Kobanya – Hope Among the Ruins

Kobanya, the gritty 10th district of Budapest, will never make a must see list of Budapest sights for tourists. It is filled with the stark results of industrialization from forty plus years of communism in Hungary. Subsidized massively by state funds, Kobanya along with other industrial areas in the country – for example Csepel Island and Miskolc –  thrived on heavy industry. They were supposed to be part of a heroic effort to build a new, classless society. What they really built were endless warehouses and factories that now stand empty, the soul destroying physical remains of a failed ideology. Once the iron curtain was sundered, global competition put the lie to state subsidized heavy industry. The upshot, areas that were once home to legions of factories and workers, such as Kobanya, fell into ruin and have yet to recover. It is doubtful if they ever will escape this legacy. What is left behind is a post-industrial landscape of abandoned ruins, rusting buildings, vacant lots and to be quite honest a viewscape that looks more like an apocalyptic movie set, then a district in one of the world’s great cities. I have witnessed the same thing in cities as different as Berlin and Belgrade. These were the places where the communist dream did not fade, but instead rusted.

An Old Tinned Food Factory in Kobanya - all but abandoned

An old tinned food factory in Kobanya – all but abandoned

Strangely Kobanya’s pre-communist past lurks as well. It speaks a bit better for the district, but nevertheless also left the environment in a mess. Kobanya means “stone mine” in Hungarian. The district had a hand in the creation of the stately grandeur and eclectic magnificence that is splendidly displayed throughout Budapest’s inner city.  Nearly a century and a half ago, Kobanya was home to the stone quarries where much of the material used in the building of Budapest during the latter part of the 19th century was excavated. The results can still be seen today in the district. There are sizable stretches of open parkland, what might be called “green space” by urban planners. It is land that cannot be developed. This is only so because nothing can be built in these areas since the ground is so unstable. Building foundations have been known to easily buckle in Kobanya. At times the ground has had trouble supporting not only structures, but also people. My wife told me about a friend whose father died when he fell through the earth in an area where chasms still existed from the mines. It is a strange, surreal world in Kobanya. Warehouses suddenly give way to parkland, then rust and industrial detritus followed by yet more open, greenery framed by the ubiquitous communist era high rise flats.

Looking over Kobanya as I rode on Tram 37 through some of the most run down areas in the city I could not help, but think this was the true cost of Budapest’s beauty. Kobanya had been sacrificed on the altar of urban development. It would be hard pressed to ever outlive its once useful now useless past. That being said, Kobanya does have one tremendous work of architecture that momentarily transcends the place and leaves the viewer with a magnificent impression of beauty and art. This work is the soaring Church of Saint Laszlo. It not only overcomes Kobanya’s otherwise harsh ugliness, it also overcomes its history. The church is built atop what was once a clay pit mine. The site was filled in, the area around it converted into a market square with its centerpiece, the church itself. Three master architects, including Odon Lechner who innovated the Hungarian Secession style created a church that incorporated everything from Romanesque to Art Nouveau and even Byzantine elements. The styles were seamlessly integrated with an overall effect that is festive, confident and perhaps can best be described as a joyous grandeur. It is unlike anything else in the great city which surrounds it. Now that is saying something, especially in a place like Kobanya.

The Church of Saint Laszlo

The Church of Saint Laszlo

Kobanya is a place where the environment has been over utilized, sometimes for the better, more often for the worse. It is pockmarked with scars that were acquired in support of the grand designs of Budapest during its Austro-Hungarian heyday. Its landscape in large part is covered with the ruined physical remains of a failed ideology. It is a testament to how man can harm a place almost irreparably. And yet standing beneath the towering spires of the Church of Saint Laszlo, I had the feeling that there is still hope, for Kobanya and for all of us.

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