I’m nostalgic for my first few minutes in District VI, walking into my apartment building and seeing the spiral staircase and the central yard lined with tilting balconies and the open blue sky in the middle. All producing the first picture I took in Hungary, snapped on my phone while dragging two suitcases to the top floor.
The central courtyard, so charming and confusing when I first saw it, is pretty typical of Budapest. Before the advent of the hideous concrete boxes of the communist era, most residential buildings were constructed in this style. (Anyone know its official name?) Imagine it as a square or rectangular hole in the middle of the building, so that from an aerial view, the building looks like a thick picture frame with the courtyard floor the picture. The neat thing is that while many buildings now have restored and renovated exteriors as recovery from age, deterioration, and war scars from the middle of the 20th century, many courtyards remain as they originally were.
The one in my building is quite empty today. Just a dusty, green patch of ground. I’ve seen a few with fountains and statues, one with a garden, some with tables and chairs, and others that have been privatized for business or commercial use. Historically, however, these spaces had pretty exciting uses. Sure, there was always the business of laundry and dusting carpets. But some courtyards have been centers of political mobilization and open dialogue in times of trouble — like the Gozsdu courtyard, host to dissenters and rebels in the 1950s.
An excellent New York Times article from 1990, written by Alexandra Shelley, is full of great facts and musings about courtyards where “a traveler can find forgotten treasures of art and architecture, and footprints of the wars and revolutions that have marched across Hungary for the last millennium.” A conjunction of the past and present, these are also places with “sculptures ranging from neo-classical Greek gods to a socialist-realist bear on a scooter; an old dungeon; silversmiths’ workshops and stables; lush gardens, and the basic component of Hungarian urban landscape architecture: car tires planted with flowers.” What also makes them special today, Shelley says, is their unassuming, tucked-away existence.
The politicization of the everyday that has cyclically engulfed Budapest over the last two centuries did not miss these structures. Speaking of the socio-economic matrix within which the courtyards were originally designed in the 19th century, Shelley says —
“An interior yard allowed the coexistence within one building of both lower and upper classes – ‘Park Avenue and the South Bronx in the same building,’ as one Hungarian professor of urban anthropology, Istvan Teplan, put it. Facing the street were exclusive apartments. But fronting on the interior were small flats whose residents shared one bathroom in the corridor and drew their water from the courtyard well. In the country’s stormy history courtyards have also served as centers of rebellion. After the invention of the vacuum cleaner and the Communist system, grievances (if not rugs) continued to be aired. In fact, Professor Teplan speculates that this architectural device was abandoned during the Communist era precisely to discourage the subversive commerce of ideas.” And perhaps to bolster the hypocritical insistence on equality that was so painfully expressed in the kommunalka, since this autocratic regime rarely left a decision without the hammer of petty ideology.