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The New Budapest

Equally contentious is an Orbán-era museum called the House of Terror. An exposé of Communism's evils, it has been set within an 1880's neo-Renaissance town house on Andrássy Út. In the forties and fifties, the Communist secret police used the building as offices and interrogation rooms; now the House of Terror's four floors of galleries contain re-created torture chambers and walls hung with copies of coerced confessions. Video screens play raucous propaganda footage and interviews with survivors. Spotlights shine on luxury goods the police thugs enjoyed: shiny black cars, pressed uniforms, custom porcelain dinnerware. One corridor toward the end of this draining exhibition is lined with portraits of "victimizers," former officers or informants who, unlike the victims they accused of anti-government activity, are mostly still alive. Another room is devoted to filmed praise for Orbán himself.

The museum has been lauded as essential historical testimony, and dismissed as an act of political swagger. Medgyessy's government has cut the museum's budget; there was a rumor the place would be shut down altogether. There are already plans afoot to shrink the façade's billboard-sized sign: it reads TERROR in stencils, casting a pall on the elegant avenue.

But just when civic architecture seems hopelessly stalled in politics, Budapest changes again. Before the right-wingers left office, construction began alongside the vilified National Theater on a sleek glass-walled cultural complex with two performance halls and a contemporary art museum. Although the Young Democrats started the project, the Hungarian Socialist Party will finish it, in a rare act of collaboration. And maybe a stonecutter will come along someday and etch the walls, like those in Erzsébet Square, with dates of every phase of its evolution so far.

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