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March 10, 2016

Budapest Tries Inclusive Urban Transformation

Budapest Tries Inclusive Urban Transformation

By Levente Polyák

In most European and North American cities, as well as in the overcrowded metropolises of the developing world, the most unevenly distributed and scarcely available resource is space. In Western cities, the real estate sector has accounted for a significant part economic activity for many years. As a result of the housing boom in North American and Europe in the first half of the 2000s, property rental – for both work and living space – began to eat up an increasing proportion of peoples incomes. Urban living became an everyday struggle for private and shared spaces.

But after the financial meltdown of 2008, a surplus in available square metres emerged in even the most dynamic city economies. Much of this had no prospect of being rented again because of obsolete layouts or unattractive locations. The same fate confronts other building types throughout Europe, including schools, factories, workshops, commercial spaces and homes.

This phenomenon is not specific to any region. While the cityscapes of Amsterdam and Rotterdam are blighted by unrentable office towers, Leipzig has empty residential buildings, Rome has shuttered movie theaters and Spain has deserted hotels. Not to mention the countless halted construction sites across Southern Europe: as an interviewee of Benoît Felici’s documentary film “Unfinished Italy” remarks, “The most important architectural style of post-war Italy is the Unfinished Sicilian.” Unfortunately, the problem of dormant properties is agravated and prolonged by rigid management concepts of the pre-crisis era.

Without vacant real estate, it would be impossible to find flats, shops or offices to rent. However, above a certain rate, vacancy hurts everyone. Owners pay charges on their unrented shops, apartments and offices and unused properties age and lose value. The commercial activity of a neighborhood drops off and shops no longer get foot traffic. Boarded-up houses and shops with lowered shutters threaten public safety because no one sees what happens on the street.

Urban actors in Europe respond to the problem in various ways: the lack of financial resources leads governments and municipalities to re-interpret their existing infrastructure and to reactivate it by involving new functions and new actors. In many cities, the inflexible planning system characteristic of the modernist era has been gradually replaced by “soft urbanism”, allowing for experimentation with new functions at test-sites, where successes can lead to large investments. This open-ended planning system gives more emphasis to the temporal dimension of developments, enabling temporary uses and successive phases in the development process. 

To consider the “in-between time” between the moment a property is vacated and the time it hosts new activity, design professionals were stimulated by the limits of the shrinking market and the discovery of areas ignored by official planning mechanisms. This approach gives preference to small-scale, often temporary, community-oriented interventions rather than extensive construction projects. It responds to the needs of local communities instead of speculative investors.

These problems and opportunities are the focus of the Lakatlan programme, run by the KÉK – Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Centre in Budapest. KÉK got started in 2005 as an association of architects, urbanists, journalists and artists who wanted a space for discussing architecture and the city. They found a suitable site: a warehouse in the backyard of a museum. This cavernous hall, in the vicinity of Budapest’s central but infamous Keleti railway station, was in bad shape: unused for decades and still bearing graffiti by the Soviet soldiers who used it after the Second World War, it needed significant improvement. However, the building was a catalyst in KÉK’s story: it not only gave form to the organisation but also determined many of its activities and helped form the organisation’s identity, sometimes contrary to original plans.

The warehouse influenced KÉK’s programme in many ways. It not only enabled the organisation of professional events, it also encouraged the extension of events into parties where visitors wondered about KÉK’s real mission. The building’s location in an extremely dense working-class neighborhood made the area visible to a city-wide audience and inspired ideas about KÉK’s potential roles in urban regeneration.

Two years later, KÉK moved to another location: a seven-storey, 6,000 m2 downtown office building that offered very different possibilities. Learning from their lost investment in the previous location, and conscious of their short–term, 6-month contract, KÉK’s members did not invest much in the building. They opened the premises to the public as a “found space”, adapting their events to the building’s peculiar, 100-room layout.

KÉK stayed here only a short while, but this period had a long-lasting effect. The experience of using two radically different buildings in distant parts of the city taught KÉK about the importance of space in the life of an organisation, and about the possibilities and obligations of running a space. It also inspired KÉK’s members to think about potential multiplications of the experience: how to help civic organisations, cultural initiatives and social enterprises experiment in spaces and learn about their spatial needs, capacities and costs. 

After launching its first community gardens in 2010, guiding walks to the city’s unknown spaces as unused resources, and organising workshops about architectural possibilities in vacant lots and attic spaces, KÉK began a structured research into the phenomenon of vacancy. We wanted to understand the causes, patterns and potential of empty shops, offices, schools, hotels, department stores, cinemas and theatres all across the city.

After a lecture series bringing together diverse approaches (architects, planners, sociologists, shopkeepers, and activists from Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Vienna and Zagreb) to vacancy, the programme concentrated its energies on mapping vacant spaces in the city. It also elaborated models for small-scale urban regeneration, based on the reuse of empty shops and buildings of a neighborhood. In May 2013, KÉK, together with the Vienna-based Wonderland Platform for European Architecture, invited architects from Helsinki, Sheffield and Rotterdam to work together with residents on a neighbourhood plan for the temporary use of vacant properties. The workshop generated questions that opened the way for later phases of the Lakatlan programme: How to think about vacant spaces as elements of a neighborhood-scale ecosystem where certain activities and functions can support each other, in financial ways and by bringing added visibility.

Inspired by the workshop and various study trips, the concept of connecting the urban regeneration process with the spatial needs of bottom-up initiatives has been the underlying principle of the programme’s operational phase. In September 2013, we began working with civic organisations, social enterprises and cultural initiatives, mapping their spatial needs, organisational means and co-operational capacities, and connecting them with owners of longtime unrented spaces. In this process, we established working groups comprising municipal officers, real estate professionals and civic organisations: focusing on various sites of potential intervention, from streets concentrating vacant shops to school buildings and large open spaces, we embarked on elaborating frameworks for municipal policies as well as for multi-actor co-operations.

This work led to the Festival of Empty Shops, organised in October 2014 with the Budapest Municipality. This opened longtime vacant shops for a dozen initiatives willing to take over a ground-floor space for a month, testing the pros and cons of physical presence and constant availability. At the end of the month, a quarter of the initiatives negotiated long-term contracts with their landlord, building on mutual confidence and a growing understanding of each others’ positions.

Addressing the possibilities of larger buildings, as well as smaller, distributed spaces, the cautious drafting of rental contracts as well as the careful organisation of renovation and maintenance activities turned out to be key elements in the sustainability of the accommodated initiatives. This is where the programme’s next steps are taking us: to explore funding possibilities, economic models and legal formats for the cooperative renovation, management and ownership of vacant urban spaces.

With the support of SEiSMiC, KÉK will host an event on just this topic April 6-8 in Budapest.

Levente Polyák is a founding member of the KÉK - Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Centre.