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Subversive or submissive? Hungary divided over its Cube houses

By AFP - Dec 30,2014 - Last updated at Dec 30,2014

KOZARMISLENY, Hungary — They were a rare sign of individuality during the grim communist era. But now Hungarians are turning their backs on their gaily-painted “Cube” houses, ashamed of the simple geometric patterns and trompe-l’oeil effects that brightened their darkest days.

In the 1960s and 1970s the “Kadar Cube” — named after the all-powerful communist leader of the time Janos Kadar — transformed the Hungarian countryside.

Some 800,000 of these simple 100-square-metre homes still dot the landscape in the country of 10 million, including in Kozarmisleny, near the southern city of Pecs.

But what makes some of them stand out are their unexpectedly cheery and modern facades, far removed from the dull greyness so often associated with communist-era constructions.

“The houses were boring, so I thought let’s figure something out,” said Istvan Pucher, a 72-year-old mason who built over 220 cube houses and individually decorated at least a tenth of them.

Pucher developed his own designs and patterns, reminiscent of vintage optical art and soon it became a trend, with neighbours wanting different designs.

“People heard of it by word of mouth,” the cheery, white-haired Pucher told AFP.

Supplies were scarce — Hungary was then part of the Soviet block — but with the limited tools, colours and techniques at their disposal, masons created false box windows and painted trapezoids, triangles and swirls in vibrant colours on these squat little homes.

At the time, the ornamentation represented a subversive desire for individuality, even if the authorities pretended that was not the case.

“Unconsciously with the individual designs people defined themselves against the homogenising efforts of socialism,” said film-maker Jozsef Szolnoki, who has helped document the very best examples with his German photographer wife Katharina Roters.


A past best forgotten


She has travelled around Hungary for 10 years seeking out the most artistic and unusual cube houses, praising what she described as an “ornamental phenomenon that has become a code, a language of its own.”

But she is one of the few to appreciate their beauty.

“Why are they interesting? I don’t see it!” said Aniko, an elderly woman passing by with her shopping bags in Ujpetre, one of the many villages boasting decorated cube houses.

Before Roters ventured out there was never any real interest in the designs.

“This was a blind spot in Hungary,” Roters told AFP.

Her husband puts it down to an unspoken bargain between the communist leadership and the people after the 1956 uprising, which was brutally suppressed by Soviet tanks and followed by massive reprisals.

In exchange for their quiet submissiveness, Hungarians were afforded higher living standards and more freedom than in the rest of the eastern bloc.

Now an uncomfortable reminder of this, the colourful houses are at best ignored, at worst despised.

“There is a lot of psychological suppression in not seeing these buildings,” Szolnoki said.

“The drama is that the houses rewrote the country’s image, yet they remained invisible.”

While there are no definite figures, a few thousand decorated cube houses still remain in Hungary.

But they are slowly disappearing as houses are renovated and owners want to erase memories of a depressing past.

“They deserve attention to remind us of that time, when we worked for simple people who were happy to have a comfortable new home,” said Pucher.

Despite the attention, he doesn’t consider himself an artist. “I just did my job,” he said.

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