From Constructivism to “Routinized Modernism”: The Zigzag Trajectory of Radical Utopianism in Postwar Central Europe

Virág Molnár

Virág Molnár is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, New School for Social Research. Address for correspondence: Department of Sociology, New School for Social Research, 6 East 16th Street, Room 1012, New York, NY 10003, USA.

This article uses the example of constructivist architecture to show how radical utopianism influenced postwar plans for the large-scale transformation of the built environment in a significant but highly fragmentary fashion. Rather than dominating a longer period and slowly fading away, constructivism recurred in Hungary in several short but intensive episodes. The analysis focuses on two crucial episodes—plans for the post-1945 reconstruction of Budapest and the construction of a “strip house,” a massive collective housing superblock—to show how constructivism came to be coupled with various social and political agendas that often caused its demise; yet it left a complex and lasting legacy even when it failed. The article also argues that the zigzag trajectory of postwar constructivist architecture is largely a function of Hungary’s interstitial geopolitical and cultural position between East and West. As a result, Hungary, together with other Central European countries, offers an example that can illuminate the nonlinear ways in which intellectual ideas and cultural models circulate on regional and global scales.

Keywords: Radical Utopianism; Social Change; Built Environment; Intellectual Exchange; Cultural Politics

…Tomorrow we’ll breathe life into the ruins with asbestos, iron, and majestic granite,
and out with state decorations! with moonlight! with Orpheums!
We’ll build enormous skyscrapers and the replica of the Eiffel tower to play with.
Bridges with basalt foundations. New myths on the squares made of ringing steel;
and we’ll push screaming, fiery locomotives onto the defunct rails,
so they shine and follow their course like dizzying meteorites.
We’ll mix new colors and lay new cables beneath the sea,
and we’ll impregnate ripe, single women so the earth can cradle a new species
and the new poets can rejoice, singing the spirit of the new times
in Rome, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, London and Budapest.[1]

Lajos Kassák, “Mesteremberek” (Craftsmen), 1914

Lajos Kassák, the author of the poem selected as the epigraph for this article, was likely the single most important practitioner and propagator of constructivism in Hungary. It was after the failed Communist revolution of 1919 in Hungary, while living in exile in Vienna, that he came into contact with various radical avant-garde movements emerging across interwar Europe. Kassák’s own work shows the closest kinship with Activism, the radical left-wing faction of German expressionism, but he was familiar with nearly the full spectrum of avant-garde groupings including Russian constructivism. His poem powerfully encapsulates constructivism’s passionate optimism and faith in social progress driven by technological change. The journals Kassák founded and edited (Ma, Dokumentum, Munka) played a crucial role in educating the Hungarian art world about these new developments in radical utopian thought. He had particularly strong influence over key Hungarian members and students of the Bauhaus, especially László Moholy-Nagy and the architect Farkas Molnár (Benson and Forgács 2002; Ferkai 2003). In fact constructivism exerted its influence on Hungarian art and architecture chiefly through the ideas and activities of the Bauhaus, especially in its most radical phase in the 1920s, rather than through direct personal and intellectual contacts with Russian constructivists.[2] The postwar legacy of constructivism, which is examined here as a key example of radical utopianism, is thus intimately tied in Hungary to probing the legacy of the Bauhaus and the universalistic aspirations of interwar modernism.

Hungary and other Central European countries are illuminating in tracing the trajectory of radical utopianism under socialism because they lay at the crossroads of Eastern and Western influences, being drawn into the political and cultural orbit of the Soviet Union after 1945 while carrying the remnants of Western European intellectual connections from the interwar period (Kulić, Mrduljaš, and Thaler 2012; Zarecor 2011). My analysis shows how these diverse intellectual traditions intersected with local and international political pressures to translate radical utopianism into tangible social reform, particularly through the large-scale transformation of the built environment. At the theoretical level, the article calls for a revision of the still widely influential evolutionary model of art and architectural history that views artistic developments as a linear succession of ever improving styles that mark distinct historical periods (see Halle and Tiso [2015] for a similar criticism regarding contemporary art).[3] The case of postwar constructivism in Hungary shows the zigzag trajectory and periodic resurgence of artistic traditions by drawing attention to the consequential role of contextual factors and historical contingencies. Simultaneously, the analysis raises the general hypothesis that comparable processes had been at play in countries that occupy a similar interstitial geopolitical and cultural position to Hungary.

Architecture always held a special status for constructivists, as they firmly believed that painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts would dissolve into architecture, thereby uniting art with technics (Ferkai 2003:16). This is, in part, why my article focuses on architecture, showing how constructivism imprinted postwar Hungarian architecture in a significant but highly fragmentary fashion.[4] Rather than dominating a distinct period and slowly fading away, constructivism recurred in several short but intensive episodes. In the immediate postwar period of 1945 to 1949, constructivism inspired bold blueprints for the postwar rebuilding of Budapest and the construction of new public buildings, extending and radicalizing the influence of interwar modernism. But its budding impact was abruptly halted by the communist political takeover that brought with it the aesthetic paradigm of socialist realism from the Soviet Union. In the early 1960s, constructivism became politically rehabilitated and returned to inform experimental projects for mass housing construction. This period culminated in the ambitious “strip house” plan, projecting the construction of a massive collective housing superblock on the Danube bank in Budapest, before its innovative edge was blunted by bureaucratization, routinization, and large-scale industrialization. Finally, in the mid-1970s, a new generation of architects ventured to vernacularize the constructivist legacy to humanize the insipidity of socialist modernism. But their efforts became mired and undermined in the famous “Tulip Debate,” a highly politicized fight over competing visions of social modernization (Molnár 2005). The present article focuses on the first two of these episodes because they were the most influential postwar attempts to implement constructivist projects and address most directly the postwar afterlife of interwar radicalism and the stubborn belief in the social transformative role of technology’s marriage to cultural modernism.

Case 1: Constructivist Visions for Post-1945 Budapest

The first case explores the brief yet intense episode of constructivism in Hungary in the immediate aftermath of World War II that built on the legacy of interwar modernism to radically rethink the structure and function of the city. This short period of optimistic experimentation was undercut by a politically motivated shift in cultural policy and artistic expression, dictated by the Soviet Union, which launched an attack against constructivism while calling for a return to historicist, realist, and traditional art forms.

The Aftermath of World War II and the Promise of New Beginnings

The siege of Budapest was among the longest and bloodiest of the urban battles of World War II (Ungváry 1998). It lasted a total of 102 days from October 29, 1944, to February 14, 1945, when the city unconditionally surrendered to the Red Army. In stark contrast, Berlin was taken in two weeks, Vienna in six days, while Paris and most other European capitals, with the exception of Warsaw, never became battlegrounds during the war. Adolf Hitler had declared Budapest a fortress city that had to be defended to the last man. When the siege finally ended and Budapest fell, the victory proved decisive for the Allies in their push towards Berlin.

The scale of fighting and destruction inflicted on Budapest was comparable only with the sieges of Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Warsaw, the most devastating episodes of urban warfare during World War II. For Budapest, the siege in 1944–1945 was the most destructive of the 15 major sieges the city had endured over its long history, which qualifies it as one of the most besieged capitals in Europe, underscoring its geopolitical and military importance (Ungváry 1998:9). The physical and human toll of the war was enormous. The combined human losses, including deaths, Holocaust victims, and deportations by Soviet troops, amounted to nearly 100,000 people in Budapest (Stark 2000; Ungváry 1998). Overall, the city’s population fell from 1.2 million to 800,000, and in some downtown districts the size of the population was halved (Ungváry 1998:307). Before the siege the city also suffered several bouts of heavy Allied bombing, and the cumulative destruction to the built environment was staggering. Nearly 5 percent of the housing stock completely vanished, 6.5 percent became uninhabitable, and an additional 16 percent was heavily damaged. Approximately 36,000 families became homeless (Sipos 2011; Ungváry and Tamási 2006).

Hardest hit of all were the public representative buildings that encapsulated the city’s history and cultural identity. The Castle District in the Buda Hills overlooking the Danube lay in ruins. The famous Lloyd Palace and the row of lavish hotels that lined and defined the Danube skyline on the Pest side were destroyed beyond repair. Nevertheless, the most expressive and painful symbol of the devastation remains undoubtedly the site of the collapsed bridges across the Danube. All the bridges were methodically blown up by withdrawing German troops during the siege. But the loss of the bridges was more than just symbolic. They did not merely offer visual accents to Budapest’s iconic cityscape, but served as important arteries of everyday life connecting not only the twin cities of Buda and Pest but also the eastern and western halves of the country (Figure 1).

The extent of the destruction is also made palpable by the fact that, although the clearing away of debris and rebuilding efforts began immediately following the end of the siege, three years later in 1948 most building activity was still devoted to the reconstruction of damaged buildings and infrastructure. The reconstruction of some public buildings was even more protracted: the renovation and remodeling of the Buda Castle were completed only in 1966, while the art nouveau Elizabeth Bridge, destroyed in the war, was replaced by a modern suspension bridge in 1964.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The destroyed Elisabeth Bridge in Budapest, 1945. (Source: Fortepan 60155.)

Meanwhile, a few new buildings began to sprout among the ruins, ushering in a short-lived but optimistic era between 1946 and 1949 that carried the promise of a new beginning. Especially in the eyes of architects and urban planners, the havoc wreaked by the war contained a silver lining. Namely, the destruction of the urban fabric also presented a unique opportunity to rectify the urban planning and development mistakes of earlier periods. Virgil Borbíró, a prominent architect and important figure in the reconstruction, remarked that “during the painfully long fifty days of the siege, in the darkness of the air-raid shelter and in the midst of resounding explosions, we often pondered what exactly might have gotten destroyed from Budapest. We had secretly hoped that at least a couple of buildings that did not fit the cityscape would disappear” (Borbíró 1945:50). Planners and architects talked frequently about the need to “build the city anew” as opposed to simply “reconstructing the ruins” (újjáépítés instead of helyreállítás) (Fischer 1946).

Constructing a New City versus Reconstructing the Old

It was against this backdrop that large-scale physical devastation and lagging reconstruction were increasingly viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally rethink and recreate the city. Influential architectural and urban journals such as Tér és Forma (Space and Form) and Budapest, which resumed publication in 1945, included a growing number of contributions to the discussion on whether Budapest should be merely restored or built entirely anew. Advocates of radical modernization emphasized how prewar Budapest, just like other large metropolises, had been a product of real estate speculation that completely disregarded the hygienic and social needs of city dwellers, how the city had lost contact with nature and became unlivable, how the modernization of outmoded neighborhoods was impossible without reforming land ownership structure, and how the fact that housing was built to last for several generations was actually an obstacle to progress (Tér és Forma 1946; Major 1946). They uniformly agreed that the extensive damage caused by the war should be seen as a call to create new and better (more functional) structures in place of destroyed buildings that were replete with shortcomings (Major 1946:197).

Reflecting this zeitgeist, the reconstituted Budapest Council of Public Works (Fővárosi Közmunkák Tanácsa),[5] the agency in charge of planning and coordinating the rebuilding effort, together with the Budapest municipal government organized several architectural design competitions to envision the future Budapest. The entries were dominated by radical blueprints fashioned in the spirit of interwar modernism and constructivism. This is not surprising given that key members of the new Council of Public Works were also well-known representatives of the Hungarian Modern Movement, with József Fischer, the president of the Council, incidentally heading the Hungarian section of the legendary CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture). Key architectural competitions organized over the course of 1945 and 1946 included a competition to design high-rise housing settlements along the Danube bank in Pest (Magdolnaváros) that also proposed apartment and building prototypes for mass production, as well as the complete overhaul of the badly damaged hotel row along the Danube in the city center.

However, the most ambitious, so-called idea-generating design competition (újjáépítési ötletpályázat) organized in 1945 called for master concepts that would radically reimagine the structural foundations of the entire city, not just offer practical blueprints for the reconstruction of war damage. Many of the entries were lost, but the surviving documentation, which includes the summary assessment of the jury, reveals that, overall, the entries were quite eclectic. Some contenders simply ignored the architectural nature of the competition and submitted philosophical or moral treatises or, in one case, a poem (Vadas 1985). Even some of the more strictly architectural entries were at times not simply daring but phantasmagoric, like the one that recommended clearing away the entire Castle Hill. Yet the two competition entries that were awarded a divided first place and given broad press coverage were architecturally sophisticated, bold, constructivist-inspired plans for radically restructuring the city.

The first winning entry, by architects László Acsay and György Masirevich, proposed a fundamental break with the traditional radial-concentric structure of Budapest in favor of a more rational and logical organization in the spirit of modernist functionalism. The architects foresaw the creation of a “strip-city” that involved the large-scale redevelopment of Budapest along the north–south axis, dividing it into single-use zones (residential, industrial, green areas, institutional) running along the Danube (Morvay 1946a, 1946b; Sipos 2011; Tér és Forma 1944–1945 no. 11, 1947 no. 2, 1947 no. 10; Vadas 1985).[6] The various north–south zones running parallel to the Danube would have served to rationalize and strictly separate key city functions, which were to be determined in relation to the strip’s respective distance to the river. The strip immediately adjacent to the Danube on the Pest side would have served as “the city” housing government institutions and office buildings. In comparison, the strip bordering on the river on the Buda side would have been turned into a spa-wellness-medical service zone, capitalizing on the abundant thermal springs, historical baths, and accompanying health care facilities in the area. The next zone in Pest would have served commercial and industrial functions, while its counterpart in Buda would have been turned into a low-rise residential sector. These were to be followed on both sides by a green strip developed by linking and extending already existing parks into a continuous green zone. The areas lying beyond the green belt would have been home to high-rise housing estates in both halves of the city. Transportation networks were planned to mirror the functional division of the strips and mapped onto a strict grid pattern, allowing for easy horizontal and vertical movement within the new rationalized urban system. Each zone was to have its own transportation channel in the form of an expressway with some cross-zone connecting roads. As the architects noted: “Just like in a department store, the elevator takes you to the floor where the relevant goods are to be found. The soothing rationality of the grid—in other words, pure geometry—will surpass the chaos of mazelike development” (Ferkai 2003:148; see also Ferkai 1997). A high-speed urban rail would have run parallel to the expressways, and the architects envisioned the establishment of no less than seven airports, somewhat overestimating the forthcoming growth in postwar air traffic (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Rebuilding Budapest as a “strip city.” (Source: Morvay 1946a:23.)

The second winning entry by Aladár Münnich, labeled the “four-corner city” (négysarkú város), also introduced the strip principle but did not carry it to the same extreme as the blueprint by Acsay and Masirevich. The plan’s main aim was to rectify the limitations of the historically grown city by modernizing and rationalizing urban structures and infrastructures. Münnich wanted to achieve this by relieving the small and overburdened traditional city center and decentralizing the city. He did not completely erase the concentric-radial structure of historical Budapest but tried to update it by introducing multiple centers: four “corners” within close range of the Danube and seven new centers in the outskirts and suburbs, linking various parts of the city into a pattern resembling crystal frost. This polycentric structure would have then been combined with the logic of largely monofunctional sectors running in north–west and south–east directions on the Pest and on the Buda sides, respectively. Similar to the “strip-city” plan, one sector in Pest would have been developed into the “city” with hotel high-rises on the Danube bank, commercial buildings, and a row of skyscrapers for government buildings along a new traffic artery. Just like Acsay and Masirevich, Münnich envisioned a medical-recreational sector in the Buda hills by the Danube and a low-density residential sector for most of Buda. Industrial production would have been moved to the southern fringes of the city, and mass housing would have been erected beyond the skyscraper ring. He also inserted green belts in between each functional sector and additional radial green wedges where urban topography allowed for it (Figures 3–4).

Figure 3
Figure 3. Map of the “four-corner city” with traffic arteries. (Source: Budapest City Archives, BFL XV.17.d.322a/120.)
Figure 4
Figure 4. The “spa city” in the Buda hills. (Source: Borbíró 1946:98.)

Given the modernist-constructivist leanings of the “four-corner city,” the competition entry devoted extensive attention to the organization of urban transportation. Münnich expected a dramatic rise in car traffic and planned the construction of a number of expressways to follow the crystal frost pattern of urban centers and subcenters. His most ambitious suggestion was the establishment of a sunken expressway sandwiched between the two main concentric traffic arteries of the city (Kiskörút and Nagykörút) surrounded by the new row of skyscrapers hosting government offices. Münnich also argued that decentralization actually enabled the expansion of the small-scale historical center of Pest, the Deák Square-Erzsébet Square area, into a representative urban “forum.” This monumental new square “would have served as the site of public celebrations, recreational area as well as an outdoor car park” (Vadas 1985:54) (Figures 5–7).[7]

Figure 5
Figure 5. Traffic node in the “four-corner city” with governmental skyscrapers in the background. (Source: Budapest City Archives, BFL XV.17.d.322a/120.)
Figure 6
Figure 6. One central corner of the “four-corner city.” (Source: Budapest City Archives, BFL XV.17.d.322a/120.)
Figure 1
Figure 7. The main urban “forum” in the “four-corner city.” (Source: Budapest City Archives, BFL XV.17.d.322a/120.)

Undoubtedly, both winning entries were more utopian than pragmatic. But the loud call for radically updating, rationalizing, and modernizing the prewar city, the fascination with increasing mobility and car transportation and its far-reaching impact on the urban fabric, and the spell of a geometric aesthetics and strict functionalism that characterized the urban visions disseminated through the competition provide a clear testimony to the constructivist zeitgeist of the immediate aftermath of the war.[8] Endre Morvay, the journalist who introduced the two competition winners to the broader public on the pages of the premier city journal Budapest, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the unfeasibility of the blueprints for the future Budapest. He noted that the reviewed urban plans “will not appear utopian if we recall how, when a hundred years ago [István] Széchenyi presented his fantastic dreams about the Hungarian capital, right after the devastation of the ‘Great Flood of Pest’ and the failed War of Independence in 1848, nobody else dared to believe that Pest-Buda would one day emerge as a true metropolis” (Morvay 1946b:72).

Although none of the competition entries came close to realization and new construction was still on a very small scale, the competition designs both captured a new optimism for the future and outlined the general intellectual direction for architecture.[9] Indeed, emerging new buildings also reflected the aesthetic and structural principles of architectural modernism that permeated the winning competition entries. Bus stations, government buildings, and trade union headquarters were erected in a modernist style in marked contrast with the interwar decades when modernism was employed overwhelmingly in residential construction. This bolstered the hope of architects that modernism would finally become the dominant architectural language of public architecture. The types of buildings that were considered the most important public representative buildings such as trade union headquarters were also politically meaningful; they meant to signal the political democratization and social inclusiveness of a new postwar society (Prakfalvi 1999a, 1999c). The best examples of this transitory modernist period between 1946 and 1949 are the central bus station in Erzsébet Square, which was the first postwar modernist building to receive landmark designation, and the headquarter of the Hungarian Construction Workers’ Union (MÉMOSZ-székház). However, with the rapid rise of the Communist Party, increasing Soviet influence, and the onset of the Cold War, 1948 brought a critical turning point in Hungarian politics with important repercussions for architecture and urban development.

Communist Takeover and the Introduction of Socialist Realism

The communist political takeover in 1948 brought with it swift and all-encompassing institutional centralization and the introduction of socialist realism in architecture and urban planning. The Budapest Council of Public Works was dismantled in 1948, and its remains were incorporated into the Department of Public Works within the Budapest Municipal Council. Local district governments in the city were reorganized into local councils in 1950, following the Soviet example. The municipal government of Budapest lost its autonomy and became subordinate to the national government and the Communist Party. It had no direct control over its own tax revenue and development plans. All resources for everyday operation and development projects were allocated by the state in the framework of centrally planned five-year plans. Architectural design and planning were also nationalized. Private architectural studios disappeared, and architects were integrated into large state-owned architectural and planning bureaus that were organized following a functional division of labor. There was, for instance, one national architectural bureau for the design of housing, one for the design of industrial buildings, another for public buildings, and yet another for modular and prototype design.

In tandem with sweeping institutional transformation, the communist takeover also brought with it a new aesthetic paradigm in architecture and urban planning in the form of socialist realism. Socialist realism had been the dominant and officially approved language of artistic expression in the Soviet Union since the 1930s. It constituted a form of realist art that served as an important communist propaganda tool (Groys 1994). Socialist realist architecture had to be “socialist in content and national in form” while rooted in “progressive traditions.” This usually entailed reanchoring architecture in a historicist (mostly neoclassicist) vocabulary. In urban planning socialist realism underscored the need for monumentalism, an understanding of the city as a work of art, and the importance of representative composition. The formula to translate these ideas into practice was again borrowed from the Soviet cultural canon. The forceful introduction of socialist realism across Eastern Europe in the early 1950s was yet another sign of the growing political and cultural influence of the Soviet Union (Åman 1992).

In Budapest the Communist Party and the Ministry of Culture organized a series of high-profile debates meant to reeducate architects and planners while enforcing the key principles of socialist realism.[10] Architectural modernism was denounced in these discussions as “formalist,” “wasteful,” and “elitist”—namely, inaccessible to the general working population. As the daily paper of the Communist Party, Szabad Nép (Free People), declared in 1949: “We want neither the ugly capitalist tenements nor the formalist buildings that mimic the whimsical taste of American architects. Our buildings should reflect the confidence and taste of our people marching towards socialism” (“Fényűzés,” Szabad Nép, August 27, 1949). The handful of modernist buildings erected after the war were singled out as the ultimate bad examples of “harmful formalism,” and the architects who designed them were often pressured to engage in public acts of self-criticism regretting their “mistakes.” Hungarian architects reluctantly conformed to socialist realism by turning to a Scandinavian influenced puritan neoclassicism (e.g., the “R” building of the Budapest Technical University designed by Gyula Rimanóczy) or to the eighteenth-century classicist architecture of the Hungarian countryside (e.g., the building of the College of Applied Arts designed by Zoltán Farkasdy, Jolán Limpek, Olga Mináry, and Géza Mészáros).

The new principles of socialist realism were clearly in sharp contrast with the constructivist visions expressed in postwar architectural competitions and building activity. The primary reason why the ideas and blueprints that emerged in these early competitions were not incorporated into the reconstruction process was not so much because they were utopian but because of the sharp political and ideological turn that began in 1948. The shift also triggered an exodus among modernist-constructivist oriented architects: each of the three award-winning architects from the “future of Budapest” competition left Hungary around 1948, followed by scores of other, some very prominent, like-minded architects.[11]

Case 2: Radical Alternatives from the 1960s: The “Strip House”

The second case discusses the unexpected return of constructivism in the mid-1960s to underscore the nonlinearity of artistic and architectural development. Instead of progressively moving forward through technical and stylistic innovations, often historically contingent interactions between politics and architecture shaped the more erratic trajectory of architectural development in post-Stalinist Hungary.

The socialist realist era ended nearly as abruptly and unexpectedly as it began. The events and internal political struggles that took place in the Soviet Union were again decisive in setting the new course. Although housing shortages were pressing after the war, during the Stalinist period in the early 1950s the volume of new housing construction was negligible because scarce resources across Eastern Europe were mobilized to build up heavy industry while new urban construction privileged public representative buildings to meet the demands of socialist realist monumentalism. This took a sharp turn in 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, the new General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, delivered a bombastic critique of prevailing building practices at the All-Union Conference of Builders and Architects in Moscow. He lambasted architects for the excesses of socialist realism, for wasting resources on superfluous ornamentation, and, most importantly, for neglecting the construction of quality housing for the working masses. The speech immediately triggered a shift in expertise and funds towards mass housing construction across the entire region. While socialist realism as an architectural style held its sway for a few more years, it was significantly toned down in new construction projects. Khrushchev’s critique of building practices was an integral part of his broader political agenda of de-Stalinization, marking the onset of a new era not only in the Soviet Union but in the rest of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.

In Hungary the 1956 revolution put a particularly sharp end to Stalinism and with it to socialist realism in the arts, architecture, and urban planning. By the early 1960s architectural modernism was rehabilitated, and the construction of public housing became the lynchpin of architecture and urban development. There were serious high-profile public debates about the ideal form of “socialist housing” (Molnár 2010) accompanied by a string of architectural competitions and widely publicized experimental housing projects that marked the beginning of a new era of optimism and innovation, especially when it came to prototype design, prefabrication, and industrialization of mass housing construction (Branczik and Keller 2012).

During these heated discussions there was a small chorus that demanded a radical approach to the housing problem. They argued that the severe housing shortage had to be dealt with not only in quantitative but also in qualitative terms: not just by building more housing units but by creating new types of dwellings and revolutionizing living arrangements. They saw the “communal house” as the adequate housing type of the future. While advocates of this solution mostly excelled at fantasizing about what life would look like in this environment and had little to say about the architectural form that would provide its shell, there was a young architect, Elemér Zalotay, who sculpted a more palpable vision of this new housing form (Major [1960] 1981; Németh [1961] 1981; Sipos [1960] 1981; Zalotay 1961). Moreover, Zalotay wasn’t just a dreamy architect drafting utopian projects for the entertainment of his fellow architects. What is exceptional about his strip house (szalagház) plan is that he seriously engaged with the state in trying to turn his vision into reality, and his struggle received extensive public attention.

In a contribution to a public debate on the future of the family house that took place in 1960, he suggestively described research efforts allegedly under way at MÉLYÉPTERV—a state-owned planning office for civil engineering—on a strip house system that would concentrate an entire urban neighborhood in a single housing structure. The building was projected as a long strip at least one kilometer long, between 30 and 50 stories high, planted a few hundred meters away from the Danube, paralleling the riverbank, and surrounded by a landscape abundant with woods, hills, and lakes. “In the individual apartments people will feel as if they lived in a villa on top of a hill with a green valley underneath them” (Zalotay 1961:921). The “family house debate” was long forgotten, but the sketchy idea of the strip house lingered on, even capturing the popular imagination. The strip house became the talk of the town, as Zalotay embarked on a lonely crusade against the official building authorities to turn his blueprint into reality.

International and Local Precursors

The “collective” or “communal house” was, of course, not a novel idea.[12] The most immediate precursor of Zalotay’s plan was Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation project, a series of high-density collective houses, the first of which, La Cité Radieuse (or as its critics mockingly dubbed it, “la Maison du Fada” [“The Nutter’s House”]), was built between 1947 and 1952 in Marseilles (Le Corbusier 1953; Weiss 1992; Zalotay 1961:921). It was a massive 18-story reinforced concrete slab suspended on large pilotis with a roof terrace and swimming pool that housed up to 1,600 people in 337 apartments. The building contained permutations of 23 basic apartment prototypes, most of them maisonettes, which could accommodate singles as well as families of up to 10. The apartments all had spacious, deep balconies with Le Corbusier’s signature brise-soleil and a unique color scheme, which together endowed the façade with a distinctive rhythm. The building included an internal shopping street, children’s nursery, recreational areas, and entertainment facilities (Le Corbusier 1953). The high concentration of accommodation and service facilities in the tall, narrow structure allowed for generous landscaping around the building. The Marseilles project was followed by five more Unités d’Habitation, four in France (Nantes-Rezé, Meaux, Briey-en-Forêt, and Firminy-Vert) and one in (West) Berlin, erected between 1955 and 1965. They were structurally very similar, but the communal facilities were seriously curtailed in the later blocks, which are generally viewed as inferior inheritors of the Marseilles archetype (Jenkins 1993).[13]

But Le Corbusier’s conception was not without forerunners either: he drew his inspiration for postwar mass-housing design from the nineteenth-century utopian socialist Charles Fourier’s phalanstère. The dimensions of the Unités echoed Fourier, who determined the optimal size of his phalanstère to be between 800 and 1,600 inhabitants, arguing that this magnitude would induce new social dynamics. Accompanied by meticulous design, the new housing form was expected to maximize cooperation and self-fulfillment among its members. He also envisioned a network of phalanstères that would be linked up into a global web of communities. In a similar vein, Russian constructivists in the Soviet Union of the 1920s cherished high hopes about communal houses as “social condensers” where, inter alia, the bourgeois would be reeducated (Buchli 1998; Kopp 1982; Major 1976). But only about 10 small communal houses were built, primarily in Moscow and Leningrad, and the experiments were stopped in the 1930s when the constructivist agenda was dropped in favor of socialist realism.[14]

Several of these buildings were also significantly altered both in form and function over the course of the following decades (Buchli 1998; Pare 2007). In the immediate postwar era, during the fleeting renaissance of architectural modernism in Central and Eastern Europe, a handful of communal house experiments were also carried out in Czechoslovakia and Poland (Ferkai 1990:78; Zarecor 2011). Curiously, only in Scandinavian countries did the “collective house” become a relatively standard dwelling option after World War II, although the buildings have remained modest in scale (Vestbro 2000).

At the same time, bold plans for radical housing solutions in Hungary could be traced back to the interwar period. Zalotay’s plan for the strip house shows clear affinity with two interconnected projects by the Bauhaus architect Farkas Molnár from the 1920s. At the International Bauhaus Exhibition in 1923, Molnár exhibited a project called the Red Cube House which comprised a minimum dwelling on two floors of a cubic house and was designed with standardization and modular construction in mind (Ferkai 2003). The design was strongly influenced by neoplasticism and Russian suprematism and was closely related to the KURI (the acronym for Constructive, Utilitarian, Rational, and International) manifesto that was initiated by Molnár and signed by many Bauhaus students of East and Central European origins. The KURI agenda also included another similar project by Molnár: high-rise slabs with access galleries leading to maisonette apartments, which were components of a grid structure in a utopian urban plan from 1923 (Ferkai 2003).

Radicalizing Le Corbusier

Zalotay took Le Corbusier’s idea and radicalized it, enlarging its dimensions and giving it a more pronounced environmentalist spin. During the 1960s he progressively refined the strip house concept and referred to his project as “Corb Plus” (Interbuild 1962). The “vertical city” was planned to be 40 stories high and 3 kilometers long, spread along the Danube bank, and containing 20,000 apartments, a civic and shopping center, schools, hospital, communal kitchen, and laundry. Communal facilities were to be located on service floors sandwiched between residential floors. The building was to sport a literal green façade: a curtain of creeper plants hanging in front of the balconies and functioning as a brise-soleil, climate control, as well as a natural way of diminishing the experience of height on the upper floors. On one side of the building the balconies would have offered a vista of the Buda hills and, on the other, an unobstructed view of the Danube. An underground high-speed train with stations in the basement would have transported residents to their workplaces in the city. The strip building system would have made it possible to progressively extend the structure by lengthening the strip beyond the northern edge of Budapest. The land saved by the strip building would have been converted into forests, ponds, sport fields, swimming pools, gardening plots, and other recreational areas (Interbuild 1962; Jovánovics 1963; Mőcsényi [1961] 1981; Zalotay [1965] 1981).[15]

Zalotay also teamed up with a structural engineer, Imre Böröcz, to work out the technological innovations that were to constitute the backbone of the construction system. They held that the chief shortcoming of existing communal houses was that they were all built using rather conventional construction methods, which is why they fell short of the true potential of this housing form. One of the technological drawbacks was size, building height in particular, presenting an obstacle to increasing population density. Le Corbusier’s Unité in Marseilles, for instance, was cast in reinforced concrete, a standard construction method by the 1950s, as the initially planned steel frame had to be forsaken in the midst of postwar austerity and scarcity of building materials. The strip house designers were searching for materials and structural techniques that would have enabled the construction of a solid load-bearing but lightweight frame into which the fully prefabricated apartments were to be slotted. This would also have allowed the apartment capsules to be periodically restored or replaced without having to dismantle the entire frame (Zalotay [1965] 1981). The weight reductions in the structure would have dramatically reduced building costs and permitted the industrial production of a building of such extreme magnitude. Zalotay’s plan even attracted some international attention and was reviewed in Interbuild, a British architectural journal that in the 1960s was devoted to reporting on developments in prefabrication and industrialization of architecture across the globe. While pointing out that the idea was not “brand new,” the article drew an oddly favorable conclusion: “a project of this size is only possible as a massive national experiment. Even if it fails, it is worth trying” (Interbuild 1962:26).

Zalotay stubbornly peddled his idea at the Ministry of Construction and fought to test them on a small-scale experimental project. The growing controversy around his efforts provoked a broader public debate in 1965–1966, which was hosted in a respectable literary magazine, Új Írás (New Writing). The tension around the strip house was intensified by the 1964 premiere and unexpected popular success of a cinema verité-style documentary, Nehéz emberek (Difficult people), which was in large part motivated by Zalotay’s story.[16] The director, András Kovács, followed the checkered fate of innovations and innovators in the state socialist planned economy through a set of case studies. The film explored, labeled, and helped construct an important social type in socialist society, that of the nonconformist, the “difficult person,” while casting the hero of the 1960s as a lonely engineer-scientist-innovator who chases his dreams against all odds.[17] Kovács also suggested that innovative spirit and specific innovations in the realm of socialist production were crushed not so much for political reasons, as was too readily assumed, but for much more prosaic ones: prestige and clique struggles, human pettiness, envy, or plain indifference.

The Public Debate about the Strip House

The ensuing discussion about the strip house featured nearly as many enthusiastic endorsements as damning criticisms. Its critics, led by the official representatives of the Ministry of Construction, asserted that the strip house concept was immature, phantasmagoric, and utopian. “It was decoupled from reality and the conditions necessary for the construction were not likely to arise in the near future” (Építésügyi Minisztérium [1965] 1981:272). The main blow was directed at the technological foundations of the project: they were declared shaky and grossly underdeveloped. A spokesman for the ministry claimed that the authors repeatedly failed to provide sufficient evidence that would have convinced them of the technical feasibility of “strip building.” In arguing this, the Ministry of Construction referred to expert reports that it commissioned to evaluate the Zalotay-Böröcz project (Joób [1965] 1981).

Intuitively, it seems that the technological assessment of the project should have been straightforward and conclusive. The other side, however, fiercely protested the validity of the ministry’s judgment. They maintained that the reports were biased and upheld another pile of expert opinions, some of which were also excerpted in the press that scrutinized various technical aspects of the plan and were openly supportive (Joób [1965] 1981; Zalotay [1965] 1981). There was also a flurry of accusations about the procedural transgressions committed by the ministry: the architects claimed they were not invited to the consultations where ministry officials discussed their plans and were never given a chance to respond to queries and concerns (Kovács 1965; Zalotay [1965] 1981). They were adamant that their key technological innovation was at the stage of being patented both in Hungary and abroad; they only failed to do so because the ministry refused to grant them formal approval, without which they could not submit their patent application (Zalotay [1965] 1981).

In the end, it was hard to draw definitive conclusions even about the technological foundations of the project. But the ministry’s handling of the case indicated that the authors were taken seriously, not simply treated as builders of castles in the air. The architect and director of the Budapest Urban Planning Office also noted that even though he thought Zalotay’s strip house was a “fantastical idea,” “the reverberations it triggered among the lay public prove that there is a societal need out there demanding the launch of serious theoretical and technological research into this issue” (Joób [1965] 1981:264).

Additional pragmatic arguments were also voiced against the strip house, blaming the backwardness and low morale of the Hungarian building industry for why a project of this size and complexity could not be executed (Galla Kovács 1965:82; Kovács 1965; Sipos 1965; Sotér [1961] 1981). The poet Gyula Sipos, a staunch advocate of the communal house, expressed his sympathy while lamenting that “as long as we cannot build a henhouse on schedule and in good quality, there is no point in trying to construct a strip house” (1965:100). Others voiced their fears about the social impact of the project. They argued that without an exhaustive sociological survey about people’s expectations vis-à-vis the dwelling of the future it was irresponsible to embark on this experiment (Joób [1965] 1981:264).

The sheer size of the building was also calling into question the whole concept of community (Interbuild 1962:26). Finally, there was a peculiar argument that had little to do with the technological or sociological underpinnings of the blueprint but with Hungary’s self-perception as a small and marginal nation, neither a trendsetter nor a leading innovator. Several contributors argued that the grand project of the strip house was simply too ambitious for such a small country as Hungary (Editorial 1966; Építésügyi Minisztérium [1965] 1981; Sipos 1965). Serious doubt lingered over whether “a small country should dare take the risks involved in such a massive experiment” (Sipos 1965:100). Instead, “we should warmly recommend the project to big countries that are capable of erecting several new towns within a single year” (100). Ministry of Construction officials were even harsher and insisted that the very fact that “even big countries, where similar ostentatious plans surfaced, tended to reject them,” should have served as ample evidence for the utter irrationality of Zalotay’s ideas (Építésügyi Minisztérium [1965] 1981:272).

Yet there were a surprisingly large number of sympathetic contributions from architects and engineers as well as laypersons. Even the KISZ, the Hungarian Communist Youth Organization, embraced the strip house wholeheartedly (Jovánovics 1963; Kozák 1997; Zalotay [1965] 1981). Supporters argued that it was not enough to meet housing demand in numerical terms and complacently celebrate the overcoming of inherited housing shortages and with it the legacy of underdevelopment. Architectural policy was seen to “rely on a treacherous and crudely pragmatic strategy: it attempts to conserve the individualistic dwelling form that is suffused with capitalist content … it wants to plant a new type of community into an old, retrograde form and this inherent contradiction is now bursting the walls of the apartments” (Joób [1965] 1981:269).

Zalotay’s strip house idea was celebrated because it finally offered a “future-oriented and revolutionary” alternative. His concept was described as a “‘discovery-like’ radical resolution of the housing question once and for all” (Tárkányi 1965:75). Zalotay was portrayed as somebody aspiring to live up to the real challenge of progressive architecture: “the construction of housing forms and settlements that actively shape the way life is conducted in the new society as well as in the new dwelling” (Joób [1965] 1981:270). “The scale of Zalotay’s strip house is so immense that its quantitative dimensions beget a qualitative change” (Joób [1965] 1981:270; see also Ferenczy 1963 and Simmel 1990). They also pointed to the gaping discrepancy in degree of sophistication between contemporary material objects, exemplified by the car or the television, and outmoded dwelling forms, especially the family house (Ferenczy 1963:72).

The documentary filmmaker András Kovács added that similarly to other intellectual domains in Hungary, architecture was lacking in “grand visions” and “architects were slothful,” hence the pedestrian character of socialist architecture (Kovács 1965:80–81). Zalotay upset the comfortable status quo of this pragmatic parochialism, which partly explained the strong hostility to the project. Kovács and others also remarked how ironic it was that capitalist countries were more eager to support (and underwrite) communal housing experiments such as Le Corbusier’s Unités or the Habitat 67 project for the 1967 World Expo in Montreal (Galla Kovács 1965:83; Kovács 1965:80). There were also several contributors, engineers and architects among them, who offered to partake in the construction and volunteered to be guinea pigs as dwellers in the new edifice (Jovánovics 1963; Nagy 1965; Tárkányi 1965; Zalotay [1965] 1981). There was even somebody who suggested that the strip house could be realized within the framework of private construction: instead of laboring on scattered family houses, private home builders could contribute to building the strip house in return for an apartment in it (Tárkányi 1965:79).

But as the dialogue between the Ministry of Construction and Zalotay broke down beyond repair—and he found himself increasingly alienated not only from policy makers but also from his fellow architects, whom he repeatedly accused of deliberately undermining his enterprise—he decided to emigrate from Hungary to Switzerland in 1973. The building that is today colloquially called the strip house in Budapest is not only a far cry from but also a pitiable caricature of Zalotay’s vision. It is a run-of-the-mill, 10-story prefabricated high-rise a few hundred meters from the Danube, distinguished merely by being the longest residential building in Hungary. Yet the most recent mention of the strip house project, in a 1997 symposium on everyday life in the 1960s organized by the former dissident intellectual magazine Beszélő, struck a surprisingly nostalgic chord. A sociologist, who had been a 22-year-old engineering student at the time of the “strip house debate,” reminisced about his enthusiasm for the project and suggested that perhaps Hungary would have been better off, after all, by realizing it instead of putting up the soulless housing developments: “Had the landscape-devastating building been built, today it would be considered unique, a tourist attraction, and we might even have gotten used to it by now” (Kozák 1997:52).

The Afterlife of the Project and the Architect

Ironically, Zalotay’s new life in the West uncannily reproduced him as a maverick, a “difficult person,” while his intellectual trajectory resonated in several respects with subsequent architectural developments in Hungary, namely the growing importance of self-build practices. In Switzerland he plunged himself into developing a do-it-yourself building system that employs prefabricated panels light enough, strong enough, and cheap enough for people to construct their own house, even in multistory form (Architectural Review 1986; Wines and Jodidio 2000:208–209; Zalotay 2005). He built his own house as an experimental prototype in Ziegelried, near Bern, using recycled materials and drawing on the technological innovations he experimented with for the strip house project.

But rather than bringing him the fame and professional recognition that was denied to him in Hungary, the house provoked the wrath of locals who interpreted “this turf-roofed, double-skinned mixture of modernity and medievalism” as a frontal attack on the cozy homogeneity of provincial Switzerland (Architectural Review 1986:60; Gerle 2003; Wines and Jodidio 2000).[18] They petitioned for the house to be demolished and threw stones through its windows, which Zalotay stoically left in the place where they landed, incorporating them into the organically expanding collage of the building and its surroundings. He has also produced a series of other fanciful plans, including a slanting skyscraper that tilts at the wind and another one that can be erected with his do-it-yourself building system by amateur constructors. These ideas received sympathetic reviews in leading architectural journals for their originality and nonconformity but never came close to realization (ay 1992; J. S. R. 1990; ub 1988; Wines and Jodidio 2000).


Its controversial reception aside, Zalotay’s solo mission in the limelight certainly captured the zeitgeist in at least two important ways. On the one hand, the strip house episode demonstrated that the 1960s were still the heyday of audacious visions, experimentation, and deeply ingrained optimism regarding the promises of tabula rasa solutions to social and intellectual problems both in the West and the East (see also Ferkai 1990). The assembly line logic of the strip house conjured up the great expectations of architects in the West, from the constructivists to Le Corbusier to Moshe Safdie, the young designer of Canada’s most famous prefabricated housing experiment, Habitat 67, whose postwar work was built on the premise that the industrialization of architecture was no longer a mere pipe dream as in the 1920s but a reality within close reach. The extraordinary technological advances of the postwar decades made it more plausible than ever that apartments would indeed be factory-produced and roll off the belts like automobiles (Baker 1997; JA – Japan Architect 1967; Newman 1964; Safdie 1992). In Central and Eastern Europe the conclusion of the Stalinist era ushered in a brief period in the early 1960s when new hopes were formulated, only to be undercut by the end of the decade through the introduction of imported prefabrication systems and the purely bureaucratic attitude to housing construction.

On the other hand, it expressed the profound postwar ambivalence about city life: the conviction that urban life was somehow superior to country living but that the current state of the city was deplorable; the attraction of city life was ruined by growth that generated disorder, crime, confusion, alienation, and pollution (Interbuild 1962; Zoltán 1964). Architectural projects that propagated collective housing superblocks, “city-houses,” claimed to rescue the perceived civilizational virtues of urbanity while fusing them with the advantages of community living and the healing effect of natural landscapes. The neo-avant-garde urban visions, from the British Archigram to Yona Friedman’s ideas about multilevel cities in France, were all also still predicated on the power of new technologies to improve people’s lives and the coming bliss of a technocratic future (Cook 1999).

In Hungary, however, reality soon caught up with bold visions. As far as radical utopian blueprints also epitomize an intense critique of the stifling present, the failure of Zalotay’s strip house project became an emblem of architects’ growing disillusionment and disorientation. From the 1960s until the collapse of state socialism, architects seemed unhappily trapped between the tedious routine of mass production under state command and the self-imposed bind of a modernist orthodoxy that narrowed their definition of acceptable affordable housing design, blinding them to the persistent lack of well-designed dwellings for the bulk of the Hungarian population.

Even though the concrete constructivist projects and the political circumstances were substantively different in the case of both episodes discussed in the analysis, it was a similar doomed interaction between bold intellectual initiatives, conservative political forces, and Hungary’s interstitial geopolitical position that led to failure in implementing constructivist projects. While in the immediate postwar period constructivist experimentation was inhibited due to sweeping political changes and the need to align cultural policy with developments in the Soviet Union, in the 1960s the bureaucratization of architecture and urban planning seemed to present the most serious roadblock. Tracing the legacy of radical utopian solutions in postwar Hungary also reveals the changing character of state control over architecture and urban design. The direct political intervention through cultural policy that characterized the 1950s under socialist realism gave way to technocratic control through technological change (industrialization), central economic planning, and five-year plans that allocated the resources for mass housing construction projects. Thus large-scale technological change in the form of industrialization and modular construction, which interwar constructivists viewed as the great promise and liberating force of “new architecture,” indeed became vehicles for political control and deprofessionalization. The two episodes described above shed light on how constructivism in particular and radical utopianism in general came to be coupled with various social and political agendas that often caused their demise; and yet, they left a complex and lasting legacy even when they failed.


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От конструктивизма к «упрощенному модернизму»: ломаная траектория радикального утопизма в послевоенной Центральной Европе

Вираг Молнар

Вираг Молнар – профессор факультета социологии в Новой школе социальных исследований. Адрес для переписки: 6 East 16th Street, Room 1012, New York, NY 10003, USA.

В этой статье на примере конструктивизма демонстрируется значимое, пусть и не постоянное влияние радикального утопизма на послевоенные планы по крупномасштабной трансформации городской застройки. Вместо того чтобы, как в других странах, лидировать в архитектуре в течение сколь-нибудь длительного времени и затем постепенно сойти на нет, в Венгрии конструктивизм проявлялся несколько раз – короткими, но весьма интенсивными вспышками. В центре внимания – анализ двух исторических эпизодов: замыслов реконструкции Будапешта после 1945 года и планов по возведению огромного многоквартирного здания, известного как «Длинный дом» (szalagház). Основная цель этого анализа – показать, как конструктивизм подпадал под влияние разных социальных и политических интересов, нередко способствовавших его провалу, однако не помешавших оставить сложное и непреходящее наследие. Автор статьи постулирует, что зигзагообразная траектория развития послевоенной конструктивистской архитектуры в Венгрии во многом объясняется буферным геополитическим и культурным положением страны – на перепутье между Востоком и Западом. Именно поэтому Венгрия, как и другие центральноевропейские страны, представляет собой пример нелинейной циркуляции интеллектуальных идей и культурных моделей на региональном и международном уровнях.

Ключевые слова: радикальный утопизм; социальные изменения; застроенная окружающая среда; городское планирование; интеллектуальный обмен; культурная политика; Венгрия

  1. All translations from the Hungarian are my own unless otherwise indicated.
  2. The fact that, despite geographical and political proximity, the influence of Russian constructivism exerts itself in Hungary not directly but indirectly, mediated in large part through Western European institutions such as the Bauhaus, also underscores the need for constructing more complex models that capture the international circulation of intellectual and artistic trends.
  3. This evolutionary model sees a pattern of growth in the history of art and architecture whereby changes in form and style always point ahead and indicate continuous progress. The development of art and architecture is also viewed to parallel human intellectual and technological development.
  4. Similar arguments have been made for other former socialist countries from the region (see Kulić [2013] and Zarecor [2011]).
  5. The Budapest Council of Public Works was established in 1870 and modeled on the English Metropolitan Board of Works to aid the development of the united Budapest that emerged from the official merger of three constituent towns (Buda, Pest, and Óbuda) in 1873. It was the most important institution of urban development until World War I and is largely responsible for the development of Budapest’s key landmarks, including several bridges, the Parliament building, Hero’s Square, Andrassy Avenue, and the underground railway. Its influence waned in the interwar period, and after a brief period of renewal following World War II it was dissolved in 1948 (see Déry 1995; Kocsis 2009; Preisich 1998).
  6. The interwar period generated several similar modernist urban plans, Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” (1933) being probably the best-known example, but there were local Hungarian precursors as well (Rácz 1941).
  7. One unique feature of the “four-corner” city plan was that Münnich tried to closely coordinate urban design elements with local, urban, and regional institutional and governance structures. He proposed the idea of a “central block” (főtömb), a variation on the “neighborhood unit” (Mumford 1954), to denote a roughly 1,600-square-meter area. This area would have been closely integrated with urban transportation nodes (so that nobody would have to walk more than 400 meters to get access to the city’s transportation networks) and provided the formula for the planning of public, social, and commercial services within the block.
  8. Some commentators (Vadas 1985) even argued that the competition entries were in part so radical because they overestimated the extent of destruction in the city, as the competition was organized before the full assessment of the physical damage caused by the war was concluded and publicized.
  9. In architecture and urban planning, unbuilt designs can be as influential as projects that actually materialize. The best-known constructivist example is probably Tatlin’s Tower, the Monument to the Third International, designed by Vladimir Tatlin in 1919.
  10. See Prakfalvi 1999b, 1999c, as well as Magyar Dolgozók Pártja Központi Vezetőség Agitációs és Propaganda Osztálya, “Vita építészetünk helyzetéről” [Debate about the state of our architecture] 1951, Transcript, Hungarian Architectural Museum, Budapest.
  11. Acsay immigrated to New York, Masirevich first left for Basel and Paris and in 1949 also settled in the United States, in Los Angeles. Münnich left Hungary in 1948, just like the famous Olgyay brothers who eventually ended up in Princeton, as Aladár Olgyay taught at the Princeton University School of Architecture from 1953 to 1959.
  12. A collective/communal house can be broadly defined as “housing with more communal spaces or collectively organized facilities than conventional housing” (Vestbro 2000:165).
  13. Over 50 years after its completion, the Marseille Unité is still a successful apartment block. Its inhabitants are mainly liberal professionals (and not low-income families as originally planned), and the capacity of its communal facilities has been somewhat reduced, but it still houses shops, a nursery, recreational facilities (gym, sauna, rooftop paddling pool), as well as a small cinema, theater, and a hotel for visitors (Hussel 1997). Other Unités, with the exception of the one in Berlin, fared less well. Several of these were intended for guest workers; they gradually fell into disrepair and deteriorated socially in the last decades. The Unité in Briey-en-Forêt, for instance, was slated for demolition in the early 1980s and only narrowly escaped this fate (Szentpéteri 2000).
  14. One of the most famed of these communal houses, Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin in Moscow, was designed to house approximately 200 people (Buchli 1998:162).
  15. Few illustrations of these blueprints survived. They can be viewed at the design website HG.HU, which did a special feature on the strip house (
  16. Zalotay was in the end left out of the film because the director wanted to devote a full-length film to his individual story. This project was never completed because Zalotay emigrated to Switzerland in the early 1970s.
  17. Interestingly enough, the documentary itself shows signs of Western European cultural influence. The director, András Kovács, travelled around France before he embarked on the project and became strongly inspired by the work of Jean Rouch, the French filmmaker and anthropologist who is considered one of the founders of cinema verité (Barnouw 1993).
  18. Images of the building can be viewed at


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