BEAUTY | and blight
The thing about Budapest that struck me like a lightning bolt the first time I set eyes on her over 30 years ago was her beauty. Everywhere you turn in this magnificent city beauty delights the eyes. Her architecture is a showcase of Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque Revival styles--and sometimes a combination thereof. Her inner-city, which straddles the grand river Danube, is a showcase of cultural contrast. On the west side sits Medieval Buda's fortified castle and walls, neatly-laid stone-paved streets, Turkish baths, and hilly suburbs that spread toward Lake Balaton. On the eastern bank of the river bustling, urban Pest reflects the city's history as a major European cultural and political player (including co-regnant over the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire). Pest's grand boulevards, statuary plazas, sidewalk cafes, and eye-popping revival architecture (including too many stunning--and active--churches to count) give the impression that with careful city planning, "urban" is not necessarily synonymous with ugly, disordered, or even haphazard.
pictured above: Budapest Inner-city Mother Church of our Lady of the Assumption. Built in the Neo-Classical style.
My neighborhood, just 1/2 block from the river at the Elizabeth Bridge on the Pest side, supports the notion. My flat's rooftop push-out window rewards me with a peekaboo view across the Danube at the beckoning Liberty Statue that perches atop Gellert Hill at the Citadell. To the south, I enjoy a direct view of St. Michael's Church whose bells chime the hours for me with comforting consistency (and whose Latin Mass accentuates both its historicity and relevance--a point for another post). And directly east, I peer down the narrow street past cafes, schools, and shops toward famous Vaci utca, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare that draws thousands of visitors a year, but yet somehow remains tranquil, leafy, and inviting. To say that my little chunk of Pest is charming and beautiful is an understatement, for sure.
pictured above: a private high school directly across the street from my flat. I believe this is done in the Gothic Revival style.
But I must be honest and share something about it that is not beautiful or charming. In fact, it is an aspect of my environs that grates on me daily. My building, built in the Socialist Classicist style (but, I hate to legitimize it thus, so I go with the locally-approved nomenclature "Stalinist"), sticks out like a sore thumb--and not just because well, it was designed to be functional and even ugly. It indeed suffers by comparison; all around it are beautiful, Neo-Renaissance and other gorgeous structures currently under restoration by stonemasons and painters. I understand that my architecturally inferior building could never compete with such grandeur (or even basic attractiveness). I do not hold it against her. This is not what bothers me about her.
She is ugly because graffiti pockmarks her walls, windows, and even front door. When I moved into my flat three weeks ago, I noticed some "street art" sprayed on the wall by the front door. In fact, if you know my exact address (which I will not share here: sorry!), Google maps will give you a good look at my building from over a year ago. Graffiti here and elsewhere is not a new development.
But the amount is new, at least on my building. Day by day (or should I say, night by night) layers of graffiti scrawl have covered over each other. It's almost starting to be pretty--in the same counter-intuitive manner a mole is considered a beauty mark. Pink prose, black expletives, Aquamarine tags. It is definitely colorful.
pictured above: my building (just a tiny example of the graffiti 'art' on her walls). Built in the Stalinist style.
This sort of expression might pass as art if it were painted on something clean--say a while canvas. Or, even my building's wall if it were clean. But clean it is not. The building itself is covered in grime, layers of grime from years of neglect, weather, and city pollution. This of course is obvious because neighboring buildings that have undergone reno now look like museum pieces: spotless, artful, white.
pictured above: a Corinthian column welcomes guests to the lobby of a Pest hotel.
You would think that I, as a new but devoted member of the "I Love Budapest Club" would simply look past this little corner of blight. After all, there are thousands, and I do mean thousands, of beautiful buildings and statuary to gawk at in this world-class city. But somehow when the ugliness sits right at your front door, it is hard to ignore. Honestly, I am sort of embarrassed when I approach, like a teen who wants to be dropped off half a block from their trailer park. I quickly swipe my fob and push in the door, eager to exit the street.
I have wondered but am too afraid to ask friends (including my landlord): is there an office to call for reporting graffiti? Is that a ridiculous (and naive) notion? Or, is the building owner (or in this case owners plural) responsible for outside upkeep? Or the city? Or possibly it's ill-defined because people have bigger problems (and bills).
At any rate, I have thought of trying to clean up the front entry at the very least. But then thought better of it. I do not want to offend my neighbors and especially my landlords who are delightful friends already. I do plan on staying here for quite a while, so I shall not let my vanity--or whatever is inside me that bristles against what I am describing--ruin budding relationships. It is not worth it. I am an outsider still--and a can-do American (which we all know is a plus and a minus).
One interesting aspect of this graffiti business that I shall leave you with. I have watched the workers labor on scaffolds day after day, trowels in hand, paint buckets on ropes, bringing the neighborhood back to its original glory. Where those artisans paint, sculpt and polish remains graffiti-free. Sort of honor among artists. Which, I guess, is why the street artists have tagged my building, the only neglected (and Soviet) one around, with a vengeance. Hmm, maybe if someone were simply to cover over the graffiti with a neutral color and buy a couple of flower boxes for the front door--to show a little care--the graffiti-ists might move along altogether. I'll think about it.
note bene: if you see that I have made an error in describing the architecture or if your opinion differs from mine about the content of the post, don't be shy! I am a neophyte when it comes to art and architecture, albeit an enthusiastic one. I welcome your comments. kab
corrections: one Hungarian friend helpfully writes that "the Inner City Church is Gothic (13th century) except for the main facade - a rare survivor of Ottoman conquest and destruction on the Pest side." Another shared, equally helpfully I might add that the picture above of the church is not the: "Inner-city church but the one dedicated to St. Emeric (in neo-baroque style)". Definitely looks like I have some more studying to do. :)