Let’s talk about money today, specifically the incredible amounts of money the Orbán government is wasting on all sorts of nonessential projects instead of on healthcare, education, research and development, and the alleviation of poverty among a large segment of Hungarian society.
We have spent countless hours discussing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s football mania, which is reaching pathological heights with the construction of countless football stadiums that remain mostly empty during matches. But I have devoted less time to “prestige investments” that are supposed to be testaments to the glory of the “Orbán era.”
These prestige investments are all about proclaiming the greatness of the new era initiated by Viktor Orbán in 2010. Projects like the new museum quarters actually began as a much larger undertaking, which would have redrawn the whole map of the Pest side of the capital. Already during his first administration Orbán started to put his mark on the cityscape. And after 2010 his desire to remake Budapest has only intensified. His desire to rule the country from the medieval center of royal power in Buda’s Castle couldn’t be curbed despite weighty arguments against it. The Aquatic World Championship to be held in 2017 and the possible Olympic Games in 2024 will further alter the look of Budapest. All dictators love gigantic architectural projects that serve as monuments to themselves. Orbán is no exception.
But back to money. Orbán’s projects have all turned out to be vastly more expensive than originally projected. This is true not only of the cost of the stadiums but also of projects that are still unfinished. Here I would like to talk about one such project: the Aquatic World Championship.
I have collected a few figures, going back to 2014, on the cost of hosting the aquatic championship events. The center of the two-week extravaganza will be a new swimming pool complex, originally the breathtaking design of Marcel Ferencz, a well-known Hungarian architect. Since it was to be built alongside the Danube, it would have had a commanding place in the cityscape. Based on the maquettes, the place was described as “the new miracle” and “the jewel” of Budapest. The government official in charge described the building as “the symbol of Budapest and Hungary.” In addition, of course, other buildings had to be constructed and general improvements of the area had to be undertaken, but the optimistic organizers still believed that 23 billion forints would be enough for the whole project.
This sounded very low to people familiar with construction costs, as indeed it was. In May 2015 Magyar Közlöny, the official government gazette, revealed that the government had put aside about 50 billion forints for the project. So, the estimated cost doubled within one year. At that time, government officials in charge of the financing admitted that the swimming complex itself would cost not 8 billion but 23 billion forints. At the laying of the foundation ceremony, Viktor Orbán didn’t quite know what to call this stunning architectural structure. He thought that “palace” was too ostentatious and “komplex” was not a Hungarian word. “So, for the time being, we will just call it ‘aquatic center’ (vízi központ).” I think this description was too modest for such a stunning design. Or, perhaps he already knew something we didn’t.
A year later, new figures surfaced. By mid-2016 expenses had reached 90 billion forints. When Attila Mesterházy, an MSZP member of parliament, inquired about the projected total cost, it turned out that the non-profit company in charge of coordination had no final cost estimates for the project as a whole. In general, the Orbán government loathes revealing any of its activities. Practically everything is a “state secret,” preferably for decades. In this case the government was mum on the design changes that occurred mid-stream. It was suddenly decided that because Viktor Orbán hopes that Budapest will get the nod to stage the 2024 Olympic Games, the “aquatic center” had to be completely redesigned. Instead of the dazzling original design that could seat 5,000, the final building had to seat at least 15,000. Everything had to be changed. Even the entrance to the swimming pool had to be moved from the Danube side to Népfürdő utca. The new design, according to the architect, the same Marcel Ferencz, suddenly became “a huge box.” It is so big that ten ten-story apartment buildings could fit inside of it comfortably.
In January 2016, Origo announced the changes in the design in a fairly lengthy article in which one could see, as it turned out, somewhat idealized pictures of what the building will look like. There was a telling sentence in the generally upbeat description of the design changes: the building may be three times larger than was originally planned, but the cost must remain the same 20 billion forints.
Meanwhile, the construction of this monster continued, and by now the final shape of the building can be seen quite well. According to László Szily of 444.hu, it looks like a “depressing parking garage.” He can’t quite believe that “this something which was built from so much money and is so much in one’s face can be so unimaginative, hulking, maimed, and sad.” To break the straight lines, Ferencz added metal strips symbolizing waves, which in Szily’s opinion only exaggerate “the suffocating sense of hopelessness.” Szily thinks that “this parking garage is the symbol of the Orbán regime’s uncultured greed.”
Szily thinks that one reason the government had to skimp on the sports complex is because thousands times more money is being showered on Orbán’s immediate family and his cronies. I see this case, and some of the other cases not discussed here, somewhat differently.
All of these prestige projects start ambitiously: hiring world-renowned architects, for example, to design some of the buildings in the museum quarters. Then, when reality catches up with the megalomaniac dreamers, the plans must be scaled down. By now, for example, no one knows which projects will be built in Városliget and which will not. Orbán vetoed at least one that he didn’t like. The same thing happened to this new swimming complex. The creation of a truly outstanding structure is beyond the financial means of the regime. Of course, Szily is right that Orbán’s priorities have something to do with scaling back some of these projects because, indeed, fattening up his own family and his oligarchs is his most important consideration. Thus, in the end, Hungary ends up with shoddy, uninspiring buildings.
I should add that there is something else wrong with dictators when it comes to art and architecture. Since theirs is the final word, their ideas on art are stamped all over everything created during their rule. And, let’s face it, Orbán and his friends in power have abominable taste. It is enough to look at some of their creations to date, for example, the Hungarian National Theater. Don’t expect anything remarkable to be built while Viktor Orbán is in power.