Buda’s Castle District - Europe’s Grandest Reconstruction Project

  • 3 Mar 2022 1:55 PM
Buda’s Castle District - Europe’s Grandest Reconstruction Project
It’s surprising that the dramatic restoration of Buda’s castle and palace complex to its early twentieth century glory hasn’t attracted more attention, reports Mark Higgie for Xpatloop.com.

Many may not have noticed that, just before Christmas, it was announced that the project was set to move up a further gear: planning for the complete restoration of the palace buildings had begun.  The plan is to have the transformation complete by 2030.  The first impressive architectural glimpses of what the restoration will look like were released.

Buda’s castle complex is Europe’s second-largest (after Versailles). It’s hard to think of a comparably ambitious architectural restoration project anywhere, especially when you consider that it coincides with the extensive restoration of other parts of the Castle District.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Buda’s Castle Hill in Hungarian history.  Hungary’s kings established fortifications and palaces there beginning in the 13th century.  It was the scene of the clash of civilisations in 1686 when the European armies of the Holy League, marshalled by Pope Innocent XI, liberated Buda and later the rest of Hungary from the Ottomans after 143 years of occupation. 

Then it was the seat of the Habsburgs’ power in Hungary until the early 20th century, the palace steadily enlarging from the Baroque structure built during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa to its massive early 20th century form designed by Budapest’s great boom-time architects, Miklós Ybl and Alajos Hauszmann.  

Post-World War One, Hungary’s regent, Miklós Horthy, lived in the palace, which remained the centre of national political and social life. It was also the last Budapest stronghold under the control of German and Hungarian forces as the Soviets advanced into the capital during the winter of 1944-45.

The bitter fighting left the palace complex and the rest of the castle district largely in ruins.  Yet while the new communist authorities reconstructed the latter more or less consistently with the original designs – albeit with much ‘facadism’ – they saw the palace as symbolic of the former regime. 

The East German regime took the same view of the Hohenzollerns’ war-damaged Berlin palace and demolished it in the 1950s. The Hungarian authorities took a marginally less drastic approach, deciding to keep the palace complex, but to reconstruct and emphasise its pre-Habsburg elements while modernising the rest of it. 

That meant recreating some of the medieval sections, gutting the interior, radically simplifying the façade and dome and demolishing many parts of the complex which could have been restored, including the Habsburg steps at the main entrance, the castle guard house (főőrség) and the riding hall (lovarda). 

The original beautiful multi-paned windows were replaced with unsympathetic, ugly, single-paned ones.  The stripped-out interiors of the palace complex became the home to three cultural institutions, the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Library and the Budapest History Museum.

The result often inspires the reaction that it looks fine from a distance, but not so great close up.

After the 1989 changes, there was agreement across the political spectrum on the need to restore the castle complex to its former glory.  Népszabadság in 2006 reported that the socialist government of prime minister Péter Medgyessy aimed for its restoration according to the original Hauszmann plans by 2012. 

Nothing came of these plans, but the subsequent second Orbán government (2010-14) set about the same objective and began to make progress. 

The first project, begun in 2011, was the restoration of Miklós Ybl’s 1883 Castle Garden Bazaar.  Completed in 2014, the government then announced the launch of the Hauszmann programme, to restore buildings in the Castle District to their original design – though, initially, it wasn’t clear how ambitious the programme would be.

In the eight years since the programme’s launch, it has seen the restoration as the prime minister’s office of the baroque former Carmelite Monastery (later Castle Theatre – Beethoven gave a concert there in 1800); the complete reconstruction of Hauszmann’s castle guard house and riding hall, together with the interconnecting Stöckl staircase; and restoration of the wonderful King Matthiás Fountain (the ‘Budapest Trevi’), the Habsburg Gate with its spectacular bronze sculpture of  the mythical Turul bird, and the adjacent Statue of the Fishing Children.

Last year, the painstaking effort that went into the reconstruction of St Stephen’s Hall and the adjacent castle facades on the southern part of the complex was also completed. And work is currently underway to reconstruct three separate buildings close to the palace complex, Archduke Joseph’s Palace, the former War Ministry and the former Foreign Ministry.

At the northern end of the Castle District, the Hauszmann programme will also see the early 20th century neo-gothic Hungarian National Archives – with its marvellous Zsolnay roof – reacquire its tower, which was demolished after World War II damage.

A further major Castle District project – though not part of the Hauszmann programme – is the restoration of another spectacular neo-Gothic building, the 1904 former Finance Ministry on Holy Trinity Square (Szentháromság tér).  The building was badly damaged in World War II and only partly repaired.  

Its Jewish architect, Sándor Fellner, died amid the squalor and violence of the Budapest ghetto in January 1945. It’s to be hoped he will be suitably remembered when the restoration is completed.

Yet further improvement is on the way for Holy Trinity Square, the Castle District’s centre outside the palace complex.  Dominated by the splendid Mátthiás Church, the former finance ministry and the Baroque early 18th century plague monument, the square was long let down by a nondescript 1980s horror originally designed to house diplomats, later the Burg Hotel. 

In fact some of the diplomats who once lived in the building were Australians, who complained they were allocated accommodation in the Castle District’s ugliest building.  It was recently demolished and will be replaced with a new building whose façade at least will be sympathetic to its distinguished neighbours.    

Another of the mercifully few communist-era buildings in the Castle District was also recently demolished, the 1970s MVM electricity distrbution centre, a brutalist exercise in concrete, steel and glass, which stood out like a sore thumb on otherwise mainly baroque Nándor utca next to the National Archives.

There is one group which hasn’t welcomed the changes: the modernist architecture lobby.  Activists tried in both the above cases to block the demolitions, with protests being backed by the Castle District’s Leftist local government.

Mayor Márta Naszályi has also expressed strong opposition to the Hauszmann programme in general, arguing, as did the communist regime, that the castle and palace complex as it was before World War II destruction somehow symbolised the Horthy regime – even though Hauszmann’s construction was completed before the First World War.

It’s safe to say Hungarians overwhelmingly welcome the restoration of the Castle District and the replacement of communist-architecture with buildings sympathetic to the area’s historic architecture.  Certainly if Fidesz again wins office on 3 April, the restoration programme will continue energetically, with the positive spin off of making Budapest an even more attractive tourist destination. 

There would be doubts about the programme’s future if Fidesz is defeated.  In those circumstances, fans of Budapest’s historic architecture would hope that the Medgyessy, not the Naszályi view on the Castle District’s restoration, would prevail.

Mark Higgie is a former Australian ambassador to Hungary and is the Europe correspondent of The Spectator Australia @markhiggie1

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