March 29, 2023


In Budapest’s City Park, a museum district is taking shape

3 min read

For thirty years the offices of HungExpo, an events company, sat disused and dilapidated in Budapest’s City Park. In 2016 the building was torn down so that construction on the House of Music (pictured), a new exhibition and performance space, could begin. Close to Varosliget Lake, Vajdahunyad Castle and the Museum of Fine Arts, the institution, designed by Sou Fujimoto, a Japanese architect, finally opened in January. In the permanent exhibition, the site is described as “a tree of life…with a trunk and a crown of golden leaves on slender branches”.

As you approach the building, it looks as if a giant, gilded mushroom cap has nestled in the park; close-up, you see that some trees are even growing through pores in the roof. Inside, the park remains visible through the glass walls. Last month the design won the special jury prize at the mipim Awards, a prestigious international property event, becoming the first Hungarian project to claim the accolade.

The House of Music encompasses a permanent exhibition, a temporary exhibition gallery (yet to open), a music education centre and three performance spaces. The main concert hall is smaller than many of Budapest’s performance venues by design. “When you have a big hall, you need big names to fill it,” says Marton Horn, the director of operations. “Our intention here is to have more experimental concerts in all genres—classical folk, jazz, electronic.”

The permanent display tells the story of Hungarian music and has proved hugely popular already, with more than 70,000 people visiting in three months. It is interactive and absorbing: the visitor is encouraged to listen to the region’s unique folk instruments, to follow Gregorian chant in 13th-century manuscripts and to see how technology transformed music in the 20th century. A wonderful recent concert was inspired by Bela Bartok’s trip to Transylvania (then in Hungary, now in Romania) in 1914. The show brought together classical violin and piano pieces that Bartok based on the folk tunes he recorded on the expedition; the compositions were performed by superb traditional musicians from the region.

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The House of Music is the first part of an ambitious redevelopment plan called the Liget Budapest Project, costing €1bn ($1bn): the idea is to create a museum quarter to rival those in other European cities. A new, purpose-built Museum of Ethnography, designed by napur Architect, a firm based in Budapest, will open later in the spring and construction of a new National Gallery, designed by Japanese architects sanaa, is under way.

The endeavour has not been without controversy. Environmental activists sought to block access to the construction sites in 2016. Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karacsony, elected on a green agenda in 2019, promised to protect the park’s green space and prohibit any further construction beyond the currently planned buildings. The organisers have said that all the developments are replacing crumbling structures; they claim the new work will rejuvenate 80,000 square metres of park, with hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs and flowers. “Those who look at the project without political bias can see that reality refutes the worries,” says Laszlo Baan, the ministerial commissioner in charge.

The undertaking is bound up with politics, however. The regeneration of the park and the museums is a state-funded “grand project” spearheaded by Viktor Orban, the recently re-elected populist prime minister. He is also turning the area surrounding Buda Castle into a government district, forcing the National Gallery and the National Dance Theatre to relocate. Mr Orban’s critics argue that his aim is to leave his mark on the capital, rather than anything lofty or intellectual.

Museums can transcend their political origins, so long as they are thoughtfully curated and free from interference. No one much thinks of Giscard d’Estaing when they go to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris or Philip Stanhope when visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London. And the House of Music has a worthy theme: Hungary has a long history of great composers, conductors and performers and celebrating their excellence does not necessarily mean hewing to Mr Orban’s nationalist vision. In fact, the exhibition shows how Hungarian artists responded to their European neighbours and influenced them in turn. It is a reminder of culture’s ability to forge connections across borders.

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