Modern Budapest–A 1946 plan to drastically reimagine the Hungarian capital

If architect József Fischer had his way, much of central Budapest as we know it today would have been gutted, making way for what may have been considered seventy years ago as a groundbreaking modern utopia. The Urbanista blog, associated with the Index news site, dug up some fascinating plans and proposals from 1946, for how Budapest might look in the second half of the twentieth century. The proposals appeared in a professional journal entitled Tér és Forma (Space and Form) and were Mr. Fischer’s brainchild. Considering that the architect’s proposals bear a striking resemblance to the socialist realism that took hold more than a decade later, there is no doubt that Mr. Fischer was both a visionary and ahead of his time. In fact, one of the villas he designed for a location in Buda was recognized in the British Architectural Review as “best house of the month.” The bigger question, however, is how many of us today would be excited to see the cozy, cafe-lined streets of central Budapest, surrounded by three to four floor nineteenth century and early twentieth century apartment buildings–especially in the Jewish Quarter of Erszébetváros–give way to Mr. Fischer’s airy, vast squares and towering high-rises, which seem more reminiscent of socialist suburbia…

Central Budapest (Erzsébetváros) as imagined by József Fischer in 1946. Source: Tér és Forma /

Central Budapest (Erzsébetváros) as imagined by József Fischer in 1946. Source: Tér és Forma /

The plan would have completely wiped out one of Budapest’s most frequented and popular streets for young party-goers and masses of British tourists visiting the Hungarian capital for stag weekends, namely Király utca. Locals interchangeably call this area the “Party District” and the “Jewish District.” While this, today, is one of Budapest’s most dynamic and lively areas, with lots of local character stemming from the area’s Jewish heritage, the so-called ruin pubs that made the city famous in recent years and a myriad of bistros, that was not always the case. Growing up in Budapest in the nineties, this part of central Pest was decidedly grey, dreary and visibly exhausted. The district’s mainly elderly residents and the Great Synagogue, which brought some colour to the area, pointed to both a rich and troubled history that included the tragedy of the Budapest Ghetto during World War II. But it was a run-down, quiet area of the city–in stark contrast to the exuberant, loud, charming, but also obnoxious place that it is today.

When Mr. Fischer proposed gutting and completely redesigning the area, he referred to the unhygienic living arrangements, the crumbling buildings that had been haphazardly and poorly repaired over the years, as well as the musty subterranean cellars and workshops that characterized the neighbourhood. Mr. Fischer called the area a “filthy lair” and a slum. The Erzsébetváros area of inner Budapest also had the highest building density in the city and there were already plans to make the district more livable. One of the ideas, brought up before World War II, was to develop a new, airy boulevard. The plan never materialized.

Plans for inner Budapest (1946) Source: Tér és Forma /

Plans for inner Budapest (1946) Source: Tér és Forma /

When Mr. Fischer came forward with his striking proposals for a new Budapest, the Hungarian capital lay in ruins. The fifty day Siege of Budapest (1944/45) either destroyed or heavily damaged 75% of the buildings in the capital, by the time of the unconditional surrender to the Soviets on February 13th, 1945. In total, 32,000 buildings were destroyed during the fighting, as were all bridges connecting Pest and Buda across the Danube. Budapest was often referred to as the “Second Stalingrad.”

When Mr. Fischer published his proposal in 1946, Budapest was faced with a severe housing shortage–some 100,000 new apartments were needed to solve the crisis. The city was decimated, yet residents were streaming back and had nowhere to live. It is important to consider that his proposals for inner Budapest, shocking as they are to many today who love the city’s vibrant centre, were formulated in the midst of a real urban crisis.

Budapest's Party District today. Photo: Népszabadság

Budapest’s Party District today, by night. Photo: Népszabadság

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