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Budapest: You Can’t Build Anything Down

While America and the West are fixated on what they should tear down, Hungary looks to build up by restoring its architectural beauty.

Last August, Fox News host Tucker Carlson took his show on the road to Hungary after Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) invited Carlson to attend MCC Feszt in Esztergom. During his week of broadcasting, Carlson interviewed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, filmed a documentary titled Hungary vs. Soros: Fight for Civilization, and devoted segments of his nightly show to praising the Orbán government for its family and migration policies. He capped off his trip by giving a speech titled “The World According to Tucker Carlson,” which compared the current political conditions in Hungary and the West and argued that the egotism of Western elites have brought their civilization to its knees.

The 30-minute speech prompted all-too-common pearl clutching from liberal establishment media. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post claimed Hungary had “punked” Carlson, whom he called a “savvy purveyor of disinformation.” Joseph Peterson, a no-named assistant professor, also managed to get his take on Carlson’s speech—that it was “laced with White nationalist pablum”—published by the Post. Author Casey Michel, writing for NBC News, compared Carlson and Orbán to the Bad Orange Man—the worst possible insult from a left-winger.

What went unnoticed in Carlson’s speech, however, were his comments on Hungary’s aesthetic beauty and its rich, classical architecture. “I just can’t resist saying this because we’re standing in the middle of Central Europe, looking at this vista, which really moves me, looking at these buildings, which move me,” Carlson said. 

“The landscape of Hungary, a few Soviet remnants notwithstanding,” Carlson simply stated, “is pretty.”

“The buildings are pretty. The architecture uplifts. So this is another third-rail in American politics: you’re not allowed to note that our buildings are grotesque and dehumanizing,” he said. “Why are they bad? Because they’re ugly, and ugly dehumanizes us. Let me be more precise about what I mean when I say dehumanizing. Dehumanizing is the act of convincing people that they don’t matter; that they are less significant than the larger whole; that they are not distinct souls; that they are not unique; that they are not created by God; that they are merely putty in the hands of some larger force; that they must obey. This is what all authoritarian movements do: ‘You don’t matter.’”

Carlson continued, “Ugly architecture, brutalist architecture, glass and steel architecture, Mies van der Rohe architecture, was designed to send that message. Not to uplift, but to oppress, and it is very noticeable. And this is never noted in the United States, which has, unfortunately, overtime has had its aesthetic sense dulled. We’ve been told it’s not important—what matters is GDP.”

“I’m not against wealth, for sure,” Carlson clarified, “but I would trade it to live in a pretty place that uplifts your spirit by looking at it.”

Whether Carlson was aware of it or not when he delivered his keynote address, he hit on a subject matter central to the Orbán government’s nation-building project. Since 2010, Hungary’s government has made a concerted effort to restore Budapest’s classical architecture, much of which was destroyed in World War II and further dismantled under decades of Soviet control in the war’s aftermath.

What Carlson said about the totalitarian Soviets’ approach to architecture is irrefutably true. Beautiful aesthetics, in art, architecture, and elsewhere, had the power to turn people toward the transcendent—toward things above the Communist Party and thus out of its control. The Soviets couldn’t have that, which is why Nikita Khrushchev lambasted architects, predominantly those outside of Russia but still behind the Iron Curtain, for designs that “resembl[ed] a church or museum.”

The Soviets thought they could cut their subjects off from the transcendent by keeping their eyes fixated on the gray pavement and providing no incentive to look up. For those who dared to do so, all they would see were brutalist buildings made of prefabricated slabs of gray concrete, reinforcing the utilitarian ethic that pervaded Soviet society. 

“Hungarians are acutely aware of the connection of architecture with both ideology and national identity due to their experience with Communism,” Stephen Sholl, a visiting fellow at MCC, told The American Conservative. “In almost every Hungarian city, massive rows of ugly block towers were built to house forcefully moved workers as a part of the Communist’s rapid industrialization plans. Scores of traditional village and folk houses were destroyed and replaced with square houses known as ‘Kadar Cubes,’ named after the Communist Premier.”

“The Hungarians thus could strongly see the connection between architecture and politics and how it can be used by hostile powers and governments to attack national identity,” Sholl added.

The foundations of both the buildings and the entire Soviet system were not built to last. In the two decades that followed Hungary’s independence from the Soviet sphere of influence, however, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the hand-picked ideological successor of Hungary’s Communist Party, did little to restore Hungary, and its capital city of Budapest, to its former glory.

When Orbán returned as Hungary’s prime minister in 2010, the Fidesz-controlled government created public programs to restore some of Hungary’s most cherished historical, cultural, and political sites.

One of their first major projects was the restoration of Kossuth Square and the Gothic Revival-style Hungarian parliament building, called the Országház, that it surrounds. Over time, development around Kossuth Square had greatly reduced its size. A parking lot cut across the large, green lawn—dying in some places and overgrown in others—right up to the Parliament’s massive wooden front doors. The white stone exterior of the building, on which 100,000 men had labored for about a decade at the turn of the 20th century, had been neglected and blackened by filth.

In the summer of 2011, the Hungarian Parliament decided to renovate both the square and the parliament building. The Steindl Imre Program, a government-supported non-profit, was created to actualize the parliament’s vision. The group cleaned Országház’s façade, rebuilt the historical monuments and buildings that had been replaced by Soviet brutalism, and ripped out the parking lot and replaced it with well-manicured lawns and gardens.

Just across the Danube from the now-sterling parliament building, the government got to work renovating the Várkert Bazár, a beautiful Neo-Renaissance-style garden and building complex that began construction in 1875 and opened to the public in 1883. In the decades that followed, the Bazár had deteriorated so badly that it was eventually forced to close in 1984. For nearly 30 years, the Bazár was left to rot. In 2011, the renovation of the Bazár began. By 2014, it was reopened to the public, restoring part of the Buda Castle Quarter that has been designated a World Heritage Site in 1987. Now, Hungarians and tourists enjoy the beautiful water’s edge of the Danube at one of the Bazár’s tiered gardens or bustling cafes.

There’s still much work left to be done, however. In 2014, the Hungarian government launched the National Hauszmann Program, aimed restoring the rest of the Buda Castle District. The castle, over 750 years old, was once the seat of Hungarian kings, Ottoman sultans, and Habsburg monarchs. Prior to World War II and the building’s exploitation by the Nazis and Soviets, the castle also housed the office of the prime minister and the residence of the Hungarian head of state. After the building was badly damaged in World War II, the Soviets decided to tear down many of the district’s buildings—even those that were not badly damaged, in keeping with their vision for Hungarian society.

The project, named after the Hungarian architect who was largely responsible for the district’s design, seeks to restore the “representative, cultural, and touristic function of the Castle District.” Some of the complex’s buildings, such as the Carmelite Monastery, the Royal Riding Hall, and the Royal Guard Building have already been rebuilt, and many of the district’s stone façades have been wiped clean. The Castle Palace itself has yet to be restored.

The government has further plans to restore the historical buildings around Saint George’s Square and reconstruct the Palace of Archduke Joseph.

“Hungary’s restoration projects are some of the most ambitious of such projects in the Western World,” Sholl said. “Unlike similar projects in Germany, such as the rebuilding of the Stadtschloss (Royal Palace) which was only a reconstruction of the façade (with an incongruous modern façade on the rear). Hungary’s restoration projects often entail an entire reconstruction of a demolished or severely damaged building.”

During my sit-down with Balázs Orbán, one of the prime minister’s top advisors (no relation), we discussed the different aspects of the government’s efforts to preserve Hungarian national identity, in which, Orbán said, “Historical, architectural restoration also plays an important part.”

“During the 20th century, during the two world wars, during Nazism and communism, they destroyed everything that was beautiful and put ugly architecture in its place,” Orbán told me. “So reversing that and restoring the architecture is part of rebuilding an independent and sovereign Hungary.”

Indeed. Brick and mortar tell the story of a civilization as well as any book can. Often times, it can last much longer. Architecture can be a reminder of what matters of civilization are worth our attention.

Beautiful churches remind us that God is, or should be, central in our daily lives, at the individual, communal, and national levels. Well-designed squares and blocks built around churches and basilicas are architectural reflections of what a civilization believes to be a properly ordered life.

The status and style of our government buildings reflect the state of our civilization. Well-kept, ornate buildings show our nation’s capacity to bring order from chaos.  Dirty and crumbling state buildings are a sign of decaying traditions and a declining way of life. The brutalist buildings that either literally or functionally replace them are a sign of the state’s further detachment from its people and its past.

While the West is fixated on what it should tear down, let’s hope Hungary keeps its focus on what it can build up.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.