Standing At The Edge Of The Grave – Debrecen’s Railway Station: The Life & Death of Kadarchitecture

I have visited Debrecen, the largest city in eastern Hungary, so many times now that I have lost count. Whether arriving or departing I have managed to spend an inordinate amount of time at the train station. This is something I have come to dread. The station is a notorious concrete and brick pile, the type of building that has led me to coin the term Kadarchitecture. This denotes a utilitarian structure that lacks any type of redeeming aesthetic sensibility, architecture that is all body and no soul. I blended Kadararchitecture’s name from the relatively benign Hungarian communist leader Janos Kadar, who ruled the country from 1956 to 1988. His rule was famous for Goulash Communism, a policy that loosened state strictures so that Hungary was a much more economically and culturally open society than other communist bloc nations during that era. Such progressiveness did little for the country’s public architecture. Case in point is the Debrecen Railway Station (Debrecen Nagyállomás), completed in 1961 without frills or any type of memorable aesthetics. It was meant to be functional and that was about it.

The current Debrecen Railway station

Kadarchitecture – Current Debrecen Railway station

Bringing It All Back Home – Bombs Away
The station was created solely for the purpose of people getting on or off trains and purchasing tickets. Everything else seems to have been a bad afterthought. There are a couple of forgettable newsstands along with a ghastly selection of food vendors whose main culinary achievement is the overuse of heat lamps. A range of seedy characters and bleary eyed hangers-on inhabit the station’s main waiting hall. Above the hall can be seen communist era murals that display the common folk working in harmony. The style is sadly creative.  It creates the impression that Pablo Picasso and Leonid Brezhnev were working together. Imagine a rudimentary and rigid cubism, with a flair for the mediocre. The station’s interior is not excessively dirty, but neither is it very clean. The underground walkway to and from the platforms has a sinister feel, the kind of place that looks as though it could be a breeding ground for stalkers and perverts. Yet it is not violent or dangerous, just depressing. It is within the station’s concrete corridors that minutes can be measured in hours.  For a long time I wondered why Debrecen was plagued with such a dreadful train station. A bit of research brought the shocking realization that part of the reason had to do with my own country.

Debrecen Railway Station after the June 2. 1944 aerial bombardment

Approaching ruin – the Debrecen Railway Station after the June 2. 1944 aerial bombardment

Debrecen is a long way from Italy, but during World War II it was not far enough. On June 2, 1944 a fleet of American 130 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers escorted by 70 P-51 fighters took off from southern Italy in a bombing run as part of what was known as Operation Frantic. The bombers were only able to carry out their mission because they were allowed to land at airfields in eastern Ukraine. In their bomb sites were the railroad yards of Debrecen. The city was now on the front lines of Nazi occupied Eastern Europe. The goal was to destroy the German Army’s ability to supply its troops and forces fighting the Red Army which was on the verge of pushing into the Great Hungarian Plain. The bombers were right on target, causing massive damage to the city’s transport infrastructure. Like all bombing runs of that time, there was plenty of collateral damage. Five thousand of the city’s citizens lost their lives. Innumerable homes were damaged or destroyed. By the mid-October 1944, due to the aerial bombing and a massive tank battle fought on the fringes of Debrecen, half of the city’s homes had been reduced to rubble. The ramifications of what happened that day are still apparent in Debrecen’s current architecture, specifically its train station. The station is an eyesore, especially when compared to its beautiful predecessor which was irreparably damaged by the aerial bombardment.

Ferenc Pfaff designed Debrecen Railway Statio

The Ferenc Pfaff designed Debrecen Railway Station – 1894 to June 2, 1944

Debrecen’s Palace Of Transport – Pfaff’s Imagination
In my library at home, I have an oversized, hardcover book called Debrecen: Converging the Lines. It gives an excellent overview of the city’s history and contains entries on the most memorable sites worth visiting. Nowhere among the 106 pages of words and color photos is a mention of the current railway station. That is understandable for such a monstrosity, but what truly baffles is the fact that the historic railway station is referenced only once. Perhaps the pain of its loss is too much. For exactly fifty years, from 1894 up until June 2, 1944, that palace of transport was the point of arrival and departure for hundreds of thousands of passengers. It was built during the belle époque of Hungarian architecture, as the nation experienced a building boom reflective of the economic and transport modernization that was taking place at the time. The architect was Ferenc Pfaff, who had studied under the great Imre Steindl, the man who designed the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Miskolc Tiszai Railway Station

Miskolc Tiszai Railway Station

In 1887 Pfaff became director of building works for the Hungarian State Railways. From that time forward, he designed thirty-eight railway stations across the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of the prime examples of his work can still be found today in the northeastern Hungary, the Miskolc Tiszai Railway Station. The structure has a similar appearance to the one that was destroyed in Debrecen. This one was also bombed on June 2, 1944, but managed to survive.  Like the existing station in Miskolc, the one that was lost in Debrecen was done up in the style of neo-renaissance eclecticism.  There was a festive air about the structure, the kind of building that made travel to or from the city an event worthy of reverence. This was the era when travel by train was still relatively new. There was an abiding fascination with steam locomotion along steel rails, as barriers of time and distance were defeated. Debrecen was now within minutes of its hinterland and hours of the booming capital. It made the city one of the most important in greater Hungary, as such it demanded a train station worthy of its significance, for 50 years it had one. Then American bombs came screaming down from the heavens, changing the city’s landscape forever. Pfaff’s creation went up in smoke and flame as it was reduced to a smoldering ruin.

Debrecen Railway Station shortly after opening in the early 1960s

As good as it would get – Debrecen Railway Station shortly after opening in the early 1960s

Closing The Casket – A War From Within
Born from the ruins of Debrecen’s Second World War was the station that still stands today, but not for much longer. There are plans to construct a new station over the next several years. It is due to be completed by 2018. Such terms as functionalism, integrated transport and efficiency are being used to describe it. Certainly it will be an upgrade, but from the mock-ups that have been presented, it does not come close to the stylistic elegance of Pfaff’s station. His achievement will never be replicated in Debrecen. Such aesthetic losses are one of those indirect costs of World War II that can never be quantified. Each time that I arrive or depart at Debrecen’s current railway station I am reminded of what has been lost. I am also reminded of my country’s part in that destruction, in the name of a just cause. Such are the chance calamities of war. Standing on the edge of a grave is never easy. Looking at the body before the casket is closed can be even harder.

Model of the new Debrecen Railway Station to be completed in 2018

What dreams may come – a model of the new Debrecen Railway Station to be completed in 2018

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