Endre’s second post

What do buildings do? The question has been addressed several times in STS (see, for instance, Thomas Gieryn’s paper here, and Michael Guggenheim’s paper here), but I don’t think it’s possible to find a general answer. So let me be more specific: what does the Hungarian parliament building do?

I spent a long time thinking about this question, both during fieldwork in Budapest and during writing-up in Berlin. One day I decided play a game and pile up as many books as I could find in the Grimm Zentrum – Humboldt University’s new open shelf library – that had an image of the Hungarian Parliament on its cover. The result was quite surprising: the books fell into two distinct categories. Either they were about the parliament building, which was constructed in the end of the 19th century, but had nothing to say about politics, or they were about the current political regime, born after the collapse of communism in 1989, but had nothing to say about architecture. There was materiality on the one hand, and democracy on the other.

The only exception I could find was a large-sized exhibition catalogue, published in 2000 by the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. The title of the catalogue was House of the Nation: Parliament Plans for Buda-Pest, 1784-1884, and according to the preface, it was supposed to be more than a supplement to architectural history – it was meant to be the documentation of the realisation of ‘a ramifying high-political programme’. To understand what this programme might have meant, I decided to follow a material semiotic strategy, articulated in John Law’s Aircraft Stories (especially in Chapter 2), and do an anti-reading of the catalogue. The aim was not to faithfully reconstruct how the imposing Parliament was built in the centre of Budapest, but to explore what made its construction possible – indeed necessary.

The answer is that there was not one but at least three reasons for its construction. The first had something to do with the political community. I don’t want to go into the details, but Hungary in the second half of the 19th century was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and so the demonstration of the country’s autonomy was of crucial importance. The story about how the Hungarian government came up with the idea of celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the conquest of the land in 1896 would have been a nice addition to Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition – the point is that the permanent home of the legislature was intended to be a memorial of the thousand-year-old nation.

The second reason is much more prosaic. After the Austro-Hungarian compromise, signed in 1867, the two houses of the Hungarian Parliament moved into two temporary locations, and for more than three decades the House of Lords held its sessions in the main hall of the National Museum, while the House of Representatives assembled in the place of a former military barracks. The latter was too small, the acoustics was bad, the insulation was even worse, and there was hardly any room for the administrative staff. If Hungary wanted a new parliament building, many MPs argued, it had to be large enough to accommodate both houses, the entire administration associated with the legislature, not to mention its library, archives, post office, and so on.

So the new parliament building, which was commissioned in 1880, had to be memorial-like, and it had to be large. But this doesn’t explain why it had to be neo-Gothic. Indirect evidence suggests the decision to choose Imre Steindl as the architect of the Hungarian Parliament was made by former Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy, who was very much impressed by Steindl’s neo-Gothic designs. Not because he was interested in revivalism as such, but because he wanted the new parliament building to resemble the Palace of Westminster as much as possible. He was absolutely fond of English political culture, and his understanding of parliamentarism was strongly influenced by his regular visits to London. He thought it was important to have an independent legislature, to have a House of Representatives that consisted entirely of  elected members, but he was against the extension of the franchise to workers and women, and was definitely against republicanism. As a liberal politician, he believed a constitutional monarchy was the best model a modern nation could hope for.

To make the long story short: the anti-reading of the House of the Nation catalogue revealed that there were at least three different reasons for the parliament building’s construction in the end of the 19th century. In my view, these reasons or justifications (see Luc Boltanski & Laurent Thevenot’s On Justification) point towards three changes in the practice of doing politics: the definition of the political community, the specification of the legislature’s continuous operation, and the birth of the professional politician. I think it’s fair to say that these three changes together constituted the high-political programme mentioned in the catalogue – a political programme that could just as well be called liberal democracy. And what the Hungarian parliament building did, at least until the First World War, was that it held together this political reality, which consisted of three distinct modes of doing politics. What these were and what they look like today is going to be discussed in subsequent posts…


3 thoughts on “Endre’s second post

  1. Endre, good point about the paintings. I love the ‘inhabited ruin’ metaphor. I suppose the romantic vision inscribed in the building itself and its artefacts could be related somehow to the wider romantic revival of ancient Hungarian symbols and practices (all the way to archery camps and far right militants), especially if those within parliament are also fostering those associations.Peter


  2. Pingback: Endre Dányi and EASST | Installing (Social) Order

  3. Pingback: Guest blogger: Endre Dányi for one time only | Installing (Social) Order

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