BUDAPEST’S FIRST SKYSCRAPER: A CONCRETE SIGN OF ORBAN’S REGIONAL AMBITIONS

To some, the MOL Campus is a symbol of modernity; to others, a warning that big money, backed by Hungary’s government, is set to radically transform the capital.

An astonishing steel-and-glass tower that, day by day, is climbing ever higher into the Budapest sky is causing quite a stir. Designed by the London studio of British superstar architect Sir Norman Foster, this 120-meter-high skyscraper being constructed on the banks of the Danube is being called by some a symbol of modernity; by others a warning that big money, with the backing of Orban’s government, is set to radically transform the Hungarian capital, risking its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“I sincerely believe that the developments in Budapest should not go in this direction,” Zoltan Ero, chief municipality architect of Budapest, tells BIRN. “We simply do not need skyscrapers, which would destroy the wonderful skyline of Budapest. If you want to have true innovations in city planning, there are several other ways, not just skyscrapers.”

Ero believes the ruling Fidesz party has been the driving force behind this vainglorious project on the grounds that Prime Minister Viktor Orban needs an iconic building to symbolise Hungary’s position as a regional power.

Not that Budapest’s first skyscraper will compete with New York – or even Warsaw for that matter, whose Warsaw Tower at 320 metres is currently the highest building in the EU. Budapest’s skyscraper, part of the MOL Campus, will have altogether more modest dimensions: 120 metres or 28 floors, comprising 86,000 square metres of office space and a spectacular viewing terrace on the top, which will accessible to the public.

MOL Campus is scheduled for completion in 2022, but even at the halfway point the tower can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Its omnipresence reflects the company behind it: the tower is built by MOL Group, Hungary’s regional oil and gas champion, present in 30 countries and employing over 26,000 people. MOL is a strong player in Central Europe, owning almost half of Croatia’s INA and boasting a wide network of filling stations across the region.

MOL chief executive Zsolt Hernadi – who is involved in a decade-long legal battle in the Croatian courts over accusations of bribing former Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader to gain management control over INA – and Prime Minister Orban are said to be on friendly terms and are sometimes seen enjoying each other’s company at soccer matches. Rumour has it that they play cards together; neither is short of ambition.

Symbol of ambitions
Asked by BIRN about its new headquarters, MOL said it believed “modern architecture and iconic buildings have enriched many European cities”, but conceded that “there have always been opponents”. The company drew a parallel with Paris’s Eiffel Tower, which also provoked huge controversy when it was first erected, but has since become one of the world’s major tourist attractions.

“We are fully aware of our responsibility and we wanted to construct a building which fits Budapest but also creates added value – something the people of Budapest can be proud of,” MOL replied to BIRN by email.

This is why the company says it chose Foster + Partners, one of the world’s most renowned architectural studios, which has created landmark buildings across the world, such as London’s Gherkin and the crystal dome of Berlin’s Reichstag. No figures have been published about the construction costs of MOL Campus, but Hungarian business site Portfolio puts the figure at around 100 billion forints (280 million euros).

“Skyscrapers usually carry a strong symbolic message – they define the time and the place. It is no coincidence that MOL is building the city’s first high-rise next to Budapest city centre right now to symbolise its regional importance,” Melinda Benko, associate professor and former head of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, tells BIRN. “But, in a way, I find it rather odd that a national oil company, just in the middle of the European green transition, is behind this project.”

Benko says pressure, mostly from multinational companies, has mounted on all the capitals of the Central European nations since their 2004 EU accession to build skyscrapers as “landmarks of power and wealth”. However, the 2008 global financial crisis put a halt to many such projects, including those in Budapest.

“The Hungarian capital had also resisted the pressure of the Stalinist-era, which gave Warsaw the Palace of the People, or the general European high-rise trend of the 60s and 70s that symbolised the resurrection of economies by oversized buildings,” Benko explains.

A scar on the landscape
The construction of MOL Campus actually ends a three decade-long debate in Budapest about whether the city needs skyscrapers and is prompting speculation about further trends. “There has been a general consensus in the last 30 years that no building should compete with the parliament or the Basilica, both 96 meters,” Budapest chief architect Ero says.

The consensus was that buildings in the inner city should not exceed 30 metres and on the outskirts 45-65 metres. However, this was broken in 2016 when Fidesz offered Hungary’s three blue-chip companies special dispensation to construct buildings reaching 90 metres or more. MOL seized the opportunity, while the other two, pharmaceutical maker Richter Gedeon and financial group OTP, showed little appetite to take up the offer.

MOL’s plans even caused ructions inside Fidesz itself: the former minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, Janos Lazar, called the project a “scar on the landscape” and the then-mayor (and Fidesz ally) Istvan Tarlos also protested strongly against the project.

Unsurprisingly, some architects take a different line. Nigel Dancey, head of studio at Foster + Partners, defends the project, saying: “I think the city should not be stuck in the past”. He also admits that his favourite cities are New York and London, “due to their dynamism”.

MOL sees its new headquarters as a place that will help attract the best talent in the region. The oil company does not dispute that the building is meant to represent its regional ambitions. “This building, still unprecedented in Hungary, symbolises how MOL’s position, market power and culture has changed over the past 20 years,” the company told BIRN.

However, Benko says people should look at what has become of the high-rise buildings constructed in Europe over the past 20-30 years and ask whether we really like them. It is also about pragmatism, not just aesthetics. “A recent French study shows that only 50 per cent of currently available office space will be needed in the future, as home office or flexible working methods are gaining in preference. A more sustainable way would be to reinterpret and transform the buildings that we already have, instead of constructing something brand new,” she argues.

Preparing the ground for Fudan?
With the MOL Campus only half completed, Orban’s government is already signalling it wants to go further. In late April, a draft law was submitted to parliament that would deprive the city of Budapest and its districts of their rights to approve or deny construction permits in what the government deems “strategic areas”.

The chief of staff of Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, Samu Balogh, has warned that if the bill passes, “the capital will no longer be able to prevent monsters like the MOL tower”.

Others wonder whether the regulation is there to prepare the ground, both literally and metaphorically, for the Budapest campus of China’s Fudan University, giving the backers of the controversial project carte blanche to build whatever they want in the southern part of the city. “Urban planning is a democratic process, involving coordination between a lot of experts and authorities. When the government overwrites these regulations and takes away the licenses from the municipalities, it goes against this democratic process,” Ero protests.

It is not only the city’s chief architect who is worried. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee noted “with dismay that the 120-meter-high MOL Campus building in District 11 was given permission and urges the State Party to halt any permits for high-rise building in the 11th District”.

Although the tower is not situated in the city centre, its astonishing dimensions, coming close to the 130-metre-high Gellért Hill, can be seen from almost any point in the city. The World Heritage Committee warned that Budapest could be added to its “List of World Heritage in Danger”, which might eventually lead to it losing its title as a World Heritage Site.

These are not empty threats. Dresden went deliberately against the recommendations of the World Heritage Committee when it built a controversial bridge over the Elbe, resulting in the German city’s removal from the list in 2009. Vienna was also warned that skyscrapers do not belong in the inner city and placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2017.

Ero expresses hope that the MOL tower will remain an exception and not part of a trend in Budapest. But the past decade has shown that the Orban government is never afraid to build on its reputation as a serial breaker of taboos if it feels it is in its interests to do so.

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