Tulips and Concrete

Virág Molnár’s Building the State is compelling, and it aptly demonstrates why there has been such a high degree of academic interest in the built environment and material culture of the former socialist world. Like the best works on the subject, Molnár’s work is firmly situated in distinct locales (East Germany and Hungary, in this case) but it also takes seriously international dynamics that go beyond the Eastern bloc. Emphasizing the materiality of state formation, the author aims to show how architecture was mobilized for particular purposes, first under socialism, and then during the so-called post-socialist transition.

The book’s argument is that architecture’s role in the process of state formation in East Germany and Hungary has changed over time: from “a tool of political representation” (in the 1950s, a decade marked by the crowning of socialist realism) to “a weapon of social reform” (during the all-consuming preoccupation with the housing question in the 1960s), as a medium for the “recovery” of national forms (in the 1970s), and, finally, in the 1990s, as a platform for integrating the former socialist states into a European community. Architecture as instrument, in other words, and not merely a manifestation of power. “As such, in both periods,” Molnár writes, “architecture became part and parcel of a grand civilizational project: of communism in the 1950s and of capitalism and re-Europeanization in the 1990s (169-70).

The author makes a good case for organizing the book as she does: four case studies that highlight specific professional debates and, in her view, functions of architecture, with two drawn from Hungary (1960s-1970s) and two from East Germany (the debates on socialist realism in the 1950s, and the projects on Berlin after 1989). The expansive chronological emphasis is another departure from conventional approaches, and much of what is lost in detail and historical nuance is gained in terms of sharp and suggestive analytical insights.

But I will focus on the Hungarian chapters here, simply because the East German debates are largely familiar to specialists (and East Germany is mainstream in the study of socialist states). I also do so because the Hungarian chapters constitute, in my view, the major contribution of this book. We do not merely obtain a competent overview of the emergence of industrialized building techniques in 1960s Hungary, but an intelligent analysis of the architectural profession’s ambivalent response to it. Industrialization was a powerful answer to the housing dilemma (shared across the Second World), but it was also a kind of bind for architects who dreamed of experimentation. And whereas, say, in unreformed Albania, experimental souls (like the architect Maks Velo) were thrown into prison for invoking modernism, in Hungary experimentation became possible.

Take, for instance, Elemér Zalotay’s radical ideas about a massive “strip house” of collective housing (which at one point found a sympathetic audience in none other than the Hungarian Communist Youth Organization). Though ultimately rejected, Zalotay’s bold visions were seriously debated among Hungarian architects. In this part of the book, the professional debates come alive, and we get a sense of the enormous stakes at play—stakes that can be easily overlooked in histories of architecture that gloss over the economic and political context. It is where the author’s insistence on the analysis of professions, not merely architectural models, delivers the most resonant example.

In addition to the state-sponsored industrialization effort, Molnár tells us, in Hungary, “self-help” housing construction—informal self-built dwellings—continued to pop up in villages, small towns, and the outskirts of larger cities. Aesthetically unassuming, these structures were scorned by architects, who saw them as tasteless displays of provincialism. But the dwellings spread so widely that some observers thought they were actually standard prototypes, like the monotonous factory-made housing units dotting the larger cities. Standardization, in other words, took place even when it was not sanctioned from above. Self-help housing was embarrassing to a state that was supposed to provide everything; it exposed the underbelly of the socialist construction industry: shady deals, scavenging for building materials, and “private” activities that formally had no place under socialism – not even the Hungarian “goulash” variety.

The discussion of informal construction under socialism is important for another reason. Molnár rightly resists the urge to see informal construction as a kind of “political resistance” against the socialist state. Instead, she sees material manifestations of social inequality and an architectural elite that was largely a product of the system itself – its idealism, arrogance, and elitism. Architects, the author concludes, “inadvertently ended up supporting the state’s simplified approach to housing construction” (101).

Similarly insightful is the discussion of the Tulip Debate (1975-6), a period when “a group of architects in southern Hungary embarked on building a prefabricated housing complex with a ‘human face’” by introducing surface decorations (tulips, stripes, TV-shaped frames). The ensuing heated arguments among Hungarian architects on this issue, in Molnár’s analysis, show that modernism was reshaped in Hungary according to the specific demands of the state and the architects. This kind of adapted modernism allowed Hungarian architects to reclaim cultural links to the West, as well as their pre-Soviet past. Still, “vernacular” flourishes on prefabricated concrete panels could be found far and wide, from the outskirts of Tirana to Central Asian capital cities (as many issues of Arkhitektura SSSR will attest). And while Molnár insists that her local examples have broader implications for what she refers to as “Central Europe,” one wonders how the interpretation presented in her pages would hold up to an expanded field encompassing countries that lacked an immediate claim to modernism (or to “the West”).

A related question emerges: At what point is modernism so transformed as to become something else? The Hungarian examples presented in this volume are so rich as to make the reader wonder whether it is necessary at all to continue to locate modernism (or, in this case, “postmodernism”) behind the Iron Curtain, and thus mirror the anxieties of the architects under study. It would be worth here picking back up Juliana Maxim’s question (posed in a previous review in this forum): “[H]as modernism become our new de-facto operational category, the largest matryoshka of architectural history, able to accommodate within its roomy contours everything that was built in the 20th century’s second half, regardless of geographical or political context?” Molnár’s highly suggestive work seems to suggest that analyzing the obsessive relationship between major Eastern bloc architects and modernism can still produce results. But the gesture towards the study of institutions, professional imperatives and conflicts, and informal practices under central planning is far more compelling.

Elidor Mëhilli

Hunter College of the City University of New York


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