Architectural tastes

I think it tells a lot about Viktor Orbán and Ferenc Gyurcsány to analyze their ideas about public buildings and personal office space. Orbán lavishly restored a half bombed-out Sándor Palace in the heart of medieval Buda, close to the Royal Castle, where he was planning to move. After all, this was once upon a time the headquarters of Hungarian prime ministers. During the war, the palace was practically destroyed, but during 1989-90 the exterior was restored. The inside was still awaiting restoration. An incredible amount of money was spent on painstaking restoration of everything from wallpaper to furniture. Everybody said that neither the location nor the size of the Sándor Palace was suitable for a prime minister’s office, which by now had at least ten times as many employees as those of the pre-war Hungarian prime ministers. And, it was difficult to approach on the top of the Buda Hill in an area full of tourists. But never mind, Orbán’s megalomania prevailed, or rather it would have prevailed if he had won the elections in 2002. But he lost and the new prime minister announced that he had no intention of moving into the Sándor Palota whose restoration was more or less finished about the time of the elections. Instead the new government decided that the palace would serve as the office of the president.

Orbán was also traditional in decorating his chosen, historically referenced, office within the parliament building. Extensive research produced pictures of the original furnishings of the room which, needless to say, were not exactly designed for today’s needs. After all, the building was finished in 1904. Orbán ordered copies made of the desk, chairs, and rugs from the room that Prime Minister István Tisza first occupied. Again, an incredible amount of money was spent for a totally impractical office one hundred years out of sync with the times. Orbán’s successor looked around and said: I couldn’t work here and immediately moved out into a nice big room elsewhere.

Otherwise, as far as I can remember, Viktor Orbán had no other architectural plans for the needs of the central government and the ministries. He has never been a forward-looking man, and he’s a technophobe. Recently he proudly announced that he doesn’t not carry a cell phone, he doesn’t know how to use a computer, allegedly he doesn’t take any work home, and he doesn’t discuss politics with his wife. A couple of years ago he was showing a television reporter around his house (very selectively, mind you) and there was a desk that wouldn’t be large enough for a high school student nowadays; the tiny little desk was completely bare. Perhaps he had another big desk full of papers somewhere else, but we were not allowed to see that. However, I do believe the cell phone and the computer story. He claims that he starts his day with the sports page, while Gyurcsány goes to the internet and checks out the different papers’ political news.

But back to the story that triggered these thoughts. There was an architectural competition to design a new government complex to house the government ministries; the winner was announced yesterday. (For those of you who don’t keep in touch with the daily news, consider this a cliffhanger; I’ll return to the topic of the plans for the government buildings.) Currently, the Hungarian ministries are scattered all over downtown Pest (left bank of the Danube) in totally ill-suited buildings. Most of them were very elegant apartment houses built about a hundred years ago; most likely their original owners either perished during 1944-45, emigrated after 1945, or the buildings were simply nationalized. To give an idea of how wasteful the usage of these old buildings is, here are some figures. Currently, the twelve ministries occupy 213,000 m² while the new planned government quarters will have only 160,000 m². We haven’t talked here about the heights of the rooms, just the square footage.

Gyurcsány decided to do something and suggested building a new, modern government complex where all the ministries, with the exception of the prime minister’s office, would be housed. Needless to say, the opposition’s constant attack found in this project a new and, admittedly, easy target. "The new aristocracy" is spending the exploited masses’ money on its own comfort. The spokesman of the Fidesz, a very combatant young man called Péter Szijjártó, who is not shy when it comes to stretching the truth, already announced that the new government quarters would be financed by the co-payments that were introduced in doctor’s offices and hospitals. Of course, this is an outright lie since these monies remain with the doctors and the hospitals.

Gyurcsány is a thoroughly modern and practical man. He wants to sell the very expensive and unsuitable ministry buildings and use this income to help reduce the national debt. The new buildings will be modest and energy efficient. Their upkeep will be less expensive than what the government now spends on its buildings. An area which today is cut into half by the rails running to the Western Station will be reunited. Moreover, Budapest, which badly needs green spaces, will have a nice new park which the reporters are already calling "Central Park." Not in Hungarian, in English.

Perhaps it is fitting to finish this note with a funny story about Ferenc Gyurcsány I heard from László Kéri, a political scientist and commentator. Gurcsány and his wife were invited to the Kéris for dinner. They were having cocktails when suddenly Gyurcsány said: "There is something wrong with the door of your refrigerator. It opens the wrong way. Give me a screwdriver and I’ll fix it." The Kéris had moved into their residence and found the refrigerator door this way. They never gave it a second thought. But yes, upon reflection, the door did indeed open the wrong way. The Kéris had a heck of a time convincing the country’s prime minister not to spend his time changing the door of their refrigerator.