It was 5:48pm, somewhere between Füzesabony and Miskolc. I would look at my watch while a few people, mostly elderly, gradually stood up to look for their baggage underneath their seats. They started making their way towards the exit doors, only to become the first ones to escape the hot, packed train. After all, nobody likes to waste their time, breathless, waiting for others in the queue to get off.
The hustle and bustle of suitcases being passed around made me a little anxious, nearly urging, to see the place again. We’re almost there. My eyes diverted to the window and oddly, I regained my confidence in the view of a thousand pylons and electric-lines weaving through rich-brown, earth crops which never seemed to end. This sight was nothing new to me, yet its beauty still gave me a sense of peace; the burning-orange sunset, shining through the speckled dirt on the glass so gracefully, engraving a funny, lace-like pattern of shadow onto my arms, while the distant city started emerging from nearly nothing. I’m almost there, I think.
Looking out as the distant observer, all feelings of nervousness were replaced by something more of a curiosity. I was excited. Slowly but surely, green hills had taken their shape, sloping fields full of green and mustard coloured trees. After a little pause, the most familiar image: mountains and mountains of grey and pastel surfaces encroaching on each other, as panel blocks of communist mass housing towers at Avas hill, Miskolc city appeared. Like moving dancers on a podium, their skin shone so bright as each stone laid within the surface of the warm, concrete pre-cast panels would bounce back a tiny beam of sunlight. They looked somewhat familiar to the old towers of Ballymun back in Dublin – like twin objects that exist in two whole different worlds, without one knowing of the other.
This form of architecture, even today, conjures Hungary’s struggle for independence while challenging the materialist values of both communist and capitalist ways of life. For many Hungarians, modern architecture has been associated with Soviet designs on their freedom and culture for a good while now, representative and almost symbol-like. It has taken some years for a new generation of architects to have emerged in Hungary with the confidence to design in a renewed, modern way.
However, their approach seems far more in tune with the insistent wave of computer-assisted contemporary designs sweeping Europe, from the office buildings of Budapest to even the smallest of villages in the countryside, with meaningless forms and shapes thrown around without any second thought given to them.
As I was looking through the window pane, my thoughts were slowly brought back to the noise of the intercom announcing that our Budapest Keleti – Miskolc Tiszai train will be arriving slightly late.
My attention quickly returned to that massive housing scheme of concrete and ochre glass baluster balconies on top of the mound that would host 50,000 inhabitants in a city with a population of 180,000 overall. Construction began in three phases back in the 60s, finishing in the 80s. Originally it was to house all workers whom were labours in the Vasgyár (or Iron factory). Almost every single family had a member working there. Indeed, Miskolc was once upon a time a booming industrial city with multitudinous cement factories being built just at the foot of the hill of Avas. Limestone quarries were opened – only to accommodate the construction of such a project. The iron from the factory was of the highest quality and made its way to Slovakia, Romania and even Brazil.
Unfortunately, near the end of the Avasi project the city’s economy had started declining and has been, ever since. The housing itself shifted down a sad end – literally sliding downhill following a land survey in the 70s which stated that due to the massive deforestation at the base of the hill, the panels themselves were cracking and moving because of landslides. Ultimately, the area became popular for anti-social behaviour as the headlines of daily newspapers read: ‘Avas project fails: Jobs are lost’, ‘Avas in the dismantling’, ‘There is no reason why it should continue’, ‘Avas construction stops and it’s looking worst then ever’.
The ‘Avasi kilátó’, or translated as ‘lookout viewing tower’, which became the highest point in the city, was inaugurated in 1963. Its lineage was modern and bold, obeying the mood of the age. It became one of the most famous symbols of Miskolc and could be seen from wherever you were standing within town. In the decade of Socialism, the logo of the tower could be seen on many stylised drawings and adverts. It was on the cover of the ‘Timetables of the Miskolc Transport Company’, on the memorial plates of the famous local motorcycle competitions, on the logo of the Miskolc Bakery Company, stamps, and who knows what else. Today, the city is no longer proud; logos changed over time, and the tower itself is only open on the first floor, seeming lonely and abandoned with graffiti.
It was my most favourite place to be as a child because you could see the whole universe from there, including my home and the rest of all those concrete giants, even the furthest of mountains that might have oceans on the other side. Of course, I didn’t quite know geography well at that age. Today, the carpark below my beloved viewing tower stands completely empty with no visitors at all.
As the train slowly pulled into the station, I thought about how I spent my childhood here, making friends within jungles of concrete, too young to know anything about the history of our home – or how it would eventually influence my own identity in the coming future. As a child, it has always been a question on my mind as to why our surroundings look the way they do? Even though it was the peak of unemployment, and the construction project was a failure in the eyes of the city, it created the identity of Miskolc itself, building its culture and its history.