It was about a year ago that I first encountered two new programs launched by the Orbán government: the “National Castle Program” and the “National Mansion Program.”
The castles we are talking about here are actually late medieval fortified structures, built for the defense of the country. They were especially numerous along the border between Royal Hungary and the Turkish occupied center of the country. The structures in Szigetvár and Eger are perhaps the most famous. It was in Szigetvár that Suleiman the Magnificent died in 1566, as did the captain of the fort, Miklós Zrínyi/Nikola Zrinski, the Croat-Hungarian military leader who led his troops to their death instead of capitulating. Eger, the scene of a Turkish-Hungarian encounter in 1552, was memorialized in the popular novel by Géza Gárdonyi, Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Both are tourist attractions, so it made sense to put them at the top of the reconstruction list.
The government will salvage 35 fortified castles and renovate 34 mansions. All told, 93 billion forints will be spent on these two projects, “mostly from money coming from the European Union.”
The justification for these two projects is that they will boost tourism. The government estimates that the renovated mansions will attract an extra 800,000 visitors, and an additional 600,000 visitors are expected at the fortified castles. Fifteen billion forints will have to be spent on hotels and services near the structures which, the government hopes, will come from private entrepreneurs. Viktor Orbán assigned János Lázár to supervise these projects. He, in turn, entrusted Undersecretary László L. Simon with the task, but Simon was fired a couple of weeks ago for incompetence.
Most of the fortresses are in terrible shape. Once Hungary reclaimed the Turkish-occupied part of the country at the end of the seventeenth century, the structures no longer had any purpose. They could conceivably have been turned into estates since each of these fortified castles had a so-called “residence tower” (lakótorony), which at one point was occupied by the lord of the castle himself. But these uncomfortable old buildings were eventually abandoned in favor of mansions in the countryside or residences in the capital. And after the soldiers left, the locals pilfered the stones and bricks of the castle to build houses nearby. (This is how most city walls have disappeared over the centuries.)
To what extent should these structures be reconstructed? This question has been the subject of furious debate for a long time between those who consider extensive reconstruction a falsification of history and those who argue for complete reconstruction. The government’s emphasis is on tourism, not the sanctity of architectural history. And visitors are not going to flock to see piles of stones. Therefore, most of these fortresses will be more or less rebuilt. This is certainly true of the fortified castle of Diósgyőr.
Readers who want more information about this government initiative should take a look at an article titled “National Castle Program: Removal of ruins or falsification of history.” Here we learn that at least two of these fortresses will be completely reconstructed and that six will be partially reconstructed. In 17 cases only a section of the former structure will be reconstructed. Nine, most likely buildings too far gone, will receive some treatment to stop further deterioration.
The reconstruction of the fortified castles may make some sense commercially, but the renovation of the mansions is questionable for several reasons. At the moment these fairly decrepit structures, most of them built in the nineteenth century, are not architectural masterpieces. Most eventually were used as schools or were even cut up into apartments or offices. Something ought to be done with them, but should they be completely renovated on mostly EU money? What does the state intend to do with 34 mansions? I fear that the plan is to sell them at a favorable price to domestic and foreign friends of the Orbán government. We mustn’t forget that István Tiborcz, Orbán’s son-in-law, is now in the real estate business and is involved in the sale of the Schossberger Mansion to a billionaire Turkish businessman.
There is another suspicious aspect of the National Mansion Project. In the last few months the number of officially recognized historic buildings has ballooned. The reason for adding more mansions to the list is simple. A construction company who wins a bid to renovate a historic building can charge up to 400,000 forints per m² both for alteration and construction, while for a non-historic building a company can charge only 320,000 for construction and 220,000 for alteration. In brief, more money can be squeezed out of Brussels if the mansion is of some historic significance or is deemed an architectural masterpiece.
The latest outrage is the government’s change in the payment schedule for construction work on these projects. The original understanding was that for projects designed to stimulate the tourist industry 30% of the amount bid could be received in advance. In April the government changed the regulation. Companies involved in these projects could get 50% of their money up front. On Monday the government decided that, without replacing a single brick, the construction companies could be paid in full. As far as Magyar Nemzet knows, “the European Commission is taking a dim view of this practice,” although at the moment the cost is being borne by the Hungarian taxpayers since Brussels will pay only when all work is finished, which in some cases may be only in 2022.
The mansion project may seem lavish, but in fact it is seriously underfunded. It costs an average of 400,000 forints per m² to build an ordinary house in a fashionable section of Budapest. To renovate these residences is extraordinarily expensive. According to the former chief of the office that used to handle issues connected with the country’s cultural heritage, the only sensible move would be to sell these state-owned mansions, as is, to domestic and foreign buyers who would undertake their renovation under strict guidelines. The money allocated for these houses, 1.5 billion per structure, might be enough to guarantee that the roofs don’t leak or perhaps it will cover the cost of an assessment of the physical state of the structures. But if that is the case, what will happen to the money the Hungarian government is giving from its own resources to the construction companies for the renovation of these buildings? A good question.