Readjusting the centre, Visegrád

Impacted by the economic crisis, the long-term masterplan by A+ Architects was scaled down and made adaptable for the future.

Text: Levente Polyák, Photography: The Greypixel Workshop (József Lipka, Ákos Mátételki)

Visegrád, located near the picturesque Danube Bend, north of Budapest, is a peculiar town. Although it only has a couple thousand permanent residents, its summer festivals occasionally attract over ten thousand people. The highly popular International Palace Games, with visitors from across Europe, capitalizes on the town’s medieval history, recalling a glorious past when Visegrád served as one of the king’s residences. The town was destroyed during the Turkish invasion in the 16th century, and the area was later repopulated by two villages, one Hungarian and one German.

For more than two decades, Visegrád’s political leaders had been nurturing ambitions to reclaim its medieval legacy. In 2000, the former village obtained the legal status of a town, as a formal recognition of its historical significance. However, with its modest centre comprising just a traffic junction and parking lot, Visegrád still felt like a village. This prompted the town’s mayors and councilmen to explore ways to express urban ambitions in the form of a new town centre.

Shaping the new centre turned out to be a lengthy process. In 2004, the municipality opened an ideas competition that led to a masterplan for the area. Based on this, an architectural competition followed in 2007. A+ Architects won the competition at the beginning of 2008, and began negotiating with the mayor and a consortium of investors that joined forces to finance the project.

The architects, Krisztián Kovács-Andor and Anna Mária Tamás, suggested conceptually unearthing the town centre’s original structure, which was investigated during a thorough archaeological excavation between 2004 and 2007, when the main square of the former German village was found. ‘Both our original concept and the final version aimed at making this square visible by using buildings to establish the square’s walls. The existence of the original square made our work easier, by giving us guidelines for where and how to build.’

While A+ was elaborating their design for the square, the economic crisis began to show its impact through a sharp decrease in tourism, Visegrád’s main source of income, and the town council halted development. What seemed realistic in 2007 was completely undermined by the crisis. While the first plan included a new town hall and cultural building, with an area for events and surrounding public spaces, it became clear that this idealistic vision of a small town reflecting upon its medieval history was no longer realistic. In 2012, after two mayors had failed to keep the project’s momentum, a new mayor was elected to run the town, himself an architect. This radically altered the discussion about the centre’s destiny. ‘We found a common voice with him. His views opened the way for a new concept, based on keeping the existing buildings and giving new functions to vacant ones, addressing real needs.’ The changing economic and political environment drastically altered the original plans, and expanded the design process over multiple years. ‘We designed four plans for three mayors. It’s a demanding process, especially when you work on a plan for years and gradually learn that the initial assumptions are no longer valid.’

The process was indeed demanding. The alterations in the programme and the constantly changing client brought on many hard moments for the architects. Kovács-Andor and Tamás sought to make use of these complications to inform and improve their design. ‘When we began to rethink the situation, we understood that the centre of such a community is to be defined more through open spaces than by a new town hall building. This is why, in reality, the event hall that finally got built is a pavilion that becomes alive during events, when it’s opened to the outdoor spaces; otherwise it’s only a spatial element in the landscape.’

Looking back at the design process, the architects understand it as a unique opportunity. ‘As architects, we are constantly pressured by deadlines, forced to design quickly. Here, we had the opportunity to rethink the plans from zero. During the years of this design process, we got to know the community, learned about their real needs, and could implement this knowledge in the plans.’

Nevertheless, the architects do not exclude the possibility of the project’s expansion. ‘We built a light wooden structure here, because if in ten years Visegrád witnesses a sudden shift, it will be able to accommodate larger developments by removing this structure. Our building will be able to adapt to changes; it’s up to the locals to make good use of it.’

Town centre, 2013–2014, Architect: A+ Architects, Established: 2007, Client: Municipality of Visegrád, Address: Visegrád, Fő u. 84, Info: www.aplusarchitects.blogspot.hu