Vienna and Budapest can be viewed as battlefields in an unfolding European crisis of identity and confidence.

Karl-Marx-Hof, Vienna.
Karl-Marx-Hof, Vienna. © George Mittenecker

There are few cities that strike the traveler from Britain — and dare I say, from America too — as more quintessentially European than Vienna and Budapest. These former dual capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire continue to embody the civic and commercial grandeur of the old Habsburg dynasty, of a culture characterized by bourgeois prosperity and shaped by the artistic and literary intelligentsia that frequented the famous coffee houses. Both cities straddle the Danube and have maintained to a remarkable degree the attractive visual homogeneity that is the legacy of late 19th- and early 20th-century urban planning. Tourists to Vienna are still rewarded by the imperial showcase of the Hofburg, by the Gottfried Semper-designed Kunsthistoriches and Naturhistoriches Museums, by the wide Ringstrasse and much-photographed Prater Ferris wheel. Budapest offers the artfully contrived romantic spectacle of its Danube riverfront, with the series of sublime suspension bridges that link hilly Buda to flat Pest, with the composite historical fantasy of the Gothic-Baroque Parliament, and with ancient Buda Castle, rebuilt in the mid 19th century by Emperor Franz-Joseph with fanciful turrets and battlements that suggest nothing so much as the inspiration for the Magic Kingdom.

Vienna and Budapest are each populous, metropolitan and multicultural, and each dominates the small and somewhat parochial countries of which they are the oversized capitals. 1 Both cities were deeply marked by the turbulent events of the 20th century, from the collapse of Austria-Hungary in the aftermath of World War I to the spread of socialism, fascism and Nazism, from the cataclysm of World War II to the postwar rise of Soviet Russia and the Eastern bloc. More recently the cities have become entangled in the volatile politics of the European Union, in the waves of globalist optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and now in the resurgence of right-wing nationalist ideologies across the continent. In 2016 Austria very nearly elected as president a member of the Freedom Party, a far-right white-supremacist group founded in the mid-’50s by former Nazis. For several years now Hungary, led by the conservative Fidesz party, has been shifting hard toward what prime minister Viktor Orbán has notoriously called an “illiberal democracy” that will defend “Christian Europe” against the perceived threats of multiculturalism and Muslim refugees; last fall he called the asylum seekers “a poison” and described Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance as “valiant.”

Today, then, both Vienna and Budapest can be viewed as battlefields in an unfolding European crisis of identity and confidence that threatens the continent’s political unity and raises fundamental questions about what exactly it means to be European, to be Europe. Can we read these crises at the level of architecture? To explore this question it’s useful to examine key moments in the historical trajectories of these two cities over the last century, and where these have led.


The result of all this is not any local specificity, but increasingly a possible counter-model. Orbán’s Hungary is authoritarian, but it is not insolvent, like Greece, and it hasn’t really threatened to upset the European order as reflected by the European Union and the Eurozone — it challenges only the “multicultural” gloss of these institutions, and Orbán has become an example to other right-wing insurgents, from Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland to Nigel Farage in Britain.

Today the ‘European’ city is not necessarily the social city, the good city. It is also the nationalist city, the fearful, guarded, and resentful city.

Last year the Austrians did not elect Norbert Hofer, head of the violently anti-immigrant and openly xenophobic Freedom Party, as president. But it was close: Hofer received 46 percent of the vote, and today Vienna confronts some of the same anxious currents of insecurity and bigotry as Budapest. The city has extraordinary social housing, but it also has strict citizenship laws; and to be eligible for publicly funded housing, you must be a citizen. This excludes the city’s many immigrants from participating in one of its signal democratizing achievements, and it also instills a palpable anxiety in Viennese citizens who benefit from what is arguably the best municipal housing program ever established anywhere — and who surely do know how good they have it. In this light the resurgence of a new, rebranded fascism can be understood at least partly as the result of inchoate fears that somewhere beyond the borders — once so heavily guarded against invading foreigners — there might be outsiders who want to settle within the city and benefit from its generous social provision.

So today the “European’” city is not necessarily the good city, the social city, that it so often appears to be to the traveler from elsewhere — dense, historically rich, egalitarian, clean, endlessly walkable and seemingly welcoming. It is also the city of the nation state, of guarded borders and exclusionary laws, of fear, nostalgia, and resentment. Budapest is beautiful, but, as Tamás has pointed out, the city was beautiful in 1944, when the Arrow Cross government was deporting the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. At its best, the 20th-century European city promised something better, something fairer. In Vienna that better city still survives, as home for a lucky few, and as aspiration to the many less fortunate.