Treaty of Trianon, 1920). As such ‘we can talk about a large-scale development of modern Hungarian heritage protection only after 1957. Only then did the concept arise, which had linked the construction industry to important cultural policies and has drawn all the  consequences in terms of legislation, organisation and contemporary modern methodologies.” (Dercsényi, 1980, 8) 

This new development had the claim ‘to work on a scientific basis in contrast to past-glorifying methods of the 19th century’ and as such was willing to employ archaeologists, historians and art historians. Hungarian preservationist, by this, apparently distanced themselves from Polish restoration practice, which, had rebuilt contemporaneously the almost completely destroyed Old Town of Warsaw by means of detail drawings and photographs – and if missing – by means of paintings, vedute or etchings.’  (Dercsényi, 1980, 30)


(Dercsényi 1960) – Dercsényi Dezsö, „Tiz év magyar müemlékvédelme“ („Ten years Hungarian heritage protection“), in: Magyar müemlékvédelem 1949-1950 (Hungarian Heritage Protection 1949-1950). Budapest: Országos Müemléki Felügyelöség Kiadványai I., 9-28 (1960) 

(Dercsényi 1980) – Dercsényi Dezsö, „Mai magyar müemlékvédelem“ (Contemporary Hungarian Heritage Protection, Budapest: Magvetö (1980)

 (Balázs 2011) – Balázs Péter, „Budapest területének fejlödése, 1945-töl napjainkig“ („The development of the territory of Budapest“), Budapest: ELTE IK Térképtudományi és Geoinformatikai Tanszék (2011)

(Jankó 2011) – Jankó Ferenc, „Motivációk, célok és konfliktusok a szocialista műemlékvédelem városformálásában“ („Motivations, Goals and Conflicts in the City Formation of Hungarian Heritage Protection“) In: A város és társadalma. Budapest: Hajnal István Kör Társadalomtörténeti Egyesület, 39-51 (2011)

(Császár 1970) – Császár Lajos, „A szocialista müemlékvédelem elvi kérdései“ (The Theoretical Questions of Socialist Heritage Protection“) in: Magyar müemlékvédelem (Hungarian Heritage Protection), Budapest: Országos Műemléki Felügyelőség Kiadványai VI. Budapest, 77–82 (1972)

(Benkö, Kissfazekas 2019) – Benkö Melinda., Kissfazekas Kornélia, „Understanding Post-Socialist European Cities: Case Studies in Urban Planning and Design“, Budapest: L‘Harmattan Publishing (2019)

(Marosi 2019) – Marosi Ernő, “A Magyar Tudományos Akadémia és a műemlékvédelem” (“The Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Preservation of Monuments”), Budapest: MTA Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont Művészettörténeti Intézet (2019)

(Varga 2013) – Varga Orsolya, “Örökségfigyelő Műemlékek Ideiglenes Bizottsága – A magyarországi műemlékvédelem története – II. rész”, https://oroksegfigyelo.blog.hu/2013/10/22/muemlekek_ideiglenes_bizottsaga (accessed 29.03.2020)

(cover image oroksegfigyelo.blog.hu)

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