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The House of Hungarian Music Ate a Forest

The round hole-studded bulk of a large crumpet looks to have fallen in the center of Budapest's City Park, impaled on a thicket of trees. It droops down in places, exposing little terraces carved into its top, and bursts up in others, displaying a gleaming underbelly of tiny golden leaves.

Sou Fujimoto, a Japanese architect renowned for creating sculptures out of mounds of crisps, washing-up scourers, and whatever else is available, created this bizarre sight. This canopy, which currently serves as an otherworldly home for the capital's new House of Hungarian Music, was inspired by a lotus root rather than a crumpet.

What could this €80 million (£67 million) project possibly bring to a city that already boasts a famous opera house, a music school, and multiple concert halls?

"We want to show a younger generation the wonder of music," says music scholar András Batta, managing director of the new center, which opened this weekend on Hungarian Culture Day. He's in the glade-like interior of the structure, where circular holes let light down through the arching roof and an aperture in the floor allows a sight of the exhibition level below.

A 320-seat music hall and a small lecture theatre are enclosed by faceted glass walls, while a suspended stairway spirals up to a library, café, and classrooms situated in the undulating ceiling. "We didn't want to repeat what you can get elsewhere," he continues, "because Budapest already has a very rich musical life."

This isn't only for high and classical music; it's also for ethnic, folk, and pop music - the really fascinating side of music."

The structure is one of the first significant components of the €1 billion Liget project, a divisive plan devised by Viktor Orbán's right-wing administration to convert the Városliget region into a display of Hungarian national culture. Nearby, a €120 million ethnography museum in the shape of two massive sloping wedges springing up out of the earth, wrapped in a weird lacy covering that references to Hungarian national attire, is approaching completion.

To the north, a massive €300 million National Gallery is being built, designed by Japanese architects Sanaa as a topsy-turvy stack of tilting white planes that appears like it's about to collapse. There are proposals to restore a magnificent neo-baroque pile that was blasted during WWII as a House of Hungarian Innovation, as well as an art nouveau theatre that was dismantled during the Soviet period as a children's center.

And, as if that weren't enough, work on "Europe's largest biodome" is underway at the zoo next door (unfinished and on hold after funding ran out).

"For tourists, Budapest lacks an obvious identity," says László Baán, ministerial commissioner in charge of the Liget project, standing in front of a big model of the park sprinkled with the new attractions. "We can put Budapest on the map with these contemporary buildings, creating Europe's most complex cultural district."

It's every (would-be) dictator's fantasy leisure-scape, plainly designed to reflect the Habsburg era's scope of ambition, when the park was planned out and bordered by royal palaces of art for the 1896 Millennial Exhibition. Critics believe the idea is primarily driven by Orbán's intention to relocate the government to Buda Castle, which presently houses the National Gallery, and thereby identify himself with imperial glory days.

His self-described "illiberal democracy" may have stifled the free press, stifled academic freedoms, and stifled LGBT rights, but he is determined to leave a cultural legacy of enormous baubles.

However, his idea is in risk when Budapest's centre-left mayor, Gergely Karácsony, who was elected on a green platform in 2019, called for a stop to the "government concrete mania in one of the world's first public parks." He has said that he would protect the park against future expansion "with my own body, if necessary, and I will encourage all Budapest residents to do so," echoing protestors who attached themselves to buildings to attempt to block construction of the House of Hungarian Music.

He has agreed that ongoing building projects may be finished, but no new work will commence - at least for the time being.

So far, the park's renovations have received a mixed response. Some people have praised the addition of a large new playground, a jogging track, and public sports grounds, while others have criticized the change of what was once a calm and green, albeit somewhat run-down, refuge into a bustling outdoor activity center.

World-class restoration laboratories have been added to an amazing new conservation and storage facility, but the impending ethnographic museum, designed by local company Napur, seems to be generally hated. (Ironically, it was picked in a cartoonish version in an anonymous competition by a jury who mistakenly assumed they were voting for Danish star Bjarke Ingels' work.)

The House of Hungarian Music stands out as the most insightful section of the muddled presentation in this setting. The facility, which replaces a cluster of outdated Soviet-era exhibition offices that had been worn down and off access for years, has a low profile and tries to blend in with the woods.

The roof has been shaped and pierced to enable existing sycamores to grow through the perforations, extending beyond the building line to provide shade for an outdoor stage. "We wanted to turn the forest into architecture," Fujimoto says.

The architect grew up on the outskirts of a forest in rural Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost major island. He often mentions trees, glades, and clearings as sources of inspiration, praising the feeling of being in an open field but simultaneously feeling safe and secure, and urging others to stroll and explore.

Further investigation into his motives was impossible since he denied interviews and has yet to examine the finished structure. Perhaps he's cautious of being pictured with Orbán, remembering the uproar that followed Ingels' photo with Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro.

Given his Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2013 and his home complex in Montpellier, France, this is Fujimoto's first permanent public project in Europe, and it's a departure from what you would anticipate. His winning design featured a clean white globe in the popular modern Japanese style, but his customers desired something cozier and warmer.

They led him to the Liszt Academy of Music's secessionist castle, whose art nouveau ceiling writhes with gilded leaves and prompted a 180-degree turn. The columns changed from mirror-finished to dark grey to match the tree trunks outside, and the smooth white pancake was encrusted with geometric golden leaves, with ceiling cutouts lined with gold as well.

Fujimoto's organic minimalism clothed in a kitsch folk costume might seem a little much at times, but the joyful outfit is suited for a location devoted to enjoying the enchantment and drama of music.

The exhibition itself is a family-friendly riot, documenting the history of European music via a series of interactive displays, organized by Batta and operational director Márton Horn. It starts with a circle of drums that must be beaten to attract wild creatures out of a virtual forest before introducing the Hungarian dance house movement, where you are urged to mimic traditional folk dances on a responsive dancefloor within a little wooden cabin.

After that, you may command a virtual chorus of Gregorian monks amid an exhibit of early codices before entering the holographic worlds of Haydn, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and an opera area – replete with an interactive screen of operatic face filters for the selfie generation.

In one segment, you may remix classic film soundtracks, try your hand at DJing, and learn a variety of instruments, while in another, you can remix classic film soundtracks, try your hand at DJing, and learn a variety of instruments. Later this year, a second temporary exhibition room will open with a presentation on Hungarian pop music from 1957 to 1993, which promises to be similarly odd.

The celebration continues next door in a "sound dome" inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen's Kugelauditorium, a spherical music hall designed for the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. It immerses guests in an immersive audio-visual experience with 32 speakers positioned under a perforated hemispherical dome, opening with a collection of short films filmed in the countryside, but it promises to liven up with scheduled DJ evenings and screenings.

The spiral stair descends towards the crumpet's depths, where Fujimoto's vision becomes more tainted, with the architectural concept taking precedence over practical considerations. The competition pictures were enticing, portraying a secret world buried within the roof, but it's hard not to believe that having some windows looking out into the park would have been better while you're in the library, illuminated from above.

Although a café terrace looks out on a delightful musical playground outside, the classes and offices seem crammed into the restricted layout rather than the building's shape being developed around them.

In the end, the House of Hungarian Music is a wonderful addition to the park, but it isn't enough to persuade me that continuing the remainder of the Liget plan is a good idea. With six opposition parties banding together to depose Orbán in April elections, it's possible that his exaggerated vision may stay just that.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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