During the course of a city’s evolution, its thoroughfares develop distinct characteristics and values signifying their different profiles and functions. In this context the urban street is not that far removed from the trading routes blazed from the wilderness or charted by mariners. Decades ago, Jane Jacobs clarified why streets can be more than simply pipelines transmitting people or things from one place to the next. In contrast to their function as basic transport mechanisms, in the most dynamic situations they are organic entities.
Urbanists, planners, sociologists and city dwellers have argued relentlessly about the qualities that make one street resilient and alive while another is moribund and desolate. Searching for some magical ingredient to inject into the life blood of a city’s atrophying elements they often invent panaceas that inadequately consider the well functioning dynamics of a public space. The results become reductionist solutions that compress the complexity of urban inter-relationships; often fore-grounding features of design at the expense of historical and social factors - factors not always easily identifiable but which are critical to processes of a street’s re-invention and sustainability.
Frank Sinatra sung about ‘State Street, that great street’ in a paean to Chicago, yet in the closing decades of the twentieth century State Street was a boulevard on life support. Located in the city’s commercial centre, planners tenaciously sought to revive the once majestic thoroughfare. First, it was turned into a pedestrian zone and then revamped and returned to the clamour of autos and buses traversing downtown. Despite its architectural landmarks, after six o’clock State Street was drained of its vitality as people returned to surrounding neighbourhoods and the suburbs.
Undertakings like State Street, regardless of the collection of experts, are ineffective if the motives at the base of the process are ill conceived or fail to consider the socio-spatial dynamics which have propelled a street’s evolution (or its demise). With the locations under consideration here these issues come to the fore: in the more general sense as case studies in the formulation and implementation of urban design concepts and more particularly if (and how) the specific qualities of an urban space can be amplified and sustained.
Pécs is a small city in Southwest Hungary, a fraction of the size of Chicago; its historical centre dates back to the Roman Empire and now contains an amalgam of nationalities reflecting the region’s geo-political vicissitudes. The main historical, civic and religious structures are situated in a core area. Acting as a buffer against auto traffic, this
centre is encircled by a roadway which distributes traffic headed into peripheral areas. Beyond the ‘ring’ and extending to the city’s boundaries lies an assemblage of smaller communities and commercial districts. Like windowed monoliths, the residential areas are dotted with housing blocks. They give these neighbourhoods a distinct physical appearance. Expeditiously constructed, frequently pre-fabricated, this type of mostly featureless housing is seen often throughout Central Eastern Europe and was built in conjunction with regional economic and industrial policies. Despite the expediency of their construction, these neighbourhoods frequently contain a range of amenities and variations in design, sufficient to provide a quite liveable environment.
Within the midst of this constellation of the old and new, the banal and the remarkable, lies Király utca (King Street), a street name ubiquitous in Hungary and often one of significance. In Pécs it is an important link in a mostly pedestrian route that runs from one end of the city ring to the other. A journey along Király, including its western and eastern extensions, is filled with details that mark the city’s history.
At the street’s mid-point is Széchenyi Square where the Gázi Kászim Mosque (now a Catholic Church) commands this large public space. Built during the 16th century when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire it sits perched atop the gently sloping square. Nearby are the global, yet here discrete, yellow arches of a McDonalds and the landmark four star Pannonia Hotel. At the eastern is end of Király utca (Upper Customshouse Street) is what remains of the Zsolnay ceramics factory. Begun in 1853 as a family enterprise it became one of the largest factories in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; its glazing techniques and craftsmanship were well known throughout Europe. Walking west, and just to the south, are the remnants of the old market square. A bit further is Theatre Square: a small public space surrounded by a large concert hall, theatre and other cultural facilities. On the opposite side of Széchenyi Sq. is Jokai Square, a junction of four streets, the main one being Ferencesek Street, the pedestrian way which links the city centre to the large main campus of the University of Pécs, Hungary’s largest university. In this sense, the life blood of Király utca is inseparable from the civic institutions and public spaces which describe the city’s central core.
Thus, as the main element in a well used urban pathway, Király Street possesses considerable importance (but with only a passing resemblance to a thriving English
high street). Walking eastward the contrast becomes clearer as the number of vacant storefronts and office spaces increases and Király’s attractiveness as a business location becomes marginal. Instead of a well proportioned resilience, its allure depends upon the centrally positioned commercial elements which in turn rely on tourism and the drawing power of the theatres, cafes and restaurants to stay alive.
The thriving English High Street exists on a balance of commercial enterprises and an available supply of shoppers. In contrast, while Király has an abundance of potential shoppers, they are drawn mostly to malls and hypermarkets. What arises then is a sharp disparity between the historically grounded urban promenade which Király Street represents and the enclosed walkways of the nearby Árkád Shopping Mall. With easy auto access and a location on the main traffic route bisecting the city, Árkád signifies a prime symbol of the consumerist culture that arose as East/West barriers were expunged in the years after 1989. With the ascendancy of malls and hypermarkets, a public space like the Király promenade is pitted against the enclosed, heavily monitored, privatised space of the mall.
When I arrived in Pécs in October of last year as part of an artists residency project, the extremities of the Király east-west axis and Széchenyi Square were part of the massive city-wide transformation easily seen in the mass of new building construction and rejuvenation processes. The swirl of activity, traffic detours and pedestrian re-routings were the result of the city’s designation as a 2010 Cultural Capital of Europe - along with Essen and Istanbul.
Some years ago, when Pécs was vying for the Cultural Capital title, I attended a planning meeting which took place in an exhibition space on Király utca. The city was competing against Budapest and other large Hungarian cities. Besides the short term cash benefits, many of those present had considered what could be the long-range positive effects of the city’s selection and made specific suggestions regarding improvements in the infrastructure and cultural institutions. It was therefore with great curiosity that I returned to the city and viewed how the results of those discussions were being translated. This was not just confined to the city centre, the stirrings generated by this infusion of public and private capital could be seen in most areas of the city but were highly visible, and disruptive, along the Király axis.
During the three months of my residency I developed an itinerary of locations which spanned many of the city’s districts. I focused on areas emanating from Pécs’ special status. I visited them regularly and documented aspects of the construction process and adjustments in many facets of the cityscape. The fact that many of the changes were cosmetic did not necessarily diminish their usefulness or value. But, some of this upgrading and new construction was begun rapidly and often haphazardly. And, while the new buildings altered the city’s fabric and improved its cultural facilities, the question which often crossed my mind concerned how all the pieces would fit together and at what cost.
Starting from scratch and creating new structures represents one type of challenge for architects and planners, but adjusting, bending or eradicating what already exists ventures into conceptual and practical territories where an assortment of conflicting interests frequently collide, often producing muted solutions devoid of any cohesion. With such brashness of purpose, the resulting structures, whether new or refurbished, are often robbed of historical subtext with the edges of time brushed into an homogenised surface. The bewildering sense of purpose which lies behind the Király revitalisation projects seems to relinquish the street’s vitality to the modulated experience of the shopping mall.
Thus, the alteration of Király utca illustrates the shortcomings of cosmetic solutions directed at fundamental urban issues. Processes of analysis and evaluation, as well as design, are only conceptual indicators of how urban transformations can extend or reconfigure existing social spaces (or accelerate their disassembling). The outcome of these processes lies not only in what has been visibly altered but also in those structures and spaces that are untouched or vacant. Thus, today, not far from Király utca, sits a vast empty space that was formally a small market hall. Perhaps that market was intrinsic to its vitality? Now, its presence is only as a gaping wound, despite that it is still inseparable from other elements within the urban habitat.
Within this framework, a street, with its own ecological and organic qualities, is simply one element in the urban matrix. And, while initiatives to alter these qualities might originate from good intentions, ultimately, the manner in which urban arteries like Király utca are woven into or disconnected from the fabric of urban spatiality correlates directly with the results. And, the results cannot be measured simply by calibrating the number of new facades or walkways. Rather, the consequences, when they prove to be beneficial, resonate as a type of magnetic field that criss-crosses a public space charging it with substance and meaning. Allan Siegel