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The New Budapest

At the epicenter of Budapest, where the subway lines and radial avenues intersect, lies a new park that almost nobody understands. A row of glass pavilions slashes across its lawn. Etched into the panes are vague architectural details—floor plans, cornices, window trim. In between the outlines are endlessly repeating strings of numbers: 1789194719982001.

They're years, and each one represents a new phase of construction on this Erzsébet Square park. The images are ghosts of buildings past. The city's centuries of foreign occupation, from the Bronze Age to the Iron Curtain, have left behind a nearly illegible palimpsest of construction and reconstruction, and this site, with all its layers of rebuilding, is a microcosm of Budapest's continual architectural reinvention.

I have visited the city several times a year for nearly a decade; I lived there for four years in the nineties. I've tried to learn the bewildering language, which is related to no other tongue except Finnish and Estonian and some tribal dialects in western Siberia. Every time I think I've plumbed the depths of the place, something changes. And the city is becoming ever more welcoming to foreigners, as it morphs from Communist backwater to player on the world stage. Budapest is on the way to re-establishing itself as the Paris of the East, with only a few bumps in the road.

Before world war ii, Budapest was an essential stop on the Grand Tour. Its cultural buzz—the literary coffeehouses, the music created by Hungarian composers like Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók—was practically unrivaled in Europe. Attracting foreign investors in every sector, from oil to hotels, Budapest was a lively, polyglot city. Then, in 1948, Communism marooned it. Instead of being a magnet for émigrés, Hungary became best known as a starting point for refugees who went on to make careers elsewhere, people like Intel's Andrew S. Grove; Microsoft's former chief programmer, Charles Simonyi; the writers Kati Marton and George Lang; and billionaire investor George Soros.

The Communists, to their credit, didn't damage the cityscape much. Hungary always kept some distance from Moscow, in part due to the language barrier, and developed a relatively loose oppressive system fondly known as goulash Communism. That is, not every shop was forcibly nationalized, not every advertisement was forbidden, and not every dissenting word was censored. The Soviets also let the Hungarians rebuild after the war, the scars of which had left three-quarters of the city uninhabitable. Two landmarks from the 1890's standing on opposite sides of the Danube—a Beaux-Arts castle for the Hapsburgs and a Gothic parliament house modeled after London's—were carefully restored. On the avenues and waterfront, only a scant number of new buildings was allowed, though most were wretched concrete office and apartment blocks or garish glass-box hotels. Architects, however, respected the roofline, giving the city a uniformity of a half-dozen stories—just like in Paris.

But goulash Communism never turned a profit. Since there was no incentive to fix up residential exteriors, century-old buildings, in styles from Art Nouveau to proto-Bauhaus, were neglected. When I lived in Budapest, nearly every street had at least one mournfully empty palace leaking onto the sidewalk, missing petals on its carved ornaments or heads on its cupids, kept from collapse by some timber props. Now my memories of "old" Budapest—that is, from the late nineties—feel less tangible every time I visit.

I lived just outside the Hapsburgs' castle, on a snaggletoothed residential lane of weedy, deserted lots inhabited by affectionate stray cats. I grew to love the prevailing somberness, the traces of pre-war boom times: the faded signs for defunct department stores, the surviving Belle Époque cafés with a few chipped, gilded bentwood chairs. Today, the town's prosperity is palpable everywhere.

In the past decade, foreign investors have pumped billions of dollars into the country for factories and high-tech outfits (with $1.1 billion coming from General Electric alone), taking advantage of cheap real estate and aggressive privatization. Next year, Hungary is slated to join the European Union, a move many Hungarians see as their closest alignment with the West since the Turks isolated the country in 1526. An American air base has been built 110 miles southwest of Budapest, and Hungarians—despite being dismissed by the French as "badly brought up"—supported the United States' plans to invade Iraq. The Hungarian currency, the forint, is strong; a few years ago it was sinking past 300 per dollar and seemed destined for a steady decline, but with countless homegrown entrepreneurs setting up businesses and inflation being held in check, it has since rebounded to the low 200's. Yet it's still hard to spend more than $30 for a memorable dinner, even in the trendy restaurants with psychedelic polka-dot walls or the boîtes with exact replicas of Belle Époque interiors.

Capitalists have made an obvious contribution to the city, though both foreign and domestic investors have nonetheless made aesthetic missteps. The city imposes height limits on new buildings but doesn't do much to control design or materials, which has resulted in block after block of cement-curtain walls. I cringe whenever I walk past a reflective-glass branch of the German-owned Astron Hotel chain, rising behind a wedding-cake-like 1896 theater near Parliament.

But then I remember what Budapest's hotels looked like just five years ago. When I lived there, I could safely recommend two kinds to visiting friends: either run-down older buildings on side streets, upholstered in nubby brown Communist-era fabrics, or circa-1975 cubes on the waterfront. (Multinational chains like Marriott and Hyatt took over many lots where the city's grandest hotels, built a hundred years ago, had once stood—all of them destroyed during the bombing raids of World War II.)


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