But the young architects who were charged with designing the subway’s look refused to let these problems compromise their principles. The stations they created—among the few examples of serious contemporary architecture in Budapest since the fall of Communism—are raw concrete voids, warmed by natural light and supported by huge, crisscrossing horizontal beams. Some have soaring escalators, others complex mosaics. Subtle visual clues like LEDs of alternating colours mark different directions, part of an intuitive navigation system that city planners call ‘way-finding. The trains are driverless. When you ride Line 4, you see a bright vision of the city’s future. That it works and also doesn’t, that it’s sort of sublime but sort of screwed up, makes the subway line an apt metaphor for modern Budapest itself.
The ambition that rescued Line 4 from itself is also in evidence aboveground, where a controversial US$700 million plan may soon reshape Budapest’s beloved City Park into a new cultural quarter. If completed as planned, the project will add three museums by 2019, including a National Gallery designed by the Japanese architectural firm SANAA.
I came to Budapest in summer, when the city was aglow, the heat almost Mediterranean in its capacity to induce languor. At times like these, there’s only one thing to do: find a kert, an outdoor garden cafe, and order a froccs, which is white or rose wine mixed with soda water in precise deciliter ratios, each with a nickname; the half-litre is called hazmester (‘caretaker’), the full-litre maflas (‘silly’). Get your measurements right, and you can drink them all day without getting a headache. The first kert I visited spilled out of a kiosk in Szabadsag Ter, or Liberty Square, near Parliament.
This, I thought after my second hazmester, must be one of the most arresting plazas in Central Europe. It’s an immense gallery of Neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture, including a palatial 19th-century building that now houses, behind a forbiddingly high fence, the American Embassy.