This summer, a Twitter user decided to organize a contest in which other users voted on which country’s parliament building was the greatest. That Hungary’s parliament building, built at the turn of the twentieth century by Imre Steindl in a blend of baroque, neo-gothic, and renaissance style, emerged victorious surprised no one, but the political storm that ensued certainly did. A glance through the contest’s comment section would be enough to give the impression that classical architecture is “racist” and that only “fascists” would vote for Hungary’s parliament building.
For several weeks, tens of thousands of people voted on the buildings, resulting in a final round of three choices: Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, and Hungary. While the contest was designed to be lighthearted and subjective, based purely on aesthetics, it was soon hijacked by that selfsame loud minority that is so often able to politicize everything nowadays, be it knitting or brunch.
The intensity of the dispute peaked in the finals, in which Hungary’s parliament and the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, Louis Kahn’s high-modernist concrete behemoth in Bangladesh, were neck and neck to win the competition. Following behind them was the graceful parliament of Papua New Guinea, with its eloquent contours complementing the picturesque scenery and its walls, richly decorated with motifs of traditional Papuan culture. Of course, the dispute was not about Papua New Guinea, and not even about Bangladesh, but only about the Hungarian Parliament, and whether the building itself could be considered “fascist” or not.
During the twenty-four hour period during which the voting was underway there seemed to be no minute in which someone didn’t call Hungary, the parliament itself, or the participants who dared to vote for Hungary fascists. Those who encouraged their Twitter followers to vote for the Hungarian parliament—including Mark Higgie, the former Australian ambassador to Hungary and a Senior Fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest (where I am a research fellow), Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen, the ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See, and the official Twitter page of the Visegrád Group (an alliance group of Central European nations)—seemed to focus on the beauty and elegance of the building itself, whereas the Bangladesh voters primarily justified their choice with the importance of defeating “fascist” Hungary.
Certain commenters voiced opposition to Hungary’s current government, but many also decried the building itself, seeing it as a symbol of traditional European culture—perish the thought. Owen Hatherley, the culture editor at Tribune magazine, found the building “utterly evil” (“Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” he quipped); another called it “a nest of vampires.” Yet, despite all this, the Hungarian Parliament won the competition with over 42 percent of the vote, while the Bangladeshi building earned second place with 38 percent.
Wading through all this, the question inevitably emerges: how can this marvelous piece of architecture provoke such hatred and resentment? After all, there were plenty of people voting who simply had a genuine preference for the modernist competitors. But to understand those shouting “fascism,” we need to take a few steps back and survey the problem through different examples from the recent past.
This was not the first time that classical architecture has fallen into the crosshairs of the armies of modern political correctness. In February 2020, alarm rippled through the intelligentsia when a draft of an executive order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” was leaked to the public. The order would have required architects to select from a range of traditional languages when designing important new federal buildings. The draft made it clear that its aim was to continue the legacy of America’s Founding Fathers, who deliberately chose classical architectural styles from “democratic Athens and republican Rome” in building the nation’s first federal structures. And while specifically it only prohibited the use of Brutalism and Deconstructivism, for many critics the whole thing smacked of “fascism.” Adam Rogers argued in Wired, for example, that imposing traditional styles onto people “might be one of the most blatantly authoritarian things the government has yet attempted.”
Similar accusations sprung up in the wake of a report published in January 2020 by a British government committee (led by the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton) whose job was to offer advice to future city planners based on the principles of aesthetics. In the nearly two-hundred-page report, Scruton emphasized that “people want buildings that reflect the history, character, and identity of their community and that belong in their surroundings: somewhere, not anywhere.” For Scruton, today’s featureless structures—like London’s “Walkie Talkie” tower—represent a kind of “ugliness [that] intrudes and desecrates” the sense of historical continuity that older generations of buildings uphold. The unique character of an old city can easily vanish beneath a skyline of steel-and-glass skyscrapers; whether you take a walk through downtown Tokyo, Dubai, Buenos Aires, or Manhattan, the present international idiom of architecture is identical everywhere. And while Scruton was actually promoting cultural diversity over the bland homogenization of modernism, many misread his eloquent reasoning. India Block, a Guardian columnist, wrote in response that “the call to return to classical beauty often masks a desire to regress to an uglier place in the recent past where diversity was a vice and subjugation a virtue. . . . Aesthetic time travel is far more appealing to those who see classical architecture as a comforting symbol of their former power.”
A significant share of people living in Western cities do not feel any kind of connection to the history of their countries nor to the defining characteristics of their cultures, and for some of them the relics of past centuries are only associated with the gruesome shadows of imperialism and oppression. It is indisputable that colonial economies contributed to the building of some of the iconic landmarks of London, Paris, or Madrid, and that European rule still invokes many painful memories in third world countries. But does this unfortunate context entirely negate the obvious aesthetic achievements of these buildings?
The Hungarian Parliament is a splendid monument to European culture—and if you will, European greatness. Its beautifully blended architectural styles convey timeless messages of common history, identity, and perseverance. If for some people this message can only be associated with oppression, then so be it; as polls such as this one show, the majority feels otherwise.