Communist-era architecture: the good, the bad, and the ugly

The architecture of the Communist period in Hungary (1949-89) was highly diverse; it’s a mistake to dismiss it all.

Communist architecture? Many people will immediately conjure an image of some soulless, gray block of neglected buildings topped with a five-pointed red star. Soviet-influenced similarities did exist, but architecture was far from the same across the Eastern Bloc. Each country’s housing stock was shaped by many factors, including its level of political independence, exposure to Western countries, and access to capital and building materials.

Communism in Hungary lasted for four decades, from 1949 to 1989. The start date is hazy because the Party encroached on the democratically elected government — using election fraud and intimidation — as soon as World War II ended in 1945. This Communist period is usually split into two. The first one consisted of a brutally repressive totalitarian regime that was closely aligned with and controlled from Stalin-era Moscow. The second, brought about by the revolution of 1956, was a meaningfully softer system. Though far from free or democratic, it provided more personal liberties and higher living standards, and also restarted relations with the West — under General Secretary János Kádár (1956-1988), Hungary was regarded as the “happiest barrack” within the Soviet camp.

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Budapest was badly destroyed after World War II. Seen above are the remains of the Chain Bridge and the Buda Castle.

During the few hopeful years after the war, socially minded modern architects drew up ambitious urban renewal plans and organized the rebuilding of the war-ravaged country. The worst case was Budapest, where 25 percent of the apartments were destroyed or rendered unusable, and most bridges, public and industrial buildings reduced to rubble. Apart from the reconstructions, a few beautiful modern buildings were also built in the late 1940s, including the bus station of Erzsébet Square (by then Stalin Square) and the construction workers’ union headquarters on Dózsa György Street.

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The graceful bus station at Erzsébet Square (then Stalin Square) was completed in 1949, a few years before the state banned modern architecture. Photo: Tamás Bujnovszky

With the Communist takeover came profound changes in architecture. In 1948, the Party banned all private practices so that architects had to join state-run design firms. These were split by specialization; for example, IPARTERV was in charge of industrial projects, while KÖZTI did all public buildings like universities and sports stadiums. Construction companies were also nationalized so that building materials and workers could be centrally organized. The quality didn’t suffer initially since the country’s top architects — István Janáky, Gyula Rimanóczy, and Károly Dávid among others — became the lead designers.

But architecture soon became a propaganda tool. The Communist leadership viewed the prevailing modern buildings as too functional and plain, not conveying socialist values and the true needs of the people. According to a Party functionary, the above mentioned bus station was simply “mimicking the villas of American billionaires in the Wild West.” The powerful Minister of Culture, József Révai, was even more dismissive, calling modern buildings “too expensive and ugly.” It came as no surprise that in 1951 the Soviet-inspired Socialist Realism became the mandatory style of architecture across Hungary. Instead of plain white boxes, the Party wanted joyful worker-heroes and columned porticos to decorate building facades.

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The Soviet-inspired Socialist Realism became the mandatory style of architecture in Hungary for a few years after 1951. Photo: Origo

With Stalin’s death and the De-Stalinization effort of Khrushchev, his successor, Socialist Realism was finished in architecture. In Hungary, it lasted for only about five years, too short a period to have much of an impact (with a few exceptions like Dunaújváros, a model city for Socialist Realism). Instead of dominating the skyline, these bizarre buildings today stand as a reminder of this strange period in history. It was also the case that some architects deftly maneuvered around the Party dogma and produced high-quality buildings like the University of Art and Design (1954) by Zoltán Farkasdy and Olga Mináry.

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Some architects maneuvered around the Party dogma and designed high-quality buildings like the University of Art and Design (1954). Photo: MOME

The 1960s brought positive changes. The Kádár regime infused some capitalist features into the economy while retaining the generous social programs like free healthcare and free education. For architects, it gave the freedom to design contemporary buildings, similar to those in the West (in the United States, this was the era of Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen, and Louis Kahn). Some of Hungary’s most graceful architecture dates to this period, including Lajos Zalaváry’s hauntingly beautiful public baths in Jászberény (1960-64) and György Szrogh’s sleek Körszálló in Budapest (1964-67). This was also the height of Brutalist architecture, those striking, monolithic concrete towers currently experiencing a global revival. My favorites are Elemér Zalotay’s observatory in Szombathely (1968) and György Jánossy’s hospital building (1962-69) in Kazincbarcika (though Hungary produced far fewer Brutalist buildings and memorials than neighboring Yugoslavia).

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Lajos Zalaváry’s public baths in Jászberény (1960-64) are among the most successful buildings from the 1960s. Photo: MMA

By the late ‘60s, the political focus shifted to addressing the country’s critical housing shortage. Previously, the Party created more living spaces the cheap way: by nationalizing 200,000 Budapest apartments (the vast majority of buildings) and then parceling them up into smaller units. The regime also relied heavily on private home builders to increase supply, which was ironic since the private ownership of real estate was opposite to communist ideology. But the situation became increasingly worse as displaced agricultural workers flooded into cities: between 1949 and 1970, Budapest’s population grew by more than a quarter and reached two million people.

The solution was a massive buildup of prefab high-rise units. 8-10 story gray blocks assembled from Soviet-designed slabs of reinforced concrete sprung up in all major cities like Miskolc, Pécs, Győr and of course Budapest. While the apartments did come with central heating and separate bathrooms — amenities previously not available to many residents — these lifeless, uniform, drab structures didn’t turn out a success. The apartments were too small and came with inflexible layouts and low ceilings. The barren outdoor spaces did little to cheer up residents. Between 1960 and 1990, nearly 700,000 such prefab units were built and today about a fifth of Hungary’s population lives in these apartments. (Comparable modular buildings existed in Western Europe too, but those were built with superior materials and the apartments were bigger and better equipped.)

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Nearly 700,000 prefab housing units were built in Hungary, mainly during the 1970s and ‘80s. Photo: ng.24.hu

These mass-produced standardized blocks left little to the imagination of architects. In fact, the last fifteen or so years of the Communist period (1975-90) wasn’t kind to architecture. The economic slowdown meant stricter budgets, fewer commissions, and a sense of apathy within the design firms. The result? Mediocre office buildings and residential houses. The biggest projects consisted of Budapest hotels — with the Kádár regime’s Western orientation came increased tourism — but these too tied the hands of local architects, in this case to the whims of foreign real estate investors.

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Forum, one of the many indistinct hotels that sprung up in Budapest in the 1980s. Photo: egykor.hu

A bright spot toward the end of Communism was the Hungarian organic movement, especially the uniquely expressive buildings of Imre Makovecz and some of his acolytes. Like others in the ‘60s, Makovecz was disillusioned by modern buildings and sought a more communal and humane approach to architecture. His eye-catching buildings featured archaic and biomorphic shapes and were made with natural materials like wood. My favorite is the funeral chapel at the Farkasréti Cemetery (1975), shaped like a human rib cage with the coffin placed in the middle. Makovecz became globally known with the dramatic Hungarian Pavilion he designed for the 1992 World Expo in Seville. (When Frank Gehry visited Budapest in 2006, he wished to meet Makovecz in person and a heartfelt rendezvous was arranged between the two.)

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Imre Makovecz's funeral chapel (1975) at the Farkasréti Cemetery. Repeating planks of wood form the shape of a human rib cage into which is placed the coffin. Photo: BTIRT

In part for political reasons, Makovecz’s buildings are held in high regard and some of them rightfully enjoy landmark protection status. Unfortunately, this is hardly true for other worthy architecture from this period, although it must be admitted that even the most successful Communist-era buildings haven’t stood the test of time. Second-rate materials, compromised technical solutions, and decades of neglect turned many of these into depressingly faded versions of themselves.

Last year, the local architecture community strongly protested the demolition of an inventive, glass-and-metal clad building from 1979; notwithstanding its merits, the state of disrepair made the (failed) case for preservation a tough sell. An added challenge of saving such buildings is that the general public has little love for Communist era architecture and mistakenly labels “everything” as Socialist Realism (“szocreál”). Perhaps this shows a lack of architectural literacy, but it’s also true that these buildings are hard to appreciate in such dilapidated conditions.

There’s no sign at the moment that the political leadership or the general public can or wish to divorce the unpleasant memories of the Communist era from its cultural outputs, which means that an important slice of Hungary’s architectural legacy will continue to gradually disappear right before our eyes.