The era of Communism in Eastern Europe conjures up a variety of images. And well to the fore is inevitably the architecture. It is generally held to be inferior to whatever the West achieved, benefitting as it did from capitalism and democracy. The truth, as ever, is that the two may not have been so different, and this can be seen in the city of Budapest.
As ever, we transport aficionados check out the local infrastructure. And what is found shows that Communism did not necessarily sweep away the old, and nor was the new as bad as might be imagined.
Standing proudly on the fringe of the city centre is Nyugati Pályaudvar, the West station, built by the Eiffel company in the late 1870s. The facade has been retained and restored, and only on close inspection can the nasty add on be seen: the West End shopping centre, a forthright slice of capitalism in action (the centre is out of shot, well back to the left of the view shown).
This may not accord with stereotype, so perhaps new build will prove more fruitful? Across the river in Buda, there is just that: Déli Pályaudvar, the Communist era South station, a study in concrete and glass, with an accompaniment of a sunken centre roundabout and a slightly brutal office block to round it off. This, surely, is proof of the poor architectural standards of the Communist East.
However, on brief reflection, this conclusion does not stand serious analysis. Consider the new build that the railway gave the UK during the same period: stations like Stafford, also with much concrete and glass, and now looking faded. Or, more significantly, Birmingham’s New Street, with its accompanying shopping centre and tower block so large that it covers the concourse completely, removing any natural light.
Budapest’s new build station has perhaps one flaw: it has many flights of steps and little level or ramp access. But then, so do many of its UK contemporaries, or at least they did before the installation of lifts.
Communism may have had its unpleasant aspects. But architecture isn’t necessarily one of them. I’ll revisit the subject later.