Hungarian Architects Between Totalitarian Regimes

The presence of the past is a very Hungarian
or rather Eastern European phenomenon.
We had no closure, nothing was carried through,
there is no continuance, anything may
become an actuality at any point.

Péter Esterházy

A few years ago the artist Gábor Gerhes made a black and white photograph series titled ZE or A Country about well-known Budapest residential buildings. The mysterious title refers to the secretive lives of these houses. According to a 1974 memo, the state security group of the Ministry of Interior operated so called “K” – konspirációs (conspiracy) and “T” – találkozási (meeting) flats in these houses. Although this series could be considered an architectural guide with beautiful modernist and eclectic buildings shot with a refined artistic sense; however, once we become aware of their mysterious lives, and also because they became a part of this collection by reason of their secret life, the audience has to face the fact, that unwillingly and unaware, they are day by day part of a common past which they would otherwise not want to be part of.

The material doesn’t state anything specifically, this is a general suggestion. By and large, it fits in the tendency that we have a lot of locations, collective historic crumbles, which have been neither discussed, nor explored. As much as I am not making a statement, these locations and houses offer their own stories. As absolute pride has locations, absolute shame may have its own locations too – I view these this way. They will never transform, regardless of the political dynamics. Scars always remain. I don’t think that this needs any additional explanation, they speak for themselves.1

The history of Hungary in the 20th century, full of dramatic turns, left its powerful mark on architecture as well. The characteristic features and the projections of the internal life of a certain political period are identifiable on some buildings almost down to the year. It is perfectly understandable for later generations to be curious, try and unveil the secrets, but also be motivated to overcome, create continuity with the past, if that makes it easier, or detach from it if the past proves to be a burden. Architecture of the city, even though it would be often preferred, cannot rid itself from its history so easily. Current discourse has the recurring theme of whether houses only have a material existence or are they able to carry poetic, spiritual meanings as well.

The artwork of Gerhes does not make a moral statement, nor does it want to provoke; it grotesquely questions the material existence of aesthetic spectacle – in this case, with the tools of creating a series, the context and background stories and the titles of the series.

The specific characteristics of the intellectual profession of engineering, which are inseparable from modern industrialisation and the urbanisation in the 20th century, provide an explanation to their social behaviour and the change of roles. The activities of an architect, in part, are artistic, individual and subjective; on the other hand, it is deeply embedded in the economic, political and cultural context and is inalienable from them. The work of an architect usually meets mental dichotomies: the simultaneous presence of common good and individual interest, service and self-actualisation, omnipotence and futility, the taste of the elite and that of the masses, pride and vulnerability, leniency and violence.

In modern industrial production, concentrated economic power as potential client is in the crucial interest of engineering (architectural) design. State commissions are especially “favourable” – even a state jobs – which are the most suitable to eliminate the risks of the free market and thus achieving the highest level of professional autonomy. In this respect military investments and developments of the 20th century, reaching a volume never seen before – from the US to Japan through Germany – gave a quick boost to the social prestige of engineering knowledge and activity. It may seem bizarre, but it is easily provable that it was not only wartime preparation but also demolition and reconstruction that brought high professional and economic yield for engineers.

The system of military commissions, which brings secure jobs so attractive for the engineers, is the most pronounced in dictatorial states, regardless of the ideology. According to the principles of the English-American “professionalism theories” of the 1940s (T. H. Marshall, Talcott Parsons and others), professional intellectual vocations are the ones which offer alternative solutions to the economic crisis opposing dictatorships, exactly because their intermediate, balancing and cultural role in the economic-political public sphere, and because their self-regulating organisations represent a special autonomic basis in the society. However, history mostly contradicted this assumption. In countries affected by the wartime prosperity, these groups – following their best interests – became obliged to the strong or even totalitarian state directly or through their professional organisations. Economic growth based on military development was tied to targeted state credit lines in Western democracies too, and in international trade transactions, jointly owned economic organisations, democratic and dictatorial clients and users oftentimes cross paths indistinguishably.2  It is therefore in the vital interest of a modern technocracy that the massive economic and political power remains, seeing the “anarchy” of the free market and liberal views as its main enemy – not only in dictatorial countries but also in Western democracies. During the 1930s economic crisis the US saw the formation of strong engineer movements in order to strengthen the positions of technocracy.

Because of the machine itself, architecture was now bound by its own nature to be prophetic. The architect’s interpretations would show the way to the right use of the great new organic resources.

–says Wright about the importance of the role of the engineer in his creed A Testament3, based on which he saw “the architect as saviour of the culture of modern American society.” The numerous examples of Deyan Sudjic’s book The Edifice Complex perfectly demonstrate this hypothesis. Sudjic mercilessly draws a parallel between the architectural ambitions of dictatorships and globalisation, as well as their star architects.

Both Koolhaas and Herzog have made more headway in Beijing than Albert Speer, the son of Hitler’s architect, who invested considerable energy in lobbying the city’s authorities to take up his plan for fifteenmile-long north-south axis for the city, with the Olympic Stadium at one end and a huge new railway station at the other linked by a series of tree-lined freeways.4

Architects and the benefits of war

Just like it was for the Hungarian economy and the construction industry, the increase in military industrial production was a real “life-belt” for Hungarian architects in the crisis-filled years after the First World War. “There is no Hungarian army and there is no Hungarian independence without Hungarian industry” – said Prime Minister Pál Teleki in his campaign speech in the spring of 1939. Investments large in scale and increased in pace on the one hand stimulated the development of new construction technologies and the prevalence of the rational, modernist view, but at the same time, the fate of architects became inseparable from tragic turns of the country, which was drifting towards war.

After the Trianon Treaty in 1920 which sealed the First World War, Central Europe became a politically vulnerable militarily vacuum with a lack of capital. The economic scissors opened wide between winning and losing countries. Hungary had to pay reparations to the Entente countries, which was only feasible by acquiring a large long term loan with a huge interest rate in 1923. After the economic crisis, which started in 1929, the Hungarian economy managed to show slow but visible growth from 1931 until 1936, mostly because of the increase of investments in the heavy industry to cater for German military orders5.

Quickly increasing knowledge and experience, based on previous skills and creativity, had a great significance, as a talented technical crew, engineers and workers became able to produce and develop complicated military machinery…6

Gyula Gömbös, first as Minister for Military Affairs from 1929 and then as Prime Minister from 1932, gained imperishable merit in facilitating economic growth by implementing swift measures towards army and military development. In his resolute government programme, “National Work Plan,” he draws up the ideal of a strong corporatist state. Although he often pointed out the differences, he obviously viewed Mussolini and the Italian fascism as an attractive example, which quickly stemmed intensive Italian-Hungarian military, economic and cultural cooperation agreements. By 1935, 13 military sites were operational in the country, although military production was strictly limited by the Trianon Treaty at the time7.

The confident Mussolini was strikingly popular – according to contemporary architectural journals – among Hungarian architects, as he favoured and supported modern art contrary to the conservative taste preference of the Hungarian culture policy. Italian fascism was not incompatible with classical antique and Christian values either, and it became “fashionable” in a wide political scale, both on the left and right.

The situation of architecture and architects must be enviable where the head of the state holds such beliefs about architecture!… Just like fascism wants to limit individual anarchic way of thinking with corporatist system, it wants to eliminate the anarchy of cities by setting up regional and country management plans.8

– writes Virgil Bierbauer, editor in chief of Tér és Forma (Space and Form), a rather progressive architecture journal, enthusiastically. In 1933, a conference titled “Country organising in light of engineering” was organised by a number of engineer and architecture institutions in relation with the directives of the National Work Plan. The conference’s lectures were published in a special issue.

Contrary to the relationship with Italy, the one with Germany was treated with reserved consideration. From Germany’s point of view, the preferred long term goal was inegrate the Hungarian industry into the German one and rather let agriculture develop independently. (In 1938, 32-33% of the Hungarian GNP was from industrial sources, and the same rate from agricultural sources.) But in 1937, when Germany started intense expansive preparations towards East (it entered into a military cooperation with Italy), a negotiation process started with the Hungarian leadership because of the increasingly alarming need for munitions. The cooperation was based on mutual interest: German need for supplies on the one hand and Hungarian demand to revise the Trianon Treaty and its territorial provisions on the other. The contracts, which seemed very promising at first, became more and more of a burden for Hungary and less and less feasible, the German Empire “proved to be a bad partner, forgetting its own duties one by one,”9 and Hungary already had a trade surplus of 40 million marks in 193810. Hungary took part in the German military cooperation mostly through industrial services and wage labour, even though apt technical staff was available, a significant amount of commodities was provided by the Germans and the Italians. German technological knowledge had a dominant role in the design and production process, Hungarian engineers experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of the situation, but the Hungarian industry desperately needed the commission. Towards the end of the war, the Germans tried to salvage the equipment of their factories in Hungary, or demolish them as a last resort, thus many factory buildings were empty by the time the “liberating” Soviet soldiers got to them.

The Hungarian government announced its so-called “Győr Programme” in this economic- -political context in March 1938, which facilitated the building up of a modern industrial basis in Hungary. Its crucial significance cannot be measured easily. The programme announced a large investment plan, with a credit amount of one billion pengoes11, 60% of which was planned to go towards development of the army and the military industry, and 40% towards other infrastructure (transportation, communication, electric systems) and various civic and social investments. It would have been impossible to provide the financial cover for the credit line for the 5 year plan and in fact for it to pay off without the spectacular economic data of the previous years (22% growth in the national income), the German military commissions and the hopes of reacquiring some of the territories lost in the Trianon Treaty. (In the autumn of 1938, according to the first so called Vienna Award – with approval from Germany and Italy – Hungary already reacquired some parts of the territories lost 18 years earlier.) „Győr Programme” had a direct and spectacular impact on the day-to-day proceedings of the economy and society, thus it favourably affected the architects and contractors interested in industrial and public developments.

Almost simultaneous to the economy development programme and the territorial gain, on 29 May 1938, the first “Jewish law” was implemented (entitled On the more effective securing the balance of social and economic life), which for example limited the number of Jewish people in the Chambers to 20%, and had a not the least subtle goal of weakening their proportion within the economic prosperity. But during the intense construction “fever” in the first few years of the World War, the professional interest groups became more and more politically active, and with time, when the gradually stricter “Jewish laws” were implemented, the fight for the large scale project started to become fierce among architects, and commitment to the regime played an increasingly significant part in these fights.

National Association of Architects

“Throughout history, one half of this country always follows the other half with weapons, alternating each other” – said architect János Wanner at the 1945 validation committee hearing, referring to the distinctive 20th century experience, that occupations and dictatorships just come and go in Hungary, and in their footsteps follow the favoured, who try and achieve success usually at the expense of those pushed out of power. Recalling the National Association of Hungarian Engineers and Architects may add some details to our knowledge about this curious power play.

Up until 1944–1945 there were thousands of formal and informal professional, religious and social associations, groups and organisations in Hungary. Associations of architects and engineers, of which also numerous existed, from small groups of friends to the Chamber, were forums for embedding engineer intellectuals into society, for public discourse and for debating professional issues; developing partly along the cleavages of theoretical or political orientation and partly along personal networks. These organisations played a crucial part not only in professional and social publicity and in maintaining a smooth relationship with economic and governmental decision-makers, but also facilitated internal professional debates. Contemporary journals and associate publications attest to these debates vividly with their still interesting and meaningful issues. Out of these different organisations, however, posterity almost exclusively focused on the CIAM group of “Bauhaus” architects; other organisations comprising the majority of architects, which were overwhelmingly not left-wing, seem to have been obliterated from common memory. This is no accident. In the spring of 1945, winning forces demanded the immediate dissolution of all associations and organisations related to the Horthy regime as part of the ceasefire agreement; these organisations, all of them generously classified as fascist institutions without distinction, were gradually disassembled with a number of regulations over the course of one and a half years. It was in the crucial interest of the increasingly strengthening powers with unfiltered influence which were working with Soviet help to destroy the old networks, and reacted to any attempt for maintenance or revival with severe retaliation.

The National Association of Hungarian Engineers and Architects, which was established in the autumn of 1929, in the last days of the communist dictatorship which only lasted a few months, was created, in terms of its mission, as a special 20th century revivification of the guild system: it aimed to encourage high standard professional performance based on national-Christian values in the age of free venture, overshadowing the competition also being one of the goals. After the Trianon Treaty the Association joined other “patriotic” movements and as a “nation saving organisation,” it set itself the primary target of strengthening the reputation of a “purified” engineer faculty. “A technician, an engineer with high hopes is the favourite guest for a family with a bachelorette… The young crew, the technician forces are the most stable support for the order of the law at the moment.”12 Beyond the professional ideals the leadership of the Association paid close attention to maintaining both the horizontal and the vertical relationship network of the institution: acquiring assignments for their members from the community projects on the one hand, and arranging preferably leadership positions in cooperating partner institutions for them on the other. Their General Assembly welcomed such distinguished, high ranking government officials as the Minister for Industry, Trade and Finance, the mayor of Budapest, the dean of the University of Technology and Economics, or other officers of similarly oriented, influential institutions.

Parallel to social, economic and cultural consolidation, the early fierce spirit of the National Association calmed down a little bit, however, the period between the two World Wars was definitely not culturally or economically monotone. The radical and spectacular modernisation of engineering and architecture unfolded during this time period, in a uniquely rich and simultaneously diverse fashion. The construction of public and military buildings, luxury villas and social housing, sports establishments and public spaces, bridges, technical constructions and industrial halls were simultaneously on the agenda, with folk art inspired or historical motives as well as the novecento of Italian fascism, influences of the Rome school, and slowly but generally – almost independent from political orientation – the modernist Bauhaus style also gained ground.

Interestingly enough, architectural practices had a relatively peacefully divided market as well. Both during the recession and the post-war economic growth, assignment of the projects happened through a unique socio-cultural distribution system. Since a significant rate of the free market investors were known to be of Jewish origin, projects from them usually went towards their own personal relationship network and provided jobs for their relatives and friends. The rest, the “Christian” architects – being excluded from this category – felt entitled to acquire the commissions for designing important public construction projects, and to obtain positions within public institutions, corporations and offices with state interests.13 The actualisation of this however required quite a lot of background preparation work and investment into their relationship network. Even though the Chamber of Engineers was officially monitoring the legality of the competition system, and theoretically gave equal opportunity to all of the members to participate successfully, “in the segregated system, Christian architects wanted to create their own, secured market, and protect it from Jewish architects.”14 The solution they found was the opportunity to delegate members to the architectural jury positions reserved to the Chamber – in fact through the National Association – which effectively operated as an informal conspiring group. The spine of the Association was a group of friends, the most excellent architects of the era – István Janáky, Gyula Rimanóczy, József Schall, Jenő Halászy, Jenő Szendrői and others – who specifically urged calls for competition, while simultaneously coordinating with the judges appointed by them to agree on the potential winners – the underlying principle being “I’ll be the judge of you today, you’ll be the judge of me tomorrow.”15 This delegating privilege of the National Association was also in the interest of the political regime, as these preselected partners were more reliable to enter into a working relationship with. To become a member of these informal groups, one had to have outstanding professional performance, thus the overall standard of architectural design and the constructed buildings was generally and recognisably outstanding as well, despite the corruption.

It is an inseparable part of the story, however, that when war crime committees gave a merciless examination to private designers and state employed architects, witness statements clearly reveal that architects who exposed themselves as members of the National Association or even radical political organizations during the war, did in fact, in their private life, offer an active role in covering for their prosecuted or segregated colleagues and in helping their families. Popular architects, as an everyday practice, lent their names for design plans by colleagues who were affected by the Chamber limitations and were eventually completely marginalised. A number of firms also hired Polish refugees16. Iván Kotsis, excellent professor at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, who was a founding member of the National Association, in the autumn of 1944, during the German occupation and the Arrow Cross terror, when Jewish students were not allowed in the university any more, posted a note on the billboard: “Jewish students will take their exams in my apartment!” This kind of action was not only life threatening at the time, but due to his authority as a professor, he also set an example for his colleagues. It was also a widely known phenomenon that architects who received commission from the Ministry of National Defence or other ministries to design barracks, industrial halls, bunkers or plants, managed to arrange for exemptions from forced labour for their Jewish employees as “indispensable experts.” The German occupation on 19 March 1944 brought an end to this possibility. After the war, when the tables turned, during the validation process, the roles appeared to have changed.

Architects in front of the “Validation Committees”

“The world wants it, the floor has to be licked, there’s no two ways about it” – says Zoltán Fábri’s 1976 film, The Fifth Seal (Az ötödik pecsét), which is set in Budapest on Christmas 1944; it precisely reflects the miserable historical situation of having to find possible survival strategies in the inhumane context of the Soviet occupation taking over from the German one.

The previously mentioned Validation Committees (“Igazoló Bizottság”) were operational from January 1945 already until 31 October 1948 by the mandate of the Temporary National Government which was established in the meantime. The committees comprised members of the parties in the Hungarian  National Independence Front (Smallholders Party, Social Democratic Party, Communist Party, National Peasant Party, Civic Democratic Party) and delegates of the Union Commission. Satisfying the requirements of the decrees, companies and institutions within state interest, church employees, independent intellectuals close to the previous political regime, industrial contractors were also subjected to investigation. Obtaining a validated status was a prerequisite of practice. Possible sentences included “reprimand,” “ban from professional practice” or even “forced dismissal.” In cases that were forwarded to the tribunals, sentences of forced labour, internment, jail or even capial punishment were passed.

The real goal of the Validation Committees (reassured by democratic undertones) was to examine and register the behaviour of the adult population in the past, intimidate them, strip them from their positions and put the followers of the new order (party) in the empty spots.17

Fascism taught an entire generation how to lie. It taught how to lie while thinking, to use their brains to validate questionable theories, to cover up the most extreme contradictions… How do we mend spiritual ruins?

– asks Nobel Prize winner medical researcher and ad hoc diplomat Albert Szentgyörgyi in April 1945, although many already suspected that that the most serious chapter of spiritual challenges just started then. At the validation committee trials, nationwide or internationally recognised representatives of the architectural profession, former and prospective colleagues were put in a position where they had to provide either exonerating or incriminating reports on each other. Authorities preserved the gathered list of offenses for a lengthy period of time, so that it was available to deploy at any given moment, therefore becoming, implicitly or explicitly, a blackmailing tool. After the communist transition, in the 1950s, but even as late as the dismissals after the 1956 revolution, accusations and verdicts of these court rulings were often referenced. Antagonism arose rather from personal motivation – obtaining clientele or personal valuables and property – than political-ideological differences, although the validation committees, which operated under a communist influence, did target right wing architects with obvious intimidating messages. All of this became an intellectual inheritance of the Hungarian architect community that was very hard to shake off, and led to a curious, undiscussed internal disunion and prejudice against each other.

The political consideration of the future fate of engineers and architects was a cardinal question for the communist party preparing for takeover, since reconstruction and the impending Cold War induced a lot of gigantic and large scale construction and technical investments, where they had to rely on the cooperation of technical intellectuals. The script was more or less prepared.

The decision was made in the March 1945 assembly of the Communist Party:

It has to be determined, who are the most qualified intellectuals. We look them up, involve them in the construction projects and maybe in the work of the party… If we manage to grab these people, the battle is decided.

This politically necessary decision was followed by many others, which were perceivable by the general public; an organic part of this was influencing the mechanism of the decision making process of the validation committees.

Designing engineers, due to their upbringing and orientation until now, have a tendency not to recognise their own true interests. This part of our fight is still a hard one.18 (Engineer File. Hungarian Communist Party, December 1945)

The engineers who were intimidated and terrorised with the political crimes brought up during the trials, in compliance with the communist directive, eventually received relatively forgiving sentences: “The verdict could have said that he is banned from practicing. The Commission took it into consideration as a mitigatory circumstance that he is an exceptionally talented engineer, who is needed in the reconstruction of the new democratic Hungary.” (Verdict in the case of Viktor and Aladár Olgyay and József Schall), or: “Because of his excellent qualification, talent, and his entire personality – despite incriminating data – he receives the mildest punishment” (Verdict in the case of István Janáky), or: “his significant engineering skills were taken into account” (Verdict in the case of Gyula Rimanóczy). “It is an issue that he kept being a member of the National Association a secret, but it is a mitigating circumstance that middle class generally did not look at the bottom line of things and was unaware of the fascist aspirations hiding here and there.”19 (Verdict in the case of László Helle)

The new regime only handled existentially dependent designers with “kid gloves,” to some extent. Successful construction contractors with a huge wealth were ruthlessly destroyed. Antal Sorg, for example, who ran one of the most successful construction companies with his sons and became a market leader with the technical innovations developed over the decades and of course with his political connections, was sentenced to confiscation of his wealth, his family home was turned into a holiday resort for party members, while Sorg himself died in prison. As a typical addition to the story, Sorg’s sons fled to Argentina, and established a reinforcement bar factory, which soon reached an international production volume. The Acero SIMA factory’s subsidiary in Saõ Paolo produced – among many other things – some 80 per cent of the reinforcement bars used in the construction of the iconic buildings of the new capital, Brasilia. The city’s symbolic statue “Os Candagos” (The Warriors) stands eight metres tall, featuring two “pioneers,” Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, who both clutch reinforcement bars in their hands – legend has it that Sorg’s Hungarian factory supervisor put those there.

So while the tribunals carried on with their noisy and public propaganda-event procedures, former leaders accused of war crimes were being hunted down, death sentences and executions occurred, the reconstruction of the country slowly commenced. The contradictory and confusing political environment as well as the devastating lack of capital made it impossible for architects to feel existentially safe. Verdicts of the Validation Committees – in accordance with the communist script – contributed largely to engineering intellectuals, including designer architects acknowledging their fate with a sigh of relief and some contentment after the dictatorial political transition in 1948. In the Soviet economic system architects became state employees who received important assignments and designing projects while earning a stable monthly salary, and also received state awards and recognitions. However, architects and the entire country paid a huge price for this commitment to the political regime in the following decades. But this is a new chapter of the war story.