PROFESSUR FÜR ARCHITEKTUR
UND STÄDTEBAU —

PROF. KEES CHRISTIAANSE

ETH Zürich – Institut für Städtebau
ONA G41 – Neunbrunnenstrasse 50 – 8093 Zürich
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MODELING POST-SOCIALIST URBANIZATION


THE CASE OF BUDAPEST

Project Description

The subject of this research is the specific symptom-group of Budapest's post-socialist urban development, planning and governance between 1990 and 2010. Everyday experience offers a large number of seemingly disjointed and unsystematic micro-phenomena characterizing this period’s urbanization. The starting point of this research is the observation that these phenomena come together, and form a pattern.  The hypothesis is that their coexistence is not random but has to do with systematic background factors that can describe both interrelations between the different phenomena and the nexus between historical legacies, characteristics of the systemic transformation in 1989-1990 and the production of space following it. This hypothesis leads to the construction of a model in the form of three explanatory blocks. Each of these blocks establishes links between particular historical background conditions and the syndrome of Budapest’s recent urbanization. This abstract model demonstrates that the different micro-phenomena point towards convergent outcomes that can be described as urban development generated by market forces and private demand and lacking coherent visions on how the city should evolve.

 

Goals and Motivations of the Research:

1. Pointing out that the seemingly disordered facts admit of a systematic explanation. Unfolding this framework and, thus, establishing a grounded theory on the causal nexus between some of Budapest’s historical background conditions and the syndrome of its recent urbanization.

 

2. Exemplifying these macro-level abstract nexus through the in-depth case study of the “Corvin-Quarter” development, where the local government engaged in integrating a private investor-cluster into their district renewal program.

 

3. Investigating different models for the distortions of the role of public authorities in the workings of the market. The case under investigation reveals that, besides the two main models (corruption in the case of private-public cooperation and laissez-faire attitude towards private projects), a third model also exists. Even if the agreements between public and private actors are transparent, insufficient resources, lack of clarity in the division of authority and competence and political standoffs on the public side can result in the private actor taking the overhand, leading to unintended consequences or to the failure of the public interests within the project.

 

4. Providing the base for future comparative studies through establishing a model abstract enough in order to be separable from a reference to particular places and actors. It can, thus, be tested against other specific cases in the region and elsewhere.

 

Problem Statement

Post-socialist transformation is a widespread phenomenon with numerous variations. Even if the study is restricted to Eastern European countries, their recent developments vary depending on their distinct socio-economic contexts, historic path dependencies, and so forth. The first generation of studies from the 1990s and 2000s(1) tried to offer generalized accounts, but their success was limited, as a result of insufficient in-depth material to work with. The lesson seems to be that comparative work should be preceded by the establishment of a pool of thorough single case studies, based on which the comparison and synthesis can be then conducted. This is why I have decided pursuing the single case study of recent developments in my home town, Budapest.

 

Since 1989 Budapest has been undergoing a process of transformation comparable only to those around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and after WWII, in the 1950s. Whereas the first story was closely linked to a general trend towards urbanization, driven by the rise of industrial societies over Europe, and encouraged by the state, while the second was marked by an ideological blueprint forced on the country by a socialist great power, the recent developments have been generated by market forces and private demand.

 

Production of space of the  past 25 years generated rather particular symptoms, such as the near absence of large-scale projects of cultural and symbolic significance initiated and carried out by the public hand or the fact that urban development was mostly characterized by business-dominated development projects not integrated into any grand urban design. Beyond these conspicuous symptoms, everyday experience offers a large number of seemingly disjointed and unsystematic micro-phenomena. The starting point of this research is the observation that these phenomena come together, and form a pattern. The hypothesis is that their coexistence is not random but has to do with systematic background factors. 

 

Three Narratives

This hypothesis leads me to the construction of a model in the form of three explanatory blocks. Each of these blocks establishes links between particular historical background conditions and the symptom-group of Budapest’s recent urbanization. Constructing such a model is a work of abstraction: one has to set aside many particular facts in order to get a model capable of providing plausible explanations for the syndrome to be explained. At the same time, the model I have built is not a formal or quantitative one: it is abstract but verbal or qualitative, and it consists of three narratives. 

 

The first could be called the Socialist Urban Legacy Narrative. It shows that some of the main spatial-structural phenomena of the post-socialist transformation find a partial explanation in the contradictions of socialist urbanization. Here is an example. In their empirical study, the sociologist Iván Szelényi and novelist György Konrád found to their surprise that – despite the official propaganda according to which the socialist state has for its main aim to improve the position of the working class – amongst the residents of the new mass housing estates the bulk of the working class was nowhere to be seen. Rather, the new inhabitants were predominantly middle class people, such as professionals, intellectuals and bureaucrats.(2)

 

Szelényi’s and Konrád’s research has shown that new public housing was allocated systematically to higher income groups. This was one of socialist urbanization’s major contradictions. While replacing the market allocation of goods with an administrative allocation procedure was seen as a means of achieving a classless, egalitarian society, what it resulted in was a new kind of inequality, one based on access to redistributive systems. After the regime change, the inequalities produced by the socialist system were cemented by an overnight privatization of housing to tenants.(3) All tenants, whatever their social status and financial means, were given the same, heavily subsidized rate and could become home owners for the equivalent of their apartment’s annual rent. Furthermore, the introduction of the real estate market mobilized those better off, which has become the start of massive suburbanization in the 1990s, resulting in Budapest losing almost a fifth of its population along with a big proportion of its middle and upper middle class.

 

Socialist housing was inegalitarian not only in its allocation mechanisms but also in concentrating all efforts on mass housing satellites, neglecting the urban blocks from the period of promoterism, occupying the city’s second belt. Szelényi coined the term camelback urbanization to the resulting slum formation between historic centers and peripheral new towns, characteristic of the socialist city.(4) This trend was complemented by a parallel historical phenomenon. As the Polish geographer Bohdan Jałowiecki has pointed out(5), socialist enterprises have been involved in a „competition without a competitive market“, which resulted in them accumulating any kinds of resources, productive or not, even space. As a result, shortage of space had become a common phenomenon in the “economy of shortage”, a term coined by the economist János Kornai.(6) Furthermore, central urban areas became dotted by a hodgepodge of real estates in the possession of industrial firms. Thus, centralized spatial planning made but failed to fulfill the promise of rational land use, and this is another contradiction of socialist urbanization.

 

After the regime change most of the socialist industry collapsed. In the meantime, a return to market evaluation of real estates was carried out. Together, these two changes resulted in displacing what was left from the industrial enterprises to more remote areas. The resulting combination of  post-industrial wasteland and structurally weak, deteriorated neighborhoods confronted the under-resourced renewal programs of post-1989 local governments with immense difficulties. Consequently, public authorities developed a laissez faire attitude towards private investment, hoping that it will stimulate spontaneous redevelopment. Due to this, complemented by its favorable position within the urban topology and the availability and affordability of land there, the second urban belt has become the breeding ground for introverted cluster developments by private investors. This is how decades later socialism’s housing inequalities and irrational land use have led to an urban development mostly characterized by business-dominated development projects not integrated into any grand urban design.

 

However, this relationship is not mono-causal as my model’s second building block, that I will call the Decentralization Narrative, will show. In the party-state system all collective decisions, whether political or economic, were taken within a single, unified hierarchy. After the regime change, excessive centralization was replaced, in the name of democracy, by excessive decentralization. The municipal governance of Budapest was transformed into a two-tier system, with a uniquely powerful and autonomous district level. This was the result of a specific political power geometry. In the Spring of 1990, the national elections were won by the right.(7) In the Fall of the same year, the municipal elections led, in Budapest as well as in many cities of the country, to a victory of the liberals, a center-left party.(8) The right wing majority in the legislation, decided to weaken Budapest by passing a law devolving an unusually large part of municipal power to the district level. The law and the districts’ “my house is my castle” attitude made strategic planning impossible; city-level governance was lamed, and there was lack of clarity on the division of authority and competence between the city and the districts. 

 

At the same time, the modus operandi of urban planning remained largely unchanged, not properly adapted to the transformation of the economic and political systems. The resulting dysfunctional and retroactive planning regime, together with the absence of proper metropolitan governance, left Budapest without a coherent vision on how the city should develop. This, in its turn, contributed to the proliferation of business-dominated development projects not integrated into any grand urban design.

 

The third building block is what I would call the Kulturkampf Narrative; it establishes links between deep cultural and ideological cleavages left over from the pre-war period and not allowed to be openly discussed in socialist Hungary on the one hand, and the failure of large-scale projects of cultural and symbolic significance to materialize decades later, after the regime change. It does so by revisiting a Hungarian architectural debate of the 1970s, which led to the polarization of the community of architects, and contributed to the outburst of an all-out Kulturkampf in the 1990s, resulting in an ideological cleavage on how the Hungarian nation state should be represented by architecture and how its capital, Budapest, should be developed. 

 

Symbolically enough, the so called „Tulip-dispute“(9) marked the last year of the socialist regime’s ambitious 15-year-long housing program that targeted the construction of 1 million dwellings between 1960 and 1975. It emerged on the apropos of a newly erected mass housing complex in the provincial town of Paks. Young architects of the state planning bureau PÉCSITERV engaged vernacular traditions and applied ornaments in the form of abstracted tulips in an attempt to humanize the façades of the pre-fabricated blocks there. In the debate itself mainstream architects accused the ‘Pécs Group’ with anti-modernism, while the latter responded by charging their critics to be promoters of socialist nihilism. This didn’t allow for a rational debate on the housing problem which, being a politically sensitive topic, was not seen as desirable by the power-holders anyway. The Paks experiment was stopped by an administrative decision, and the ‘Pécs Group’ was dissolved. The marginalization of the fraction, rather than closing the book on populism in Hungarian architecture, led to its strengthening and to the stiffening of its traditionalist, anti-modernist position. 

 

The debate and its aftermath contributed to the renewal and intensification of the old polarization that marked the architectural as well as the wider intellectual community after 1989. It proved to become the first step towards an all-out Kulturkampf that divided architects into two warring camps in post-socialist Hungary, resulting in an ideological controversy on how the Hungarian nation state should be represented by architecture.(10) In the following years, this bitter division had its part – besides financial shortages – in the cancellation or recommissioning of many large-scale projects of cultural and symbolic significance – illustrated here by the examples of the new National Theatre and the Castle Area in Budapest. The National Theater project was launched by the Socialist-liberal coalition in government between 1994 and 1998; the constructions started under a competition-winning modernist design.(11) Once the right came to power in 1998, the construction works were stopped, and the Christian-nationalist government hastened to commission a historicizing design, reflecting its worldview.(12) As to the Castle Area, a competition was announced for a project to rebuild the former headquarters of the military high command, ruined during the Second World War. The winning project applied a contemporary architectural vocabulary, and it aimed at converting the building into a cultural and touristic center.(13) Again, the works were cancelled and replaced by plans to refurbish not just the military headquarters but other public buildings in the area, too, in their original condition, and to relocate Hungary’s executive power to the Castle area. The ideological division spilled over in both cases into a political stalemate, with unilateral decisions eliminating projects initiated by the other side. The lack of proper vision on how the city should develop and the frustration of large-scale public projects of cultural and symbolic significance, in their turn, upgraded the big investor projects, as local politicians were left with these to prove their voters the progress of the city and their district. 

 

The Model as a Whole

To recap: this research project, rather than starting out from hasty generalizations, takes the everyday facts of a unique story for its starting point. Based on these facts, and proceeding by abstraction, it leads to constructing an explanatory model with the aim of pointing out that the seemingly disordered facts admit of a systematic explanation. The model consists of three distinct building blocks: the three narratives I have described in the previous part of my presentation. Are these building blocks isolated from each other? Do they explain separate groups of phenomena? My tentative answer is no: the three narratives point towards convergent outcomes. No matter whether we begin by socialism’s monolithic power geometry, the contradictions of the socialist urbanization or the ideological cleavages suppressed by the regime, the narrative leads to the very same combination of effects in the post-socialist production of space. Rather than extinguishing each others’ effects, the three narratives describe mutually supportive stories and constitute a systemic interpretation of the changes characteristic of the relevant period under investigation. Their interrelations also become visible in the univocal cross-relations between some of their elements. For example: the rapid housing privatization was not only a response to legacies of socialist urbanization and a result of the transformation crisis – as indicated by the socialist urban legacies narrative –, it also proved to be a form of decentralization of the control over economic resources – in this particular case, apartments. 

 

Whereas the abstract model allows for the establishment of macro-level nexus, the relations are demonstrated through micro-level examples. Most significant amongst these is the detailed study of the “Corvin-Quarter” case, where the local government engaged in integrating a private cluster development into their district renewal program.(14) The case is interesting for the following reason. There are two main models for the distortions of the role of public authorities in the workings of the market. On the first, the authorities engage in a cooperative relationship with private companies, and those relationships get infiltrated by corruption. The second consists in the public hand’s laissez-faire attitude towards private projects. The case under investigation reveals the possibility of a third model. Even if the agreements between public and private actors are transparent, insufficient resources, lack of clarity in the division of authority and competence and political standoffs on the public side can result in the private actor taking the overhand, leading to unintended consequences or to the failure of the public interests within the project. Findings of this in-depth study fed back into the abstract model, further specifying it, and into the initial pool of micro-level symptoms, organizing its elements.

 

The Model’s Dual Character

The model’s three building blocks are abstract enough in order to be separable from a reference to particular places and actors. Their abstract character allows for testing the model against other specific cases in the region and elsewhere. At the same time, abstract as my model should be, it is a verbal (qualitative), rather than mathematical (quantitative) model, and aims at making the recent history of Budapest interpretable. Please note that the formal scheme introduced with the synthesis of the three narrative blocks should not be read as the very model I tried to build. It is rather meant to serve as a visual aid intended to facilitate the grasp of the model which is informal and, therefore, less easily manageable. 

 

The Model I am trying to build has, thus, a dual character. On the one hand, it is of a relatively high level of abstraction, and it is aiming at systematic explanation. On the other hand, it consists of narratives which have an interpretive nature. In his Tropics of Discourse(15), Hayden White discusses differences between “historical theory” and “speculative philosophy of history” – also known as “metahistory”, a term coined by the Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye. The “proper historian” seeks to explain what happened in the past by providing a precise and accurate reconstruction of the events. Thus, in historical research, reconstruction of objective facts is clearly superior to interpretation. In the “metahistorian’s” work, by contrast, explanatory and interpretative aspects of the narrative run together. Such a work offers both a representation of what happened and an explanation of why it happened as it did. White follows by stating that, in his point of view, “there can be no proper history without the presupposition of a full-blown metahistory by which to justify those interpretative strategies necessary for the representation of a given segment of the historical process.”(16)  Thus, interpretative, narrative and systematic methods can be jointly employed by historical research. Their combination helps to describe a specific history and to understand the causes behind its symptoms at the same time. In this particular case, the complex urban phenomena I am after can be described through story-telling, whereas the explanation of the macro-processes’ regularity demands more systematic, abstract methods. Pure story telling would not provide plausible systematic explanations and would not help future comparative work as it were not abstract enough, whereas plainly systematic and statistical methods would ignore the individual micro-narratives that constitute the starting point of my research.

 

Notes


(1) See for example:

 

(2) See: Iván SZELÉNYI, Urban Inequalities under State Socialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

 

(3) See: Housing Act LXXVIII/1993, 07.30.1993, On the introduction of the real estate market in general see: STEIGER, Otto (Ed.): Property Economics. Property Rights, Creditor's Money and the Foundations of the Economy, Marburg: Metropolis, 2008 and David STARK, László BRUSZT, Postsocialist Pathways. Transforming Politics and Property in East Central Europe.

 

(4) Iván SZELÉNYI, Urban Inequalities under State Socialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, p.148.

 

(5) Bohdan JAŁOWIECKI, Społeczne wytwarzanie przestrzeni, Warsaw: Wyd. Książka i Wiedza, 1988, p.195.

 

(6) See: János KORNAI, Economics of Shortage, Amsterdam, New York, Oxford: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1980.

 

(7) The Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) formed a coalition government with the Christian Democrats (KDNP) and the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP). See all parlamentary election results between 1990-2006: http://nol.hu/archivum/egyeni_valasztokeruletek_eredmenyei_1990-tol_2006-ig-544141 (Last accessed on: 10.12.2015).

 

(8) The Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) won in 18 of 23 districts in Budapest and also gave the first mayor of the city (Gábor Demszky, in office between 1990-2010). See all municipal election results between 1990-2006: http://www.visionpolitics.hu/index.php?page=oldal&cikk=49&lang= (Last accessed on: 10.12.2015).

 

(9) See: Virág MOLNÁR, Building the State: Architecture, Politics, and State Formation in Postwar Central Europe, New York: Routledge, 2013 and Máté MAJOR, Judit OSSKÓ (Eds.), Új építészet és társadalom 1945-1978 [New Architecture and Society 1945-1978], Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 1981.

 

(10) This was analogical to the outburst of a „war of ideologies“ between the Christian-nationalist and leftist political blocks. The philosopher János Kis coined the term „hundred years’ war“ in his account on the failure of the post-socialist Hungarian republic to describe the relationship between the political right and left in 20th century Hungary. According to him, two anachronisms, a political right yearning for the aristocratic inter-war period and a left unable to come loose from the socialist Kádár-period, contested and disclaimed one another in the decades following the end of socialism. See: János KIS, Az összetorlódott idő, Bratislava: Kalligram, 2013.

 

(11) National Theatre, Competition and Project, Ferenc BÁN, AD Stúdió, 1997-1998.

 

(12) On the National Theatre saga see: Mihály VARGA, Kudarc-sztori, http://epiteszforum.hu/kudarc-sztori (Last accessed on: 05.09.2015).

 

(13) Competition-winning project: Péter KIS, Plant Kft, 2004.

 

(14) See: Municipality of Budapest’s 8th District, Urban Renewal Program of Józsefváros, 1998.

 

(15) Hayden WHITE, Tropics of Discourse. Essays in Cultural Criticism, Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978.

 

(16) Ibid, p52.

 

2011-2016

Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation


Contact: Daniel Kiss