NEW, OLD TOWN

Some weeks ago, I took the train to Dunaújvaros (that’s Danube New Town, formerly Sztálinváros) the purpose-built industrial town some way down the Danube in central Hungary. Under Soviet rule, Dunaújvaros was used to showcase the socialist perfectibility of Hungary, even after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution eminences were taken on hospitality tours of Hungary’s largest iron and steel works and the wide, dappled avenues lined with Socialist Realist apartment buildings.

Left to rust after The Change of System, or System Change (note the linguistic implications of these terms for denoting the end of Communist rule here in Hungary) it has latterly undergone reinvention as a city of culture (though not as a City of Culture – that honour will be bestowed upon Pécs in 2010). Dunaújvaros now has its own Institute of Contemporary Art, artists’ studio complex and the International Steel Sculptors Colony. There’s something pleasantly apposite and self-sustaining about this particular process of regeneration. The iron and steel works supports the artists with materials, and in turn the works are bought by the local council and installed in public spaces, like the sculpture garden on the banks of the Danube.


No Gehry or Foster destination architecture here, nor the kind of apparently well-intentioned, yet fundamentally-insensitive attempts at Critical Regionalism you might find in British post industrial city centres under a process of regeneration. This low-key town’s prime tourist pull seems to be the beautiful view across the Hungarian plains.


The Hungarian Government, like that of Britain, clearly recognises the regenerative power of that thing, culture, though, and the ease with which cultural regeneration segues so easily with commercial development. The National Theatre* and the Palace of Arts on the Pest bank of Lágymányosi Bridge are the cultural luncheon meat in a commercial sandwich that is regenerating the Ferencváros district, just north of the island of Csepel.


Here, as in other spots around the city, Budapest seems hell-bent on transforming its cityscape into the kind of glass-boxed, stone-fasciaed heterogeneity that better befits a modern European capital. Vodaphone and Morgan Stanley have already moved in. There’s a riverside redevelopment apartment complex, replete with the kind of architectural clangers (lack of provision of pedestrian access or most basic services and amenities) generally associated with British redevelopment projects. There’s also a good smattering of public art installed with the express intention of evoking, in ersatz style, the heritage of the area, and the deeply-emotive significance of the National Theatre in Budapest (it was demolished on a shaky pretext by the Communists in 1965). Despite these attempts at producing locality, this place, this strange shiny, landscaped enclave on the banks of the Danube could be anywhere. All they need now is a Big Screen like in Hull or Manchester – the cherry on top of all post industrial regeneration projects, I reckon – and the successful transformation will be complete.


* The National Theatre has long been a pawn in the game of tit-for-tat that is pluriform multi-party democracy here in Hungary. I’m going to resist recounting its chequered history here; those with a taste for the political absurd can go here to read the tale in full.

ERSATZVAROS




Déli pályaudvar is Budapest’s southern station. Reposed, it looks something like the clubhouse of an exclusive ski resort, collaged out of a colour-saturated postcard of 1967. It might once have been perched at the top of nearby Sas-hegy, supplying off-piste Jagermester and pretzels to Austrians with blonde eyebrows, in thermal unitards. It might have careered down the hill in a landslide sometime in the eighties, ended up wedged behind the var.

You’d be forgiven for not noticing its pedigree, though. From the metro station escalator, you’re flung up into stacked, interconnecting walkways, atria and quadrangles. It’s low-slung dimensions induce a cautious stoop. Like most public spaces in Budapest, it contrives to serve your most obscure consumer whims: antiquarian books, home chiropody kits, lace tableclothes, yellow polyester harem pants, tanning, alongside the usual Budapesti surfeit of pastry snacks, shot-sized coffees and fags.


Budapest’s transport interchanges collect all that is most salty and decrepit in this exceedingly salty and decrepit city. Déli is no exception. Linger longer than a speedy transfer from metro to vonat and you’ll emerge coated with a thin film of clag that is not quite wet and not quite dry.

From the curved tinted glass in the ticket hall there’s a brown panorama of the XIIth. The view from Déli is already distorted, vignetted, blurred as through the meniscus lens of a Soviet toy camera.

FUCKING UGLY BUILDINGS II


This is a detail from a house on Ings Road Estate in East Hull. My mum and auntie were brought up here, indeed my grandparents and uncle still live here, in the rubble of their vanishing estate, still reluctantly prospecting other places to live.. As a child, the houses here, built on the whim of social housing planners, always seemed pretty magical to me: half brick, half panelling, they seemed like exotic Swiss chalets from the perspective of a small girl who lived in a Victorian semi.

They’re going… going.. gone now. The whole area used to be council estate, but the Barrett homes are encroaching, land values have had increased (Hull, with its ever-proliferating regeneration programmes was a latercomer to the property boom), and the developers have razed the estate to the ground bit-by-bit to build newer, probably even dafter-looking homes.

REMEMBER A TIME BEFORE TASTE?


…Before our buildings went up with vectors shamphered, plate glass smoothed, lighting recessed.

For a time in the early nineties new corporate and civic architecture had Duplo-bright exoskeletons and superplastic panelling coloured through in a palette of crayons. There are still remnants of this kind knocking around the UK in suburban business parks and less affluent parts of the town centre, though they look pretty bashful at being overdressed next to their mausoleum-in-smoked-glass counterparts.


Budapest’s Lehel Csarnok, which I gather is locally thought of as something of an abomination (which well, it pretty marvellously is), is this stuff in excelsis: