Political tussle leaves prime cultural location unfinished

Here’s the story I promised, from my contributions to the Budapest Times, March, 2005. I had wanted to find out the current situation before posting, but the Romano Dromo story has spurred me on.  Even without the update, it gives you a good idea of how complicated things can get in Hungary. 

Worth noting, when I visited in June 2007, Ákos Filep was still in charge, running things with his faithful, long-standing crew – minus his wife and business partner Judit Kakuk, who had passed away in 2006. I also have a story about the Palace of Arts, written after interviewing the architect.  I’ll post that, too!

Please note, I’ve edited this version in an attempt to make it an easier read.  So there are slight variations from the original that was published in The Budapest Times, which had been edited by the newspaper’s team. 

The complex saga of the Gödör Klub on the former National Theatre site…

Alison Boston

Sunken beneath Pihenõ Park at Erzsébet tér in District V, on a site originally prepared for the new National Theatre, lies the shell of a cultural centre waiting to be completed. For five years now, numerous agreements have been made between the city council and central government for the completion of the Gödör Klub, but politically-charged conflict over the property’s management and ownership have left the project still far from complete.

Local architect Ákos Filep and his partner Judit Kakuk, who have been taking care of the property under an original contract made with the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, have also been fighting to ensure that the site remains public and used for cultural purposes.

Kakuk says: “According to one agreement between the state and the city, the state would finish the construction, and when it was complete it would be privatised by the city – the whole complex with the park – then the income split 50-50 between the two. That’s why we’ve been fighting against it. There was no guarantee for the free public use of the park, or the cultural use of the space.”

Kakuk and Filep say they have been fighting in the most constructive way they know. Rather than join the bickering, they have instead built a community. So today, in the concrete shell of a promised cultural centre, a multi-disciplinary artistic community -known as the Gödör Klub (Hole Club) – has emerged.

The Gödör Klub saga dates back to 1996 when the Erzsébet tér property (which then had a market value of HUF 2 billion, EUR 8 million) was given to the state by the city, expressly for the purpose of constructing the National Theatre. Plans were tendered and contracts awarded. The foundations were laid, but the conservative Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz-MPSZ) government stopped construction after it took office in 1998, and moved the theatre site near to the Lágymányosi bridge in District IX, where it now stands next to the new HUF 32 billion (EUR 129 million) Palace of Arts.

But what to do with the hole left in the square? 

When construction was halted, city and state agreed that the location would be used for conference and cultural purposes. Filep and Kakuk were asked to help fulfil that mandate. They made a proposal to develop the property, using the above-ground area as a park and the underground area as a self-financing cultural centre – with parking facilities, theatre/concert hall, art gallery, lecture hall, café, restaurant, and conference room. Their proposal planned to use the non-cultural components to generate revenue for cultural programs.

In April 2000 the city council and central government, still Fidesz-MPSZ at the time, agreed that the state would complete the project and give it to the city. The proposal was tendered and a group of young architects – FIRKA – won the contract and started developing the property. The park was duly completed, as was the foyer of the underground area (which is now the Gödör Klub); but when Fidesz lost the election in 2002 the project was halted and left incomplete.

The Gödör Klub started emerging in autumn 2002, when deputy city mayor János Schiffer asked Péter Máté – a freelance cultural operator/curator, who was then director of the Budapest Autumn Festival – to use the venue for some festival programs.

Máté had several events he had been unable to find suitable venues for, and the foyer and adjacent café beneath Erzsébet tér provided a suitable space. The events were successful, and the seeds of the Gödör Klub were planted.

In autumn 2002, when Máté staged the Autumn Festival events, Filep and Kakuk had a caretaking agreement that was supposed to last a “couple of months” while the city and central administration negotiated. Under this agreement, they argue they were supposed to be given the revenues from the car park to maintain the site, and any profits were earmarked for cultural programming.  After the success of the Autumn Festival events, Kakuk and Filep started their quiet battle by regularly programming music events in the foyer and adjacent café.

In 2003 yet another agreement was prepared. This one stated that the city would establish a theatre on the premises and would organise its operations with regular support from the Ministry of Culture. Until the loan – provided by the state to the council for the project – was repaid, it and the city would evenly share any profits remaining after operating costs.

Two years later, there is still no theatre. Kakuk, Filep and the Világveleje group have continued to organize all events with absolutely no public funding. Kakuk says: “Under our agreement we were supposed to be given the revenues from the car park, but in reality the ministry used it to maintain the site, and kept the profit. They didn’t give it to us to help the cultural programmes, as they should have done. Our financing came only from private parties organised in the Club.”

Due to the month-to-month nature of their tenancy agreement with the city, they say they cannot plan more than one or two months ahead. This limits both the cultural acts they can stage, and the event rentals they can book.

This has both a positive and a negative influence, Kakuk says. On the plus side, under the present agreement the Gödör Klub provides a relatively immediate venue for emerging artists who often struggle to find a venue; the down side is the limited opportunity. That’s what frustrates the management team and lots of other people in the city, besides the fact that construction still remains incomplete after five years of negotiations and agreements.

Kakuk and Filep want the site finished and the opportunity to test an operational model that doesn’t yet exist in Hungary i.e. a self-managed and self-financing cultural complex; a venue with satellite parts which physically belongs to the complex and makes money and whose income finances the running of the cultural centre.

Filep says it will cost about HUF 1 billion (EUR 4 million) to complete the whole complex, which he points out is a relatively small sum compared to the HUF 32 billion spent on the Palace of Arts. The state will in fact actually pay the builders more than double that amount – HUF 73.5 billion (EUR 297 million) – over the next thirty years, through their public-private partnership agreement.

Filep and Kakuk recently received unofficial news that yet another agreement has been reached between the city and the government. According to Felicia Szell at the Ministry of Cultural Heritage this agreement will see the unfinished building returned to the city on condition it be used for cultural purposes.

Kakuk and Filep, however, say they have also heard that the city wants the unfinished premises to be managed by another party, and has decided that the completed complex will be publicly funded rather than being used to test the self-financing concept originally conceived.

Comment from Schiffer on the whole affair has been hard to come by.

A statement from his office, issued last autumn when I first started researching this article, reads: “Erzsébet square is the most valuable central square in Budapest….there really is a need for a cultural institute here. The two years of its temporary operation have proved this. Exhibitions – under the ground and in the park, music and literature evenings, jazz concerts.”

Yet despite these apparently favourable words from Schiffer’s office, Filep and Kakuk say they don’t know if they will be there next month; and Kakuk says city council does not answer their questions.

Filep and Kakuk are apparently not the only ones being avoided by council. Enquiries made by The Budapest Times at city hall three weeks before this article was written were also unanswered at the time of going to press.

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