Ideology or Iconography: Formative architecture as a socialist/modernist legacy, Budapest

A lecture by Graham Bell at Central European University in Budapest on the legacy of socialist and modernist architecture.

Graham Bell is a board member of Europa Nostra and member of the Advisory Panel of the 7 Most Endangered Programme. He was involved in the mission to the Buzludzha monument in Bulgaria, a 7 Most Endagered site in 2018.

One of the more challenging aspects of the 7 Most Endangered programme is how we deal with recent history as expressed in its architecture. It is about the power of choice, and its consequences.

The recent past is always the most difficult to evaluate. History is impersonal but our world is shaped by personal influences. Do we celebrate what our grandparents’ generation did because they built it? Can we be truly objective? The recent past is not the domain of unknown ghosts of history but of living memories, values and sentiments – real people, real relationships, real reactions. It is like a lava field where the rock is still being formed, the heat still in it, the mysteries and risks still unpredictable. It is where imagination is still becoming real.

Churchill said, ‘history will be kind to me for I shall write it.’ That is true of all of us. But what shall we write about times that were, for us, formative, and perhaps still raw? Are we qualified to decide what survives or should be condemned? Across Europe, but especially in countries that have emerged from a period of socialism, these can be tough decisions. Society creates its own history. That means all of us in the choices we make. If history is the storyline of society, we are all editors of the chapter written by our grandparents and parents; what we celebrate or condemn determines their legacy.

In this, the centenary of the creation of Bauhaus, 50 years since the death of its founder Gropius, and 30 years since the seismic changes to Europe, the presentation considered the expression of societies in transition through its architecture. But this was not a retrospective, a journey into the past; it was about the value judgements which inform choices and ultimately our collective role in editing history – what we choose to pass on in a narrative to the next generation.

For central and eastern Europe, the story took some unexpected turns. Do we tear from the book the pages about the twentieth century? Do we reminisce for times when architecture was bold and even assertive? Or do we see all with an unbiased perspective?

The lecture considered how architectural eras and styles provide a framework for cultural significance and for better or worse, inform action – or sometimes, deliberate neglect. Based on his published research on national historic building collections, his involvement in the 7 Most Endangered programme and the current example of the Buzludzha House-Monument in Bulgaria, Graham Bell took the audience on a journey through dilemmas and, ultimately, how to be ready and informed for the time we need to choose, and to act.

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