World-famous Starchitects, National Excellence. One reading of the 10-Year-Old Liget Project


At the time of writing this essay, the Hungarian public reels from news of an upcoming urban development project. As part of this project—usually referred to as “Mini Dubai” on account of the origin of its investors—the construction of the tallest skyscraper in Europe is planned, which may or may not be a small-scale version of the Burj Khalifa (details are still unclear). It is to be located in a former industrial zone in an underdeveloped suburban neighborhood of Budapest, and the process of evacuating the residents living close to the future construction site has reportedly started. According to Hungary’s Foreign Minister, who has already signed a contract with the representative of the developer, this “flagship project” will only be the first in a series of luxury tourism and real-estate investments that will bring great amounts of capital into the country. He also expressed his hopes that the new, spectacular architecture will put Budapest on the list of truly exciting contemporary global cities.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Hungarians, who over the past five to ten years have lived through many a controversial construction project across the country, have faced worries about uncertain conditions, escalating expenses, potential gentrification, and frustration with the ignorance of the authorities.

To give decision-makers more freedom, such projects have been routinely given a special status in the name of “national interest.”[1] For instance, it is possible to disregard a range of existing standards of protection of natural or built heritage.

House of the Hungarian Millennium / NEO Contemporary Art Space. Photo:

This essay takes a look at one such investment, the Liget Project, a political program that intended, and still intends to, carry out major developments in the museum sector by constructing a cultural quarter in one of the few open green areas of Budapest. No stylistic analysis of the newly constructed buildings will be offered, and no contribution will be made to the debates circulated in the Hungarian press about materials, volumes, aesthetics and atmospheres. Instead, we attempt to grasp certain recurring themes used in the official communication of the project, arguing that while it certainly has a number of local attributes, the Liget Project fits into the global phenomena of spectacular architectural projects that use big names and big capital to rebrand cities for the sake of tourism.

City Park Gets Spectacularized

While timelines are not the most engaging ways to start non-academic articles, it is crucial to provide some context before we move on to the analysis. The Liget Project was initiated in 2013–2014 as part of a grandiose cultural real estate investment, with the goal of constructing a cultural quarter in the City Park, one of the oldest public parks in Europe. In the very beginning, the concept listed a minimum of six new buildings, out of which at least four was to host newly established cultural institutions (dedicated, respectively, to architecture, music, photography, and the somewhat blurry concept of “Hungarian innovation”), while the National Gallery and the Museum of Ethnography were also to be moved here—the former from Buda Castle, the latter from Kossuth Square. If such a plan sounds alarming today, when we value urban green areas more than ever, it caused public indignation ten years ago and mobilized citizens and creative industry professionals alike. Protests were started, activists were camping in the park for weeks, while professional debates were started in the cultural sector, with curators, artists, professors, writers and columnists trying hard to suggest alternative locations for the project, or calling for its cancellation altogether. It went underway regardless.

A decade has passed since the project took off, a period that has seen significant changes in the political and economic conditions of Budapest and the entire country: while the government that initiated the program stayed in power, winning two more elections in 2018 and 2022, the municipal elections of 2019 saw the victory of the opposition’s candidate in Budapest, ending the long mayoralty of the government’s man. Then, from the spring of 2020, social distancing, waves of lockdowns and shortages in the global supply chain slowed down the construction process. Still struggling from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Hungary drifted to the brink of an energy crisis in 2022, when Russia attacked Ukraine. At one point, even mass tourism seemed to have lost its relevance for the unforeseeable future (a prediction that has been proven wrong). These calamities notwithstanding, the decision-makers in charge of the Liget Project kept promoting its importance and remained undeterred.

By the time the new administration took over City Hall and temporarily halted the project, a new museum building (Museum of Ethnography) and a concert hall with an exhibition space (House of Music Hungary) had been constructed in City Park, while a historical piece of architecture was under renovation, to be home to a new gallery (NEO Contemporary Art). Further, dilapidated historical buildings next to the park had been converted into a new museum storage and restoration facility, with offices for an archive and research center. It has been announced that the photography exhibition space will open soon in a renovated villa near the City Park and the campaign for a new National Gallery building to be constructed inside the City Park is ongoing.

The construction work has severely damaged the flora of the City Park, partly because of careless designs, and partly because of the very nature of the work, which involved deep boring, cabling, excessive pollution and water waste. The authorities routinely countered the environmental concerns that were repeatedly raised by citizen groups (such as Ligetvédők) with official reports that would find no remarkable environmental damage on the site.

Protesters at the demonstration of Ligetvédők (Defenders of Liget) group in City Park (Városliget), Budapest, 2016. Photo: Ligetvédők

Regardless of certain elements of the communication strategy of the project, which we will unpack in the next section, the local political elite had never particularly defined the Liget Project, as far as I am aware, as an investment that would promise some sort of a Hungarian Bilbao effect. (Named after the Spanish city where Frank O. Gehry’s take on the Guggenheim franchise seems to have stimulated economic growth—though some strongly dispute the actual positive effects.) While there can be little doubt that the City Park in Budapest had already been among Hungary’s most popular tourist attractions and open spaces for leisure, decision-makers argued that the Park, Budapest, even the whole country, would benefit from the tourist potential of the world-class architecture, saying these landmark attractions would reinvigorate the country’s marketing strategy in unprecedented ways.

The Discourse of Excellence

This section will focus on self-legitimation efforts on the part of the Liget Project, a set of arguments that are meant to convince the public about its importance, disregarding the worries of its critics. One way to investigate this narrative is to study the official discourse surrounding the project, identifying recurring themes and the way they are used to build up the argument. By “official” we mean the narrative that comes from the authorities in their efforts to defend the project, thus the main source for key statements will be the official websites of the Liget Project and its institutions. While professionals from various fields and disciplines (from architecture and urban studies through plant science and ecology to museology and cultural theory[2]) have expressed a myriad opinions on a multitude of platforms, being either strongly against the project or partly in favor of its goals, it would exceed the limits of the present essay to reflect on positions other than the “official” narrative. To better understand how the Liget Project fits into the wider context of branded architecture that is present across the globe, a few examples will be given of the ways that the marketing communication of the project uses terms such as iconicity[3] and star architecture,[4] along with other measures of excellence. This will hopefully also let us discover how the ethos of “excellence” itself is constructed in the official discourse, and how it is used to justify the value of the Liget Project.

Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. Photo: György Palkó / Liget Project

Focusing on the representation of the two newly built cultural spaces—the Museum of Ethnography and the House of Music—as well as statements made about the Liget Project in general, the project descriptions revolve around the same catchphrases that are often used in other Bilbaoesque cultural projects. The short description of the House of Music includes the following passage:

“The iconic building, designed by Japanese star architect Sou Fujimoto was selected from among 170 international projects and since the announcement of the design as the winner of the architectural competition it has attracted massive attention in international professional circles.”

The Museum of Ethnography was designed by a Hungarian architect, so the narrative was changed slightly:

“The spectacular building with its design evoking a pair of nearly embracing hillsides is distinguished by its unique facade decoration of almost half a million pixels presenting a contemporary adaptation of twenty Hungarian and twenty international ethnographic motifs, as well as by its more than seven-thousand-square-metre roof garden, from the highest point of which a stunning panorama opens up. One of the most prestigious competitions of the international property business, the International Property Awards in London, the Museum of Ethnography was selected in 2018 as the world’s best public architecture based on its architectural design alone, and it was also recognised with the Best Architecture main prize.”

Emphasizing the Hungarian national value is another recurring theme of the discourse, providing a strong narrative of national spectacle and national excellence, clearly intending to balance the foreign influence of the project—a fairly sensitive topic in a country where the government is proud of its “sovereignty” and refuses to accept unwanted liberal and post-liberal “Western” values. For instance, the website whose only purpose is to advocate for the construction of the yet-to-be-built National Gallery (another branded project designed by another celebrated Japanese architecture studio) says this about the Liget project:

“The Liget Budapest Project is now Europe’s largest culture-focused urban development project, recognized with prestigious international awards, combining the largest-scale park and landscape project in the country’s history with an institutional development program not seen since the Millennium” [my translation].

House of Music Hungary. Photo:

Along with aspects not mentioned here at length, such as more real-estate awards, international travel top lists, and a sound art project based on the building of the Ethnography Museum and shown at the Hungarian Pavilion of the 2023 Venice Biennale, the above have been utilized by the authorities to prove the success of the project, as well as to argue for building at least one more iconic piece of architecture in the City Park. This is done in a way that can both please international tourists (by references to starchitecture), young domestic audiences (a recurring theme of government projects, also used here, being “meeting the needs of the 21st century”), as well as Hungarians of more conservative persuasion (by insisting on national excellence). While the discourse is fraught with a number of logical fallacies, it is clearly constructed in a way as to effectively target a variety of imagined personas.


The Liget Project celebrated its tenth anniversary with a free exhibition that highlighted its milestones and provided guided tours for the public and the press. The summary given in the beginning of this essay was far from complete—ignoring, for instance, the Biodome, an absurd, now abandoned part of the Liget Project—but it intended to highlight details about the project that were missing from the anniversary representations and the paid articles that followed the guided tours.

The second section problematized the fact that the ethos of excellence was constructed by the project leaders themselves, partly in alignment with the values that other speculative real-estate and/or tourism projects advocate for across the globe, while also seamlessly blending in national pride and even “anti-Western” sentiments. Therefore, the argument studied above is based on false, or at least biased premises, namely, that excellence is measured by factors such as visitor numbers, industry awards, stardom, iconicity, and national achievements. To meet such standards, the official representation of the project also must cherry-pick its pros and cons (not that it listed any real negatives), as it argues for the long-term sustainability of the project.

New National Gallery (visual plan). Photo:

However, even more problematic is the fact that the official discourse is limited to celebrating select elements of the Liget Project, be they architectural, curatorial or technical aspects. The image of the present and future of the Hungarian cultural scene that is painted by the official communication will mislead anyone who does not have an at least superficial knowledge of the political and social realities of Hungary (such as globetrotting tourists who discovered Budapest on the map only recently), falsely suggesting a generously funded creative and cultural sector with spectacular buildings that even look progressive and not unlike other iconic buildings around the world. (The new ones in the City Park no longer need to be labeled as “Eastern editions,” and no longer cater to Ostalgie, the bittersweet romantic nostalgia over the so-ugly-it’s-actually-good aesthetic of the former Eastern Bloc). And while the aesthetic jargon seems familiar, the absence of gender-neutral public toilets in the buildings may go unnoticed. This, along with the fact that works of art showing vaguely defined “LGTBQ+ content” will be hidden from the eyes of underage audiences, will remain unmentioned in the official handbills and websites.

While a new building does not in itself define the program of an institution, it would be a mistake to hope for the complete autonomy of the cultural institutions that became, one way or another (typically, through a new building), part of the Liget Project. It is possible that for local visitors, the cultural events (just like the buildings) bear a resemblance to their high quality counterparts elsewhere in the world, and may even seem, surprisingly, much more progressive than expected. However, a rather radical standpoint of this essay is that no part of this project—not even objectively important cultural achievements—can be singled out, taken out of context, and viewed separately from the hegemonic political power that generated the Liget Project. This is only mentioned since many people, including active opposition politicians, who loudly protested the project ten years ago, are today reportedly entertained at the concerts of the House of Music—while this essay has no intention to judge or urge others to cancel any cultural space.

To conclude, this essay intended to provide a brief account of a recent cultural investment project—the first, and to date only, one of its kind in Budapest—that purposely employed starchitecture to update the image of the local cultural scene with architectural spectacles that have in fact successfully become tourist attractions and social media phenomena. To get a more thorough understanding of how architectural spectacles work in different places around the world—whether projects specifically meant to produce spaces for the consumption of culture, such as the Liget Project, or large-scale developments like the new quarter with the skyscraper mentioned at the start—more international discussion is needed, with a focus on post-socialist countries. The comparative analysis of the different cases may reveal economic, political and cultural particularities, which could provide a new understanding of how stakeholders of the transnational capitalist class branch out to new markets through spectacular architectural and urban projects in the region and beyond.

Knowledge-sharing could also help in designing more efficient opposition strategies against the commercialization of public spaces and institutions—see, for instance, how the mayor of Zagreb reached out to his counterpart in Budapest to share experiences about the same investor who stands behind the Hungarian skyscraper project, also bringing to attention what went down in Belgrade in this regard.

Finally, the social dynamics of the initial protests and the subsequent slow normalization of such mega-projects also should and could be studied and compared across the region and beyond, challenging the current dichotomy that is painfully true of the Hungarian public, ten years into the Liget Project: active, deactivated or passive resistance, versus open or secret acceptance.


Bodnár, Zsuzsa. “Kiherélte a kormány a kiemelt beruházásokról szóló népszavazási kezdeményezést.”, December 20, 2023.

“Térképre tettük a Fidesz által kiemeltté nyilvánított beruházásokat az elmúlt 4 évből.”, April 13, 2022.

Partizán. “Parkmentes Övezet.” YouTube. Accessed April 4, 2024.

Ponzini, Davide, and Michele Nastasi. Starchitecture: Scenes, Actors, and Spectacles in Contemporary Cities. First American edition. New York: The Monacelli Press, 2016.

Sklair, Leslie. The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[1] This special status, that of “investments of major importance for the national economy,” had existed in Hungarian law before the current government took over in 2010, but it was drastically modified to meet the needs of investors and stakeholders. For further reading on this topic (in Hungarian), we recommend two articles by Zsuzsa Bodnár on Bodnár Zsuzsa, “Térképre tettük a Fidesz által kiemeltté nyilvánított beruházásokat az elmúlt 4 évből,”, April 13, 2022,; Zsuzsa Bodnár, “Kiherélte a kormány a kiemelt beruházásokról szóló népszavazási kezdeményezést,”, December 20, 2023,

[2] A documentary shot by Partizán includes some interviews. Partizán, “Parkmentes Övezet,” YouTube, accessed April 4, 2024,

[3] For more on this, see Leslie Sklair, The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017),

[4] For more on this, see Davide Ponzini and Michele Nastasi, Starchitecture: Scenes, Actors, and Spectacles in Contemporary Cities, First American edition (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2016).

Boglárka Kőrösi is a PhD candidate in interdisciplinary history, with a background in architecture and design theory.

© 2024 - Contemporary Art Organization

Main partner of tranzit is Erste Foundation

erste stiftung logo