Sycamore stunner: how the crumpet-shaped House of Music swallowed a forest | Architecture

Barbara Merkley

A great big crumpet appears to have landed in the middle of Budapest’s City Park, its circular hole-studded mass impaled on a thicket of trees. It droops down here and there, revealing little terraces cut into its top, and flares up elsewhere, showing off a sparkling underside of tiny golden leaves.

This surreal sight is the work of Sou Fujimoto, a Japanese architect known for making his models out of piles of crisps, washing-up scourers, or whatever else may be to hand. In this case, it wasn’t a crumpet but a lotus root that inspired this canopy, which now provides an otherworldly home for the capital’s new House of Music. In a city that already has a renowned opera house, music academy and numerous concert halls, what could this €80m (£67m) project possibly add?

“We want to show the wonder of music to a younger generation,” says music historian András Batta, managing director of the new centre, which opened on Hungarian Culture Day this weekend. He is standing in the building’s glade-like interior, where oval openings bring light down through the swooping ceiling, and an aperture in the floor gives a glimpse of the exhibition level below. Faceted glass walls enclose a 320-seat concert hall and a small lecture theatre, while a suspended staircase spirals up to a library, cafe and classrooms, housed in the undulating roof. “Budapest has a very rich musical life already,” he adds, “so we didn’t want to repeat what you can get elsewhere. This is not just for high and classical, but ethnic, folk and pop – the really exciting side of music.”

The House of Hungarian Music takes shape.
Cultural showcase … the House of Music takes shape. Photograph: Balázs Mohai

The building is one of the first major elements of the €1bn Liget project, a controversial vision concocted by populist prime minister Viktor Orbán’s rightwing government to transform the Városliget area into a showcase of Hungarian national culture. A €120m Museum of Ethnography is nearing completion nearby, in the form of two gigantic sloping wedges rearing up out of the ground, clad in a strange lacy wrapping that nods to Hungarian national dress.

A colossal €300m National Gallery is planned to the north, designed by Japanese architects Sanaa as a topsy-turvy stack of tilting white planes that looks caught in mid-collapse. There are plans to reconstruct a palatial neo-baroque pile, bombed in the war, as a House of Hungarian Innovation, as well as rebuild an art nouveau theatre, demolished in the Soviet era, as a children’s centre. And if that’s not enough, the construction of “Europe’s largest biodome” is under way in the zoo next door (unfinished and on hold after funding ran out).

“Budapest doesn’t have an obvious identity for tourists,” says László Baán, ministerial commissioner in charge of the Liget project, standing over a large model of the park, dotted with the new attractions. “With these contemporary buildings we can put Budapest on the map, creating the most complex cultural district in Europe.”

It is every (would-be) dictator’s dream leisure-scape, clearly conceived to echo the scale of ambition in the Habsburg era, when the park was laid out and flanked with regal palaces of art for the 1896 Millennial Exhibition. Critics suggest the scheme is chiefly motivated by Orbán’s desire to move the government to Buda Castle, where the National Gallery is currently housed, further aligning himself with imperial glory days. His self-styled “illiberal democracy” may have curtailed the free press, crushed academic freedoms and curbed gay rights, but he is keen to ensure a legacy of large cultural baubles.

The future of his vision, however, is in jeopardy, after Gergely Karácsony – Budapest’s centre-left mayor who was elected on a green platform in 2019 – called for a halt to the “government concrete mania in one of the world’s first public parks”. Echoing the activists who chained themselves to structures to try to prevent construction of the House of Hungarian Music, he has said he will defend the park from future development “with my own body, if necessary, and I will encourage all Budapest residents to do so”. He has agreed that projects under construction can be completed, but no further work will begin – for now, at least.

Seductive … the spiral staircase.
Seductive … the spiral staircase. Photograph: Liget Budapest/György Palkó

The changes to the park so far have had a mixed reception. A big new playground, running track and public sports pitches have been wildly popular with some, while others lament the transformation of what was a quiet and leafy, if rather scruffy, haven into a busy outdoor activity centre. An impressive new conservation and storage facility has brought world-class restoration labs, but the looming ethnographic museum, by local firm Napur, seems widely disliked. (Ironically, its cartoonish form was chosen in an anonymous competition by a jury who thought they were picking the work of Danish star Bjarke Ingels.)

Given this context, the House of Hungarian Music stands out as the most thoughtful part of the jumbled offering. Replacing a cluster of dilapidated Soviet-era expo offices, which had been run down and off limits for years, the building keeps a low profile and does its best to nestle among the trees. The roof is sculpted and punctured to allow existing sycamores to rise through its holes, extending beyond the building line to shelter an outdoor stage. In Fujimoto’s words: “We wanted to transform the forest into architecture.”

The architect grew up on the edge of woodland in rural Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. He often talks of trees, glades and clearings as an inspiration, enjoying the sense of being in an open field while also protected and enclosed, encouraging people to walk and discover. Further probing of his intentions wasn’t possible: he declined interviews and hasn’t visited the completed building. The pandemic was cited as the reason, but perhaps he is also wary of being photographed with Orbán, mindful of the backlash after Ingels was snapped with Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro.

This is Fujimoto’s first permanent public project in Europe, and it’s a departure from what you might expect, given his 2013 Serpentine Pavilion in London and his housing block in Montpellier, France. His competition-winning scheme depicted a smooth white world, in the familiar contemporary Japanese style, but his clients wanted something warmer and cosier. They took him to visit the secessionist palace of the Liszt Academy of Music, whose art nouveau ceiling writhes with gilded leaves, and inspired an about-turn. The seamless white pancake became encrusted with geometric golden leaves, and its roof cutouts also lined with gold, while the columns turned from mirror-finished to dark grey to match the tree trunks outside. In places, it can feel a bit much, Fujimoto’s organic minimalism dressed in a kitsch folk costume, but the festive garb is fitting for a place dedicated to celebrating the magic and theatre of music.

Outdoor stage … the House of Hungarian Music does its best to nestle among the trees.
Outdoor stage … the House of Hungarian Music does its best to nestle among the trees. Photograph: Liget Budapest/György Palkó

The exhibition itself, curated by Batta and operational director Márton Horn, is a family-friendly riot, charting the history of European music through a sequence of interactive displays. Reached via a white spiral stair, it begins with a circle of drums, which must be pounded to lure wild animals out of a virtual forest, before introducing the Hungarian dance house movement, where you are invited to copy traditional folk dances on a responsive dancefloor inside a little wooden cabin.

Next you can conduct a virtual choir of Gregorian monks, alongside a display of early codices, before being thrust into the holographic worlds of Haydn, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and into a section on opera – complete with an interactive screen of operatic face filters for the selfie generation.

A section on technology charts innovations from the phonograph to the cloud while, elsewhere, you can remix classic film soundtracks, try your hand at DJing and learn a range of instruments. A second temporary exhibition space will open later in the year with a show on Hungarian pop music from 1957-93, which promises to be full of equally bizarre delights.

The party continues in a room next door in the form of a “sound dome” inspired by the Kugelauditorium – a spherical concert hall created by Karlheinz Stockhausen for the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. With 32 speakers arranged behind a perforated hemispherical dome, it plunges visitors into an immersive audio-visual experience, beginning with a selection of short films shot in the countryside, but it promises to liven up with planned DJ nights and screenings.

The spiral stair carries you into the depths of the crumpet, where Fujimoto’s vision begins to feel more compromised, the architectural idea trumping practical needs. The competition drawings looked seductive, showing a hidden world tucked inside the roof, but when you’re in the library, lit from above, it’s hard not to think it might have been nicer to have some windows looking out on to the park. The classrooms and offices also feel squeezed into the restrictive floorplan, rather than the form of the building being designed around them, although a cafe terrace does look out on a fun musical playground outside.

The House of Music is, ultimately, a welcome addition to the park, but it’s not enough to convince that pursuing the rest of the Liget plan would be wise. With six opposition parties joining forces in an attempt to topple Orbán in the April elections, there is a chance that his overblown vision might remain just that.

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