© Balázs Pivarnyik/Budapest100

Open doors in Budapest

Mihály Fekete © Gergely Schöff/Budapest100

It is hard to say whether people were more fascinated by the house or its owner, 74-year-old Mihály Fekete. “People had many, many questions because they see a lot of interesting things. Some people like the flowers in my home, others like the pictures, I have a big music collection.” Fekete, who spent his last holiday in Iran – “I like to go where there are not a lot of tourists” – and who gave up his car fifteen years ago for the sake of the planet – “Other people have gardens that are full of garages for the cars and I don’t do that, I have almost only trees and tomatoes” – has lived in his Bauhaus villa since he was born.

The home has long drawn the attention of global aesthetes – “In the last 25 years many film makers have asked me to make films here.” These include Steven Spielberg, who used the home as a location for part of his film ‘Munich’. But Fekete holds a philosophy of openness that isn’t limited to film makers. He has hosted over 100 ‘WWOOFers’ (travellers who work on organic farms in exchange for roof and board) who have helped him work on his urban garden, and hundreds of people have attended the classical music and jazz concerts he holds on the top floor of his home.

It is precisely this philosophy of openness that made him a perfect candidate for Budapest100, the initiative that sees houses all over the city open their doors to the public on around the 100th day of each year. The original idea of the celebration was to celebrate the 100th birthday of Budapest’s buildings, but in 2014, the organisers ran up against a problem. “Due to the First World War there were not too many buildings built during these years,” explains Tímea Szőke, Project Lead at KÉK Contemporary Architecture Centre, “so we switched to certain themes like the Grand Boulevard of Budapest, buildings on the embankment of the Danube, or Bauhaus.”

Bauhaus in Budapest

Entrance to Mihály Fekete’s home © Gergely Schöff/Budapest100

This was where Fekete came in. His Bauhaus villa had been taken over by his Jewish mother and Christian father in 1945. When they moved in, the house was in a state of dereliction, its only inhabitants the bodies of two dead Russian soldiers. The house was built in 1934, so it doesn’t meet the 100-year-old criteria (“I should wait and open my house in 2034,” the 74-year-old jibes), which is why the new thematic approach which, in 2019, focused on Bauhaus, was the first opportunity for it to be part of the celebration.

“In 2019, I had 300 people here in two days. At the same time we could have about 20 people. It was for about one-and-a-half hours that I spoke to one group,” Fekete remembers. He explains that most of the buildings that open for Budapest100 are run by communities, “but I was alone, so I had to do everything myself. I got good help from the Budapest100 organisation. They let the people in on the veranda and they waited.”

Something worth sharing

Budapest100 all started with the Open Society Archive. “In 2011 their building turned 100 years old,” says Szőke. “They came up with the idea and contacted other organisations like KÉK Contemporary Architecture Centre, and looked to see if there were other buildings that were the same age.” Since then the idea has really taken off, and participation is on the up every year. “The motto of the project is that every house is interesting because we are sure that in each building there is something worth sharing,” Szőke says.

The motto of the project is that every house is interesting.
— Tímea Szőke

The organisation running Budapest100 has 12 part time staff on the project of whom Szőke is one. “I’m really grateful that this is my job,” she confesses. The project also has support from the National Cultural Fund, EU funding, the Municipality of Budapest’s Cultural Department and other local municipalities, and the City Branding Agency. It has won a number of awards and was recently selected as a good practice by Cultural Heritage in Action, the European peer-learning programme for cities and regions on cultural heritage.

Hello Budapest! © Balázs Pivarnyik/ Budapest100

Focusing on the age was something that distinguished Budapest100 from other similar open house initiatives, because it was a more inclusive approach, not one that depended on your building being of a certain elite class. Now that the festival has taken a more thematic turn, this inclusive bent is something that the organisers have tried hard to perpetuate. For the 10th birthday of the initiative, all of Budapest’s homes were welcomed to participate. Even the 100-year rule was never hard and fast. Szőke remembers residents one year “came reaching out to us that, okay, our building is not exactly 100 years old, but we have a resident who is 100 years old, so can we join? We of course said yes.”

Lasting bonds

Inclusivity is aided by working with civil society organisations, including local associations and neighbourhood initiatives. These groups can do outreach to different parts of society and can ensure that the festival is designed with them in mind. For the first time, this year’s programme hopes to include the building of an association of blind people, and the organisers are hard at work discussing how the programme and activities can be adapted to their needs.

As Fekete pointed out, most of the buildings contain communities, rather than single individuals. Part of the idea is to bring these communities closer together, and not just for the duration of the celebration. Often, says Szőke, this is just the start of relationships that continue through activities like community gardening or small renovations throughout the year.

A building that becomes a butterfly © Polinszky/Budapest100

Szőke vividly remembers one of the buildings and the community that brought it to life: “Imagine the shape of the building, when you stand in the back yard and look up to the sky, a big butterfly emerges from the shapes of this great Art Nouveau building. The residents come from different backgrounds and everybody brought something from where they come from. Jewish, Transylvanian and Roma families shared their traditional foods; people from Germany and France were the DJs – they mixed the music coming from the residents’ different backgrounds and in the corridors an exhibition was shown by a Dutch graphic designer. The gastronomy, the music and the different cultures all in one building.”

Strength from volunteers

Even if you can’t or don’t wish to open your home for Budapest100, there are plenty of other ways to help the festival. Some 200 volunteers make the programme of events come to life. “Everyone can apply,” says Szőke, “form a college student to an elderly person. They can volunteer to organise programmes, to do research or to take photographs.” These were the people that stood on Fekete’s veranda for two days, making sure that everyone had the opportunity to hear his stories. The organisers ensure the widest possible participation of volunteers by being flexible about the roles they offer – people who want to be useful can say what their skills are and suggest a role for themselves.

I think we are successful because we provide this freedom.
— Tímea Szőke

Your role in the project can also cater to your personality type: “Some people say ‘I am not so social, so I don’t want to go and speak to people, but I would like to work on your website or database or do research.’ For others, this social outreach element is what they really love, to go out and get to know people and their stories. I think we are successful because we provide this freedom.”

Szőke explains that they don’t expect volunteers to bring all the relevant skills to the table either. “We have a lot of tools that we provide and share with volunteers through workshops, providing skills that volunteers can also apply in their personal life or their career, how to organise an exhibition or a community walk, or just community building and organisation.”

Pandemic reaction

Covid-19 derailed the celebration somewhat, but didn’t stop it entirely. The organisers postponed the event until September 2020, when restrictions in Hungary were a little lighter, and they had to cancel most of the indoor events. Residents still got the chance to speak with guests however, and to show them around where it was safe and hygienic to do so. During the spring lockdown, the Budapest Festival Orchestra volunteered to give concerts in the gardens of the houses, and the programme was complemented by some residents giving recorded virtual tours.

Did the pandemic stop elderly residents like Fekete from participating last year? Not at all, although he was disappointed that he was only able to host 70 people this year, in contrast to last year’s 300. In the meantime, Fekete is finding other ways to keep his home open during the pandemic. “It is not correct to have such a big house alone,” he says, “and it is also stupid that I am alone as an old man.”

It is not correct to have such a big house alone.
— Mihály Fekete

From inside out

Two weeks ago, a band who saw his house during Budapest100 wrote to him to ask if they could shoot a music video in his home: “They wrote to me and asked if I agree, and yes, I do!” He is also busy hosting travellers and helping people who are organising politically.

Something that Fekete was showing in his home was a pair of pictures taken by his mother, both taken from the same balcony looking down on the street: “The first one was made in the 50s and the second one was made in the 70s.” Visitors could see these images, and the view from the balcony today. “I wanted to show the people how the street was so many years ago,” says Fekete, “It changed a lot.”

While the current pandemic means that many people all over the world cannot stray far from their homes or their cities, ten years of Budapest100 have helped the people of Budapest see their homes and their city in a different way, not as ‘socially distanced’ but as held together with a dense fabric of culture and history.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer