BUDAPEST — A polarizing project by the government of Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orban to turn the city’s historic park here into a museum district has produced its first building: the House of Music, Hungary.
Designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, the cultural center, which opened on January 23, offers exhibitions, classes and concerts. A permanent interactive show guides visitors through the historical development of Western music; celebrates the contribution of Hungarian composers like Liszt, Bartok and Kodaly; and traces the tradition of Hungarian folk music back to its Central Asian roots. A room, painted in the colors of the Hungarian flag, presents videos on the political history of the country and famous athletes, with the national anthem in soundtrack.
Yet beyond the glass walls of the Maison de la Musique, which are enlivened by reflections of construction elsewhere in the park, this new building is mired in controversy.
Critics said government plans to turn the 200-year-old city park into a museum district are disrupting the natural environment, depriving residents of much-needed public spaces and raising concerns about corruption. But those behind the project say the site has always been more than a public park and the venture is Europe’s biggest urban development project. In a speech, Orban described the transformation as an “unfinished work of art”.
In 2012, Orban’s government announced an ambitious plan to transform the park, in poor condition after decades of neglect, into a five-museum district. The estimated cost at the time was around $250 million, but it had ballooned to almost five times initial projections by 2017.
There had been a virtual consensus that the park needed work, but the government and park conservationists disagreed on the fate of the park’s natural features.
A special legal designation allowed the project to circumvent existing development rules, meaning the Budapest municipality had little say in the government’s plans. And legislation passed by Orban’s party placed the park under the responsibility of a newly created state corporation controlled by its allies. Sandor Lederer of K-Monitor, an anti-corruption watchdog, said public records indicate the House of Music alone cost Hungarian taxpayers up to $100 million.
“The project is a good example of how public investment worked under Orban,” Lederer said. “There are no real needs and impact assessments; citizens and affected parties are excluded from consultations and planning.
He added that poor planning and corruption have benefited companies widely seen as Orban’s clientele, saying: “Not only present generations, but also future generations will pay the costs of another pet project. d’Orban”.
Laszlo Baan, the government commissioner overseeing the project, declined to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman said in a statement that the government had so far spent 250 billion Hungarian forints, or about 800 million dollars, for the project. Fujimoto’s office did not respond to an interview request.
In 2016, private security guards clashed with park wardens over the future site of the Maison de la Musique. Gergely Karacsony, an opposition politician who was elected mayor of Budapest in 2019, did not attend the unveiling of the House of Music on January 22, which took place on Hungarian Culture Day, a national celebration . The building, he wrote on social media, was not born of culture, but of violence.
In a radio interview, Karacsony recently compared building in a public park to urinating in a holy water porch: “You can do it, but it ruins why we’re all here.
Orban, however, has sought to frame the Museum Quarter as a legacy project, and he has used it as a cudgel in his own war against what he sees as the cultural decline of the West. In unveiling the House of Music, he attacked critics of the park’s transformation as leftists opposed to beauty.
“The Hungarian nation never forgets the names of those who built the country,” Orban said in a speech at the ceremony, adding that critics do not remember, “because the Hungarian nation simply kicks them out of its memory”.
He added that the national elections in April would be “a period” that would end the debate on the future of the park.
Since returning to power in 2010, Orban and his allies have taken over state media, as well as most of the country’s private media, to promulgate far-right conspiracy theories, attack critics of the regime and advance Orban’s culture war (which has also reached academia and the arts.) Hungarian cities are currently covered in political advertisements featuring Orban’s main political opponent as Mini-Me from the Austin Powers films.
Orban’s political machine interprets culture as “something to be occupied or conquered”, said Krisztian Nyary, an author who grew up near City Park. “They are only able to think in terms of political logic, but the culture is different.”
He added: “Do we need a House of Music? I do not know. I see it’s a beautiful building, and I’m sure they’ll have some exciting events, but he doesn’t belong there. The park’s repurposing transforms its function, he said, jeopardizing a valuable natural environment that served as the “lungs” of surrounding neighborhoods.
The park is bordered by the sixth and seventh districts, which according to Gabor Kerpel-Fronius, deputy mayor of Budapest, have the least green space in the city. The Museum Quarter, he added, could have been planned elsewhere, such as in a rusty run-down area nearby.
Imre Kormendy, an architect, was president of the Hungarian Town Planning Society when the Museum Quarter project began. He quickly learned that the government had no intention of seriously consulting stakeholders, he said.
“Naïve professionals like me had no idea that this project had already been decided,” he said. “Even the Guggenheim wasn’t built inside Central Park. Why should an urban park be burdened with such development? »
Still, Eszter Reisz, who raised his family in the area, said the park’s development was “fantastic” compared to its previously neglected state.
For Klara Garay, a 71-year-old biology professor who has lived near the park for decades, the repurposing of the park epitomizes the general climate in Hungary. She has been protesting the redevelopment of the park since it began.
“I feel hopeless,” she said. “This country is morally at such a low point.”
Although the House of Music aims at community building and education, the conflict surrounding its genesis is a reminder of why many of Hungary’s most famous musicians – such as Bartok and Gyorgy Ligeti – left the country.
“Hungary’s political past has been very problematic in certain phases of its history,” said musicologist Felix Meyer, who heads the Paul Sacher Foundation in Switzerland. Many talented musicians in the country, he added, have chosen to live in the West.
“It’s as simple as that,” Meyer said. “Hungary was a small country and could be very repressive, and not everyone felt appreciated. They are great minds, very liberal minds, people who needed space and opportunity, so it’s only natural that they had great careers outside of Hungary.
Renowned Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, who went into exile for more than a decade to protest Orban’s policies, said over the phone that “the way Orban supports culture is very selective”. Schiff added that Orban “will support whatever follows him, anyone who joins the bandwagon.”
Orban’s government, Schiff said, tried “very hard to change history and change facts, but it would be better to work on that, to admit faults and mistakes.”
Asked if he would consider returning to Hungary if Orban was ousted in April, Schiff replied: “Yes, definitely.”
“I would love to come back,” he said. “This is where I was born, it’s my mother tongue and I deeply love Hungarian culture.”