Europe, Headlines

HUNGARY: Cultural Heritage Held Hostage to Real Estate

Justin Hyatt

BUDAPEST, Jun 4 2008 (IPS) - A standoff over the likely demolition of a cultural centre is only the latest in long wrangling over the fate of Budapest’s crumbling cultural and architectural landscape.

The major stumbling block for city authorities and other agencies that want to protect old buildings has been the high level of autonomy that local municipal districts enjoy.

The roots of this go back to 1990, when it was thought after the fall of communism that the 23 city districts would work best decentralised. As a consequence, the central city government has less authority than do those in Paris, Berlin or Prague. Budapest’s more independent local districts are under-funded and vulnerable to corruption.

This situation will not be cleared up anytime soon, as a two-thirds parliamentary majority is needed to change the existing arrangement, says András Zsuppan, a local reporter who has been closely following the events. Political parties are closely tied to individual districts, and it is in their interest to maintain status quo.

One of the latest to come up for demolition is the popular cultural centre Kultiplex to make way for a new hotel, and a castle wall section dating from the 15th century, considered in the way of construction of a parking garage.

Kultiplex has been home to cultural and film-related activities since the beginning of the 20th century. It also houses a radio station, cinema, café, restaurant and concert hall.

The new construction is not planned on the location of Kultiplex, but in an adjacent park, due to a law that says the overall quantity of green space may not be reduced. So if Kultiplex is not converted into a park, new developments on the existing park would become illegal.

Zoltán Jakab, who is in charge of programming at the cultural centre, says it would be absurd to replace such an embodiment of culture with “a few park benches.”

The city authorities originally owned the property, but sold it to the district on the understanding that a university building was planned there. But now district officials are aggressively pursuing closure of Kultiplex to allow for construction of a hotel.

The Hungarian National Office of Cultural Heritage Preservation (KÖH) has turned down an appeal to grant the centre heritage protection.

Kultiplex is meanwhile seeking other avenues to stay functional, through legal claims that it has an operating licence from the district valid until 2010.

KÖH has a history of championing cultural and heritage preservation, but there has been a change at the top recently. This might also explain its decision to allow the tearing down of the 15th century wall just under the Buda castle to make way for a parking garage.

KÖH vice-president Tamás Fejérdy has said that without removing this section, construction of the parking garage would be untenable. He said they had sought the option that would bring the “least amount of damage possible.”

Since neither the city nor the government is offering significant financial support for renovations in the districts, the trend of opting for new developments over restoration is likely to continue.

In a frequent pattern, district municipal governments owning a lot of property lack the funds to renovate a building, and along comes a developer who puts down money to replace a historic building with brand new construction.

The area hit especially hard is the seventh district, home to Budapest’s Jewish quarter and to Europe’s largest synagogue.

“These new buildings rarely fit in with the surrounding environment,” says Judit Holländer of the civil association OVÁS! (Protection), founded in 2004 to stop demolitions in the Jewish quarter.

A few successes have come. Demolition orders on several buildings in this quarter have been overturned. A major breakthrough came Feb. 1 when a four-month moratorium was ordered on any structural changes to the quarter, while a new regulatory plan is worked out with input from all sides.

In November last year, French architect Michael Polge visited Budapest on behalf of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) International Council on Monuments and Sites.

Polge warned that should the area fail to maintain the ambience fitting its title, UNESCO would take away special status for the neighbourhood. The Jewish quarter is part of a semi-protected buffer zone because of its proximity to the UNESCO heritage site Andrássy Boulevard.

Polge proposed a tax incentive based on the French model, where new construction comes with a 19.6 percent tax, but renovations only at a 5.5 percent.

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