For a surprisingly long time Central European cities have been perceived, both in the West and in the region itself, as gray, homogenous, and generally uninteresting. Predominantly associated with prefabricated housing and monumental social realist architecture, they have been often analyzed wholesale, without acknowledging their unique local aspects and the various, sometimes diametrically different, ways of implementing Soviet guidelines and policies. In recent scholarship, as well as non-academic publications on Central European cultures, we notice a much needed shift of perspective on (post)socialist urbanities (see, e.g., http://ahea.net/e-journal/volume-6-2013/27) and the rehabilitation of socialist architecture (see, e.g., Filip Springer’s Źle urodzine: Reportaże o architekturze PRL, Karakter 2012). Virág Molnár’s Building the State: Architecture, Politics, and State Formation in Postwar Central Europe (Routledge, 2013) is an important addition to the ever growing body of literature that rejects homogenizing perceptions of postsocialist cities and challenges the reader to think beyond such widespread preconceptions.
Molnár investigates the changing relationship between politics and the built environment in two Central European states: Hungary and the former German Democratic Republic. She analyzes various ways that architecture and urban planning were mobilized politically in the service of both social modernization under communism and the later postsocialist transformations. Molnár’s focus is on architecture “as a profession and an arena of social knowledge production not simply as an aesthetic discourse or technical practice” (16). She combines strategic case studies with historical ethnography and encourages the reader to consider her chapters as “analytical narratives” on the multifarious interactions between architecture and state formation.
Rather than delivering a conventional comparative study, Molnár illustrates various points of intersection of architecture and politics with select cases from (East) Germany’s and Hungary’s postwar histories. The chapters are organized around the following topics: architecture as a tool of political representation (socialist realism and postwar urban reconstruction in the GDR); architecture as an instrument of social reform (mass housing in Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s); architecture as a cultural medium to reclaim national identity (the multiple meanings of architectural modernism in Hungary in the 1970s and 1980s); and architecture as an urban strategy of “re-Europeanization” (rebuilding post-Wall Berlin).
The selection of the chronologically ordered cases is admittedly arbitrary, but nonetheless compelling and has left me wondering what other urban projects and buildings the author could have considered. If we were to imagine a sequel to this book with a reverse order – i.e., one in which the first and last chapters focus on Hungarian cases and the two middle ones on GDR cases – which urban plans and strategies would Molnár choose to analyze? Would the narrative remain the same or would a different selection of cases irrevocably alter the bigger story Molnár is trying to tell? The author stresses that despite the Soviet Union’s undeniable control over the region, its satellite countries developed their own unique strategies of (re)imagining and (re)building the state and that architecture and architects were particularly important in these processes. If we consider only the intersections of architecture and politics, Molnár’s argument would probably hold ground regardless of the choice of cases. If, however, we want to understand architecture, politics, and state formation in post-war Central Europe, as the book’s subtitle suggests, the selection of cases becomes not only instrumental for the book’s structure, but also highly political.
In her decision to pick several cases without placing them within a rigid comparative framework Molnár resembles a curator and, indeed, Building the State could serve as a great basis for an architecture exhibition. Molnár’s book stands out also because of the sensitivity and insightfulness with which the author approaches her topic. The actors she describes are not merely famous names, but personalities. Each chapter has its main protagonist as well as several supporting characters. In the chapter on socialist realism in the postwar GDR, Molnár not only points at the pivotal roles Kurt Liebknecht and Walter Ulbricht played in shaping the built environment, but also helps us understand what motivated them. In the two middle chapters, Máté Major emerges as the leading architectural theorist of socialist Hungary and Elemér Zalotay as Hungarian architecture’s radical visionary. Finally, Hans Stimmann is identified as the mastermind of post-1989 changes in Berlin’s urban landscape, eagerly applauded by a circle of so-called “Berlin architects” (Hans Kollhoff and Jürgen Sawade, among others) and criticized by prominent international architects (Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas) and architectural critics, particularly from the former GDR (Wolfgang Kil, Bruno Frierl).
Though she stresses the importance of architects and urbanists, and places them among the main actors behind state building strategies and practices, Molnár is far from glorifying them as a group and reveals countless cases of elitism, corruption, or sheer opportunism among the professionals. She also demonstrates the falsity of the widespread belief that architects in socialist countries were separated from the professional debates in the West. Hungarian architects, for example, were integrated into international professional networks since the 1950s (109) and had both institutional and informal access to architectural discourses beyond the Soviet Bloc. It is precisely because of the international nature of architectural discourses in general that this particular type of professional is so fascinating to study within the context of the Cold War and post-1989 globalization. As Molnár argues, “professionals … are always compelled to look beyond national boundaries but are then confronted with having to apply their knowledge locally, caught up in the local power dynamics of their society.” (16) Through her focus on select architectural discourses at various points in Hungary’s and the GDR’s postwar histories and by scrutinizing the articles, interviews, and manifestos of leading Hungarian and (East) German architects, urbanists, and theorists of the time, Molnár demonstrates that architecture is “not merely a reflection but an instrument of social modernization and political power; it is broadly deployed to physically construct and periodically reproduce a new political system” (16).
Agata A. Lisiak is the author of Urban Cultures in (Post)Colonial Central Europe (Purdue UP, 2010). She is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the TRANSFORmIG project at Humboldt University in Berlin and currently a Junior EURIAS Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.