A massive investment in culture is putting Budapest on the map for music, art and film production.
Robert Henke looks more like an academic than a musician. As he turned to accept the applause of the assembled audience he seemed faintly bemused to find himself on stage. His performance – the electronic utterances of a battalion of 1980s computers, orchestrated by Henke from a keyboard while sitting in his office chair – was a long way from being a traditional concert. But then, the glass-walled auditorium in the brand new Japanese-designed House of Music in Budapest is certainly a long way from being a conventional concert venue.
For a start, its roof is organically shaped and looks like a giant mushroom with holes poked in it to let the light in and trees grow through. Under that roof, besides the auditorium with its planned 500-plus live musical performances a year, it also has a sound dome where you can lie back on beanbags and bathe in a compelling combination of sound and images. Below ground in the mushroom’s roots, there’s a comprehensive exhibition that charts the development of music all the way from the drumming of early man to digital compositions in the mode of Henke, with all sorts of magically innovative interactions along the way.
If that is not enough to keep all members of the family happy, there are musical stepping stones outside, for making music and blowing off steam.
All in all it’s a very impressive structure, with a pretty hefty price tag (€80 million). But it is just one element in a whopping €1 billion investment that the Hungarian government is making in its Liget project, all constructed within the confines of Budapest’s city park. It includes a giant new Ethnographic Museum, currently nearly finished and looking like a huge skateboard ramp. Eventually there will also be the New National Gallery to house the combined modern collections of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hungarian National Gallery.
Liget is, according to House of Music head of publicity Medea Kui, the largest-ever cultural investment project in Europe. And this in a country that spends more on culture (3 per cent of GDP) per head of population than any other European nation.
The project is clearly intended to make the nation feel proud of its cultural credentials. The hope, too, is that it will attract more upmarket travellers, especially as the glorious neo-Renaissance State Opera House down the road has just reopened after a multi-million-euro restoration. Moreover, this is the city where tickets to opera, ballet and classical music concerts are a small percentage of what you would pay in Western Europe.
As a weekend break destination, Budapest has long punched above its weight in terms of popularity, but most of its visitors come for inexpensive indulgences, including its pound-a-pint beers and famous hot water spas, such as at Gellert or Szechenyi, where you can get a massage for under £20. They come, too, for its good-value palatial hotels, its fancy coffee houses, and its ‘ruin bars’ such as Szimpla Kert, pubs that have recolonised tumbledown buildings in an innovative way. They also come for sightseeing river cruises on the Danube and to tour the House of Terror, the former headquarters of the secret police during the Communist period, with its torture cells in the basement.
At some point in their stay most visitors cross the Danube river to visit Buda, the government district up on a hill that rises on the west bank of the river (although the famous chain bridge crossing is closed for maintenance right now). Most end up at Buda’s Fisherman’s Bastion viewpoint, very popular for selfies, and then return to Pest, the city’s commercial heart on the east bank, home to the famous Central Market and most of the shops and hotels.
To get around, many visitors ride the old trams, the ancient underground (second oldest in the world after London), the child-run Children’s Railway and, when the weather is good, they repair to Margaret Island in the middle of the river, with its spa, pools and jogging track.
Today, despite the proximity of war in Ukraine, plenty of these typical weekend visitors are still arriving in Budapest. Some, of course, are peering around themselves nervously, looking for signs of a refugee crisis, or even of rebellious reaction to controversial prime minister Viktor Orban’s recent re-election.
In fact neither are in evidence. There are Ukrainians in Budapest, for sure, but those who are in the city centre generally have money to spend, so are welcome guests. And while Orban himself may not be popular with Europe, his margin of victory (53 per cent of votes compared to the opposition’s 35 per cent) is indicative of his domestic popularity. The war in Ukraine helped him achieve that victory, with Hungarians banking on his ability to walk his well-practised tightrope between the EU and Putin’s Russia, thereby ensuring that their nation is very unlikely to be drawn into conflict by either side.
If locals find the stability of Orban’s tenure reassuring, so too do outside investors who have business interests in Budapest. Many of them are coming not to experience homegrown culture, but to make their own versions, because the city has long been a rendezvous for Hollywood producers, attracted by Hungarian government tax incentives that refund up to 30 per cent of their production costs.
It’s not just the official subsidy that pulls in the makers of blockbusters such as Blade Runner 2049 and Terminator: Dark Fate, nor the city’s photogenic locations and lavish hotels that are more than good enough to accommodate even the pickiest of stars. The key ingredients in Budapest’s popularity with Hollywood are the sets of very professional studios both in and around the city; places such as the government-run NFI Studios at Fot, whose backlots and sound stages include a world-class medieval town, a Western village and an American suburb, all on the outskirts of the capital, 30 minutes’ drive from Budapest Ferenc Liszt airport.
Aware of the importance of innovation in keeping their valuable customers happy, construction work has recently begun on four new lots at the NFI, increasing its capacity to 12,200 sqm by the end of 2023.
It’s a strategy that is working well. Pre-pandemic, overseas film production was making an annual contribution of approaching €500 million to the nation’s coffers, a figure that is likely to be reached in 2022 because all the production facilities are already booked up by big companies, including Marvel, Netflix, Lionsgate and Disney until the year’s end.
Of course, film producers are not the only outside investors to notice that there is a willing labour force available in Hungary, comparatively cheaply, particularly with the current weakness of the forint (the local currency). Vehicle manufacturing currently represents about 20 per cent of Hungarian exports, and employs 170,000 people, both of which numbers are likely to increase substantially when BMW opens its new plant at Debrecen in 2025. The plan is for the mega-site to be the hub of BMW’s electric car production and when it gets up to full capacity, its workforce of 1,000 will be expected to produce 150,000 vehicles a year.
Wizz Air success
Many of the executives for both these industries – film and automotive – will be travelling back and forth to Hungary courtesy of its own homemade transport success story, Wizz Air. Following the collapse of state airline Malev back in 2012, the Budapest-based low-cost airline’s business has grown steadily over the past few years, prospering on the back of labour force movements between east and west, and recently venturing into the medium-haul market by adding destinations in the Middle East.
Pre-pandemic, the airline announced a plan to hire 4,600 new pilots by 2030 and ordered 102 new aircraft to add to the current fleet of 140, with the intention of taking the total to 500 by the end of the decade. Of course, these projections will have to be redrawn thanks to the current geopolitical situation, but Hungary is far from being alone in that predicament. For the moment, it is business as usual in the Hungarian capital.
- Thailand-based luxury hotel group Anantara has just taken over the fabulous New York Palace hotel in downtown Pest, with its gloriously Belle Epoque café, all pastel frescos and gilded balustrades. That makes it popular with film industry executives, says Foldes Gabor, director of PR and marketing. Business travellers make up 20 per cent of the property’s guest list, a bit lower than pre-pandemic, but recovering.
- It’s a similar story at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, on the riverside, its façade a masterpiece of Art Nouveau and its foyer a magnificent glass cupola with wrought-iron peacocks. The presidential suites overlook the river and its spa occupies the whole of the top floor.
- Also on the riverbank, but over on the Buda side, the glamorous Hotel Gellert sits next to the spa of the same name. The Budapest landmark is currently closed following its sale by the Danubius group to developer Indotek, which says it has plans to reopen the spa later this year, once it has been restored to its former glory.
Words: Andrew Eames