Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999
Architect of the Westend City Center
A little over a year ago, architect Jozsef Finta was visibly nervous when leaving Hungary's famous Gundel restaurant shortly after the ground-breaking ceremony of the Westend City Center. Only days before last week's opening of the first phase of what will be Central Europe's largest multi-use facility, he was still nervous. Finta was chosen to build the enormous, centrally located 80,000 square meter project, which will include a shopping center, movie theater, office building, promenade and hotel. The result is an impressive development that recalls a miniature city. There are lingering questions, however, which will only be answered in the coming months, as the effects of this project become clear.
While developers point to examples of successful models in Western European capitals, the failure of a similar development erected almost over 18 months ago close to Moscow's Red Square offers a less optimistic outlook. In that USD 350 million project, prices were simply out of reach of the local consumers, resulting in a dismal failure of this prime location development. Days before the opening of the Westend City Center, we spoke to the architect Jozsef Finta, whose firm has constructed many of Budapest's major real estate developments of the past decade, including the Novotel Hotel, the Budapest Congress Center and the Grand Hotel Corvinus Kempinski.
CER: When we last met, you were very nervous about the tight timing that you had to work with in building this complex. Over a year later, and nearing completion of the project, are you more relaxed?
Jozsef Finta: I am not at all relaxed and will not be until the moment that we hand over the building. Certainly, the complex will not be totally finished at that time either. As we had planned, the hotel and office building will not be handed over until next May. I am certain that even the commercial part of the shopping center will require some work even after handing over the building. One year, or a little bit more than a year, for a project of this size would be considered a very short time anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, I hope that the quality of the work will be acceptable and that the space will be put to good use. The pace of the planning was incredibly fast, and the responsibility for overseeing and carrying this out at such a speed did cause tension, as decisions had to be made quickly.
CER: Why such a rush?
JF: Clearly, that was the decision of the investors. If we would have had two or three weeks more, it would have helped tremendously in completing the work, but the decision was probably based on the desire to be ready in time for the holiday shopping season. Nevertheless, I think that only a smaller percentage of the stores will be ready to open and the rest by December.
CER: Many have criticized the development of shopping centers as a North American phenomenon. These people consider these centers as different from their way of life - a different philosophy with regards to shopping. What are your views on this issue?
JF: It is a difficult question to answer. Firstly, I myself prefer to stroll the streets and to really experience the life of the city as opposed to through a covered city. This shopping center is an air-conditioned covered world, even if it is true to the scale of the city. I prefer to walk on the Vaci utca, on the banks of the Danube, or to admire the Castle, the Gellert Mountain, or simply to sit outside on a terrace. At the same time, many people prefer this other kind of world.
It is evident that this is an American model that has been adapted by Europe and has been tested elsewhere as well. I would rather say that there exists a related European tradition of long passages that were built during the eclectic period at the end of the last century. For example, in Milan there is an enormous courtyard, or in Paris as well. Budapest has a corresponding building, the Parisi courtyard; while poorly maintained and much smaller, it is nevertheless very beautiful.
This also demonstrates that Europe does have a tradition of large, decorated covered spaces with stores. If you use the example of Moscow, the Gum shopping center is similarly a large courtyard, where smaller stores are also incorporated into the development. The idea of covered shopping spaces is not foreign to European thinking, and we were thinking more of taking the American model further by developing the idea of these large passageways. The other plazas are more American, while the Westend is European.
CER: Since the changes of 1989, you have been the architect of many of the most important real estate developments in Budapest. What are your views on the recent development of this city?
JF: Firstly, that is not exactly true. Maybe it looks as if my studio or I designed the most important constructions, because these buildings are the most prominent or the largest projects or are simply relatively close or in the center of the city. But other colleagues of mine have also designed important large-scale buildings. This considered, a person naturally has a vision of the future of the city. I believe that every architect should represent and reflect the age in which he works. He should work within the functional needs of his time and with the highest possible technology available in the profession. I consider an architectural style that does not make use of this technology anachronistic.
At the same time, you have to take care that Budapest should not lose its own scale, size and mood. The new buildings being erected today should fit in with the architectural heritage left from the turn of the last century. That does not mean that we should look back to the style of a century ago; we should erect modern buildings but at the same time remain sensitive to a connection with the past.
CER: The developers have been presenting the Westend project as a symbol of the new millennium. What is it about this project that differs from similar developments?
JF: Aside from the sheer size of Westend, it also has many unique qualities. It is a mixed-function facility that not only plays the role of a city center, but it can also be an impetus for the urban development of Budapest. For example, the Western railway station track system is outdated; it is a system with so many tracks left unused. The railway station does not have a great deal of freight traffic and does not play the role of a transfer station. Therefore, it needs much fewer tracks to fulfil the role of passenger transportation. The primary task would be to narrow the tracks as much as possible, from the Ujlipotvaros area, basically the XIIIth district, and from the Terezvaros area. This could bring these parts of the city together with new bridges. As a longer-term plan, we could eradicate the tracks from at least the Ferdinand Bridge to the Varosliget area. Therefore, the city should build above the tracks.
This urban movement is being inspired by the Westend development. We cannot forget that the Western train station, designed by the famed Gustav Eiffel, is one of Hungarian Railways' most important cultural heritage buildings. It was important that that the building that we built next to this site should reflect to a large extent the respect that we have for this architectural legacy.
CER: The construction is enormous. Is the market in Budapest strong enough to support a project of this magnitude?
JF: I think that this question has been overemphasized. On numerous occasions, I have said that unfortunately, for some unexplained reason, Budapest never built such large constructions, as would be normal for a city of its size - similar to that of Vienna, for example. In Vienna, on one major artery alone there are three large department-store complexes. In Budapest, the Corvin is the only one that could be considered a department store, and perhaps the smaller Skala Metro. But really large department stores are not being built here.
The kind of concentrated trade that these large department stores require is found in a central location in the city. I am not thinking of the Coras or the Auchan's, but rather the Westend, the Duna Plaza or the Mammut. I think that this type of concentrated trade in large shopping centers will be a call to the smaller retailers. It will, in fact, improve the quality of items that the smaller retailers sell. Those stores that will remain on Vaci Street or on the boulevards are those that really sell quality goods. You can already see that, for example, the Skala Metro, located near to the Westend and sensing the competition, has already refurbished its facility. This is really a struggle, and the winner will be the consumer. The competition will likely bring their prices down. Certainly, there will be companies that will not survive, but there will also be some that will become stronger.
CER: You used the example of Paris and Vienna. In Moscow, however, there is a similarly large development in the center of the city, steps away from Red Square and the Kremlin. This development cost USD 350 million to develop. People have said that the prices were too high, and as a result, the development has been losing money and is in debt. Isn't Budapest somewhere in between Moscow and European capitals, in terms of buying power at least...
JF: I don't think that at the moment you can consider Moscow as a large European city. It is not living the kind of existence that you would find in other European cities. On the other hand, the purchasing power there is also much lower. I think that the Budapest GDP is growing, and you can imagine that in five or ten years, the figure could very well double. I think that a better comparison would be Vienna or other large Western European cities.
It's another matter that some shopping centers are being constructed in poor locations. Developments such as the Westend, the Mammut or even the Duna Plaza have carefully chosen areas that are easily accessible. For example, the Mammut in the Rozsadomb is near the hills of Buda, which are inhabited by people whose purchasing power is evident. The Westend is located in a large transportation hub. This kind of development will only be profitable as long as these kind of calculations are taken into account. This is the competitive part.
CER: The Westend is set to be a model for the creation of similar projects regionally. In what way is Westend a model?
JF: It can be considered a model from two perspectives. The first is that it is much more healthy if instead of having a simple stand-alone shopping mall, you have a mixed-use space with a hotel, an office building, a movie theater and perhaps apartments. Cultural institutions can also live within the space, and therefore one function has a synergy with the others. I hope that as time goes by Westend will develop its cultural function. Already, eminent orchestras are considering giving concerts either on the garden of the roof or within the building itself. Therefore, the city will be able to give life to the space.
The model value, therefore, is the mixed-use nature of the Westend, and secondly, that we have constructed over the railroad tracks. We have begun a movement in the city, which was intentional.
Andrew Princz, 15 November 1999
This article also appeared in Central European Business Weekly
Photo Credit: PRESSCOM, Bela Szandelszky
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