I occasionally (as in, frequently) have questionable ideas, and one of these was jogging to the polling station a couple of weekends ago, keeping my fingers crossed that the chilly weather would allow me to be fairly presentable, both visually and odour-wise. I either succeeded, or the ladies in the electoral commission have by now learned to be poker faced about everything. So, riding the high of a job well done, I was returning from the Romanian embassy through Városliget when my eyes fell on what I shall forever call Olof Palme House, a new forever-something item on my list, after Forever Ferihegy and Forever Moszkva square. Forever Olof Palme House had been lying in disrepair ever since I’d arrived in Budapest in the early noughties, a time when ELTE was still using the Dürer sor campus, which meant it often served as a mildly Gothic backdrop to skipping Introduction to phonology. Or, alternatively, one of the more tedious literature seminars, which I would compensate by pretending Olof Palme House was Miss Havisham’s residence while willing myself through Great Expectations.
That Városliget, also home to the much loved and regretted Petőfi Csarnok, is now gone, like Miss Havisham’s youthful illusions. (I am most definitely entering odd sidenote territory here, but I must share the fact that I was always fascinated by the fact that ilusión is used to express both hope and excitement in Spanish.) It is instead slowly swallowed up by the concrete monstrosity of the Liget project, which will replace large areas of greenery with architecturally questionable buildings. Their supposed cultural role feels more like a ruse used to dampen people’s opposition- everyone loves another museum, don’t they? Sure I do too, but you can perhaps place it somewhere with say, less trees and more already existing concrete.
This being said, at least they’ll fix Olof Palme House, I thought. And fix it they did, first by renaming it Millennium House, assuming here that Olof Palme sounds a bit foreign to certain concrete loving ears, though just as Ferihegy airport is located in Ferihegy, this building is also located on the Olof Palme alley. (Let me ramble some more and mention Lágymányosi bridge being renamed Rákóczi in spite of it being in, you guessed it right, Lágymányos.) What’s in a name, though, so I approached the eerily clean and colourful façade of the Millennium House with an open heart filled with compassionate love for what I always felt to be a sorry little building that deserved better. Originally designed to be an art gallery for the 1885 National Exhibition, it proved to be too small and a bit too off the main thoroughfares to ever successfully fulfill its role. It did go through a number of aborted attempts to house art of some form in it, and a brief stint as a military hospital during WWII, when its original decorations were heavily damaged.
Its current iteration houses, no surprise here, an exhibition on the history of the Városliget, a conference hall (not very big, see above mentioned issues with size) and a café. We decided to skip visiting the first two and went straight for the café, which is visually quite satisfying (and decidedly Insta-friendly) with a good dose of art déco mixed with the occasional Germanic kitsch that does nevertheless suit a certain type of building built during the dual monarchy. When it comes to the catering, though, we’re back in sad little things territory, with sad little coffees that taste like mud and sad little Ischlers that have exactly the same taste of woodchip they had 10 years ago in the Dürer campus cafeteria, for about a tenth of the price. To make up for the sadness, a rather spectacular spiral staircase has been added, leading from the café and museum area to the conference room floor. While many details, even the risky Zsolnay porcelain fish fountain, turned out quite well, there is an overall feeling of stiffness and artifice, a wish to recreate an imagined golden age for an audience, quite possibly, of tourists.
These tourists are however still far and few in between, its remote location again stabbing Olof Palme House in the back, with most of its visitors currently being curious locals who sniff around the rose garden and nibble on the sugary ‘delights’ in the café with uncertain faces.
The throngs, well, they’re in Párizsi Udvar (Courtyard), another divisive recent renovation. Don’t get me wrong, I am the first to celebrate old buildings getting a new lease on life, but I just hope they don’t do it as Frankenstein’s monsters. Located on the right hand side of Ferenciek square in what is known as the Brudern house, Párizsi udvar is the last surviving shopping gallery of early 20th Century Budapest. Or, better said, it was, for a while neglected, now turned into the fake backdrop of a Hollywood film set in some decadent Central European city of the roaring 20s.
Its renovators had the literal one job, and a lucrative one, for that matter- keep it as a shopping gallery, as close in spirit as possible to the original, even if selling overpriced Louis Vuitton bags and knick-knacks shaped as paprikas. Instead, we have a luxurious looking doorman of a luxurious looking hotel beside a luxurious looking restaurant and a luxurious looking café, and no shops. Fear not, though, if you want a paprika shaped lighter you can buy it right outside in the souvenir shops which have replaced the historic Jégbüfé, a Budapest institution which was forced to move into a decidedly less romantic spot on the other side of Petőfi street. Allowing it to return to its original location would have given the whole concept a sorely needed boost of authenticity and local charm. Párizsi Udvar’s current version may be beautiful, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs, it is a gilded stranger meant for strangers who stop by for an overpriced cocktail and a photo opportunity. Its most pleasing side is the almost Wes Andersonesque façade as glimpsed from the exiled Jégbüfé, while digging into the thick custard of a francia krémes and complaining about the weather, poor football, life in general and urbanistic and architectural decisions. Now that is the Budapest I know and love.