The House of Hungarian Music, a small glass-built venue with a roof like a fluffy pancake, is considered a center for a city steeped in music. It is a mixture of gallery, concert hall and outdoor performance space, it is designed as an open space, an open space in the woods, with a perforated roof for trees to pierce and for light shafts to go deep into the heart of the built by stitching. Witty, whimsical and seemingly weightless, it’s a delicate addition to Budapest’s Varosliget.
The House of Hungarian Music, designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, is part of the rebirth of Budapest’s Varosliget (or City Park), which was the focus of Hungary’s millennial celebrations in 1896, a thousand years since the Magyars country. The venue is the first new building in Europe’s largest new cultural quarter, but has also become entangled in the cultural wars waged by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The first thing to note is that this eccentric building is a real pleasure. The second – and I notice it a bit sheepishly – is that I was on the jury that chose the design. I raised objections at the time, initially against the project site in the park. Why, I wondered, in a city full of abandoned industrial buildings, could some of these not have been reused?
My next objection was that if this strange and difficult design had been submitted by a young, inexperienced practice, it could very well have been a disaster. It was fortunate that it turned out to be Fujimoto, an architect with real skill in creating delicate, surprising and ethereal architecture.
Spidery columns rise like trees to support a kitsch canopy, the underside of which sparkles with 30,000 random prickly golden leaves meant to look like autumn leaves. It is pierced through 100 tubes of anodized gold, which causes yellowish light to funnel to ground level. It’s quirky, eccentric and fun – though it’s unclear how well it will age.
The interior was not finished when I visited it, but the intention was clear: a series of exhibition galleries deep inside, and around them the glazed public spaces, the resident was always aware of the park outside. Circulation is simple, and revolves around the vortex of a spiral staircase that shakes weight as it rises through the height of the building, from a dense concrete corkscrew to a delicate cantilevered construction. A lot of heavy engineering went into making this building look so effortless.
The main concert hall is completely glazed, which you would think could be an acoustic nightmare, but Nagata Acoustics (the firm that designed Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles) ensured it worked with a toothed glass wall. It was done in New York, where the musicians at Jazz at Lincoln Center play against a backdrop of the city’s skyline. In Budapest, the set is the park, as it is for the whole building. There is a tradition of alfresco music in the long, hot Hungarian summers and this pavilion in the park will surely be a popular spot.
Perhaps in part to allay residents’ fears about the extent of this development, the park itself has been completely rethought. What was once a shabby, dusty, neglected (though well-used) space is now an excellent piece of green infrastructure. The playgrounds are as good as anything I’ve ever seen, cycling and running routes have been carefully planned, plant completely changed – something for those who may never visit a museum. Its site on a series of natural fountains has been fully exploited by using the hot water to heat the buildings.
It may seem like a fine, whimsical structure in a park, but all architecture is political. Orban, who has been in power since 2010, sought to rebuild Hungary’s status, forging an identity at the forefront of cultural wars, using populist nationalism and Christian rhetoric to assert itself as a defender of “European values”. image.
The rebirth of the Varosliget, which will also include a large, futuristic museum of ethnography, a strange design by local architects Napur, and a new national gallery by the Japanese practice SANAA, has been criticized, especially by Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony , as an unnecessary environmental burden.
Hungary, however, had a major impact on music, from composers Liszt to Ligeti via Bartok and Kodaly, but especially on his pedagogy, the teaching of music through innovative, human and intriguing techniques, and on attitudes to the understanding of music as a cultural and physical phenomenon. The part of this building dedicated to teaching recognizes this tradition. It also raises the specter of the notion of music as a tool for building a nationalist and political agenda. The historical exhibition here tends towards this idea of nationhood, but perhaps we can forgive it as proud of its great cultural impact.
It may be a political project, an attempt to recreate culture in a new image, but it has brought in international architects and brought a fiery neighborhood to life. In the new concert hall, the audience will look out over the backdrop of the Vajdahunyad, a fairytale castle from the original 1896 exhibition. Its Gothic skyline was an attempt to coagulate Hungarian historical architecture into one proto-Disney landmark, an architectural distillation of the dream of a greater Hungary (then still a reality), of Transylvanian castles, Gothic abbeys and Renaissance palaces. The styles may change, but whimsy, the sentimental scenery and the politics remain.
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