Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 4
16 October 1998

C S A R D A S:
Florian Square

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

"Your sins will kill you" admonishes the graffiti sprayed upon the concrete wall of the local supermarket in angular blue letters alongside a possible remedy: "Jesus is the source of eternal life". Huddling at the foot of the hills of Buda, tucked between the flyovers that gracefully slope and weave in an eternal static dance, lies Florian Square, distinguished by its parched expanse of public lawn strewn with concrete imitation Roman columns alongside the genuine article, remnants of statuary, oddly out of place in the comfortless landscape of suburban sprawl, venerated rubble, exposed to the relentless gaze of commuters and vandals alike.

In the dark subway beneath, further traces of the ancient settlement are to be found amongst the discount bookshops and cheerless buffets whose customers perch sullenly on bar stools, slumped in resignation. The barriers designed to protect the ruins of God knows what (since the painstakingly researched commentaries on the commemorative plaques have been rendered completely illegible) are smeared with mud and paint where they have not been smashed, thick shards littering the steps of the raised viewing area. Headstones inscribed with the heroic deeds of warriors or piously depicting deceased couples frozen in timeless devotion are juxtaposed with overflowing litter bins or, compounding the bittersweet irony of decline and decay, black bags full of the detritus of modern civilisation.

Emerging back into the watery sunlight with a shudder induced by the sudden assault on the senses of exhaust fumes, dust particles and the ceaseless roar of traffic, the array of prefabricated high-rises appears even bleaker than usual. Block after block of state-commissioned monotony stretches in every direction, the sole relief to unremitting grey provided by garish neon testimonials to the triumph of global corporate brands (in this instance Coca-Cola) and the glum reminder of our frailty encapsulated in advertisements for insurance companies. Satellite dishes break the oppressive symmetry of the facades like giant, unblinking eyes; damp laundry hangs listless in the stale afternoon air; children hurtle by on skateboards and roller-blades; the green of the tree and villa-lined hills beyond almost taunting in its exaggerated vitality, serving to heighten the contrast between relative physical proximity and social distance. Town and city planners throughout the country have slavishly followed the pattern so familiar from elsewhere in central Europe: the historical centre constricted in a tight concrete embrace, stunted token trees and rusting climbing frames and swings stranded amongst the asphalt.

Austere and cramped dwellings such as those to be found on Florian Square house approximately a quarter of the total population of Hungary, some two and a half million souls confined between their insulated walls. From an architectural point of view they are stable, reliable structures well able to withstand the ravages of earthquakes and inclement weather (though the flat roofs are notoriously prone to leakages) and though their fabric is expected, according to a recent survey, to last at least another hundred years, improvements to the outdated heating systems and waste disposal shafts would be welcome. Unfortunately, however, even basic maintenance costs are far beyond the reach of most flat owners, the beneficiaries of a wave of privatisation in the wake of the collapse of Communism.

Few properties remain in the hands of local authorities and banks are reluctant to lend without cast-iron guarantees of being paid back. There is little alternative for the hapless occupant to sitting tight, grinning and bearing it in the knowledge that certain compatriots are worse off since here, as elsewhere, there is an acute housing shortage (according to under secretary of state, Mr. Istvan Balsay - as interviewed in Magyar Nemzet - forty thousand new flats a year would have to be built instead of the current quota of twenty three thousand to cater fully for the needs of young people wanting to set up a home) and that, in spite of their lack of appeal to the more aesthetic sensibilities, the utilitarian products of the heyday of social housing are in better condition than their elderly, more elegant rivals in the city centre whose ornamented sandstone splendour conceals a multitude of ailments.

The residential wastelands do not traditionally form the staple of media debate, except in occasional set pieces about delinquency and soaring crime rates. We scarcely notice their existence because they are too commonplace, too banal, too much part of our lives. We prefer to ignore the drab settings of our dramas in favour of the excitement of the plot itself, but due to a spate of fires over the summer, the safety (or otherwise) of these buildings has been subjected to close scrutiny in a mass ritual catharsis.

An outcry was triggered after a number of tragic and needless deaths were caused by the dilemma faced in reconciling the desire to protect property and enjoy peace of mind with the need to enter and leave the blocks of flats easily. On each floor, the individual apartments are rendered inaccessible to unwanted intruders by means of a sturdy barred gate at the end of the access corridor, but the obstacle to deter would-be burglars can block the escape route of fire victims as well as hampering the efforts of firemen trying to extinguish the blaze. Nor is the work of the emergency services made any easier by the clutter of objects that tends to accumulate in front of people's doors.

This is not the sort of problem that can easily be remedied by passing legislation, which would be perceived (justifiably) as an unwelcome intrusion into the private sphere. Nothing needs to be done in terms of ameliorating the quality of the basic building materials: the damage to the neighbouring flats was caused by smoke and the water used to douse the flames. Crime cannot be prevented on the basis of wishful thinking; it cannot be wished away. The very intractability of the problem encourages defeatism, or, at best, a sour resignation to harsh realities.

The impassioned nature of the public response can be explained in part by such feelings of defencelessness. A raw nerve had been touched, a nagging doubt thrown into high relief.

In Florian Square, the hustle and bustle of the rush hour traffic continues unaffected by such concerns. An old man shuffles along the pavement towards the supermarket with its grimy windows and lists of discounts. "What are you gawping at?" scrawled in crimson along the reinforced concrete above his head.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 16 October 1998


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