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Reconstructing the intersection of luck and housing in the Kádár-era


ANNA 2.jpeg

View of the lottery house’s inner court. Author’s own photograph, 2020.

Lottery Houses, the case study of the present dissertation, are quite a straightforward typology. They are residential buildings constructed between 1957 to 1972 all around Budapest by the state, which were then allocated to citizens using the mechanisms of a lottery. One could buy a lottery ticket for the price of 3,30 HUF, roughly the same price as a loaf of bread, and either win money, or amongst other things, a flat in a Lottery House.[1] This method of acquisition moves one’s imagination even today, implying fascinating stories and forever changed lives. Yet within the State socialist context of their construction they further represent a complex and paradoxical interplay of politics, ideology, society, myth and, to quote Pierre Bourdieu’s seminal text about ideology, a grand show of ‘displacement and diversion, camouflage and legitimation’ unfolding openly, in the representational space of the media and the city.[2]

As such, the following dissertation will attempt to serve a dual purpose. First it proposes to reconstruct part of the history of the Lottery Houses, exploring a part of Hungarian architectural history which is largely understudied and forgotten. As I propose, this is a history of mechanisms of ‘displacement and diversion, camouflage and legitimation’, placing Lottery Houses within the specific context of not just Socialist Hungary in the 1950s, but a wider architectural context of the development of the Hungarian profession. This will be important, since while Lottery Houses had an obvious connection with the political sphere, being a vehicle for the ideological considerations of the socialist State’s power, they further were (and are) parts of the built environment. Their ideological role was intrinsically connected to their performance as architectural objects, offering an opportunity to understand the mechanisms of architectural profession in my observed period. Yet simultaneously, through the analysis of the Lottery Houses’ role in the architectural, social and political history of the State socialist period, this study further hopes to demonstrate and complicate the often-prevailing considerations of State socialism as an ideologically and politically largely consistent operation. Rather, this dissertation hopes to operate in an academic space embracing the inconsistencies and paradoxes of not just the private, but also the public spaces of the State’s socialist period, having long-lasting psychological, social, political and aesthetic impact on the current post-Communist Hungary.

For the purpose of my argument, I propose that planning is inherently a political act, since with planning, one already chooses between alternatives. This choice, opposed to the myth of scientific objectivity of the profession, especially propagated during socialist times, can only be value-based, and as such, becomes a political act.[3] While this definition can be useful for highlighting the inherent political nature of architecture as a discipline, it further helps to problematise and underscore the role of architecture in State socialism. During the rule of the communist regime, this value-based choice of planning was not a necessary, theoretical compromise for a profession, but a conscious, incorporated and compulsory aspect of architectural practice. As such, the conscious incorporation of chance in my case study of Lottery Houses, proposes an apparently paradoxical solution in a system whose highly centralised and dictatorial nature was designed for exercising full and unquestionable control, not just psychologically, but in bureaucracy as well.

As such, in the first part of the study I will briefly outline the mechanisms and historical development of Hungary’s housing situation and bureaucratic context between the 1940s until the 1960s. Then, I will review some of the architectural debates of the period, highlighting the complex and often contradictory attempts of the architectural profession’s gestures at theoretical self-definition, torn between an existing theoretical heritage, a desire for autonomy and an enforced or willing faithfulness to the State ideology of socialism. Later, I will review the importance and historical development of lottery as an institution, analysing the implications of the game’s political, economic, historical and ideological implications, not just for housing, but for the State socialist regime as well. Proposing, as Iván Szelényi, the prominent sociologist of the era has theorised, that the mechanisms of the market in state socialism could be understood as attempting to correct and aid the inequalities produced by the administrative redistributions.[4]

The distribution of houses through the State-owned lottery complicated this understanding with the incorporation of luck, as a disguised and supposed correcting element of market led mechanisms themselves. Whilst both housing and lottery were monopolised by the state, the former was redistributed on a state level utilising the supposed moral and ideological frameworks of equality of state administration, while the latter channelled a market driven development into the redistributive system through the use of luck as the ultimate allocating mechanism.

Taking these assumptions as starting points, Lottery Houses become an active confusion of the power dynamics of the socialist ideology’s urban society. With the displacement of certain people from their ideologically proposed ideal space into houses associated with higher classes and different lifestyles, based on winning the lottery rather than their work, the government disturbed and confused the proposed and idealised structures of society, even if only momentarily and without any significant disruption of the system as a whole.

As such, the present dissertation attempts to serve as an introduction and initial reflection on the complex and vastly understudied area of lottery and Lottery Houses in the State socialist period of Hungary, hoping to demonstrate their significance in sociological, historical, political and architectural discourses of the 1950s and 1960s.

[1] László Pálffy, ’A számhúzás történetéből’, Élet és Tudomány, 4 no.1,(1991), 804-805.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1977), 188.

[3] Iván Szelényi, Városi Társadalmi egyenlőtlenségek (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990), 22-25.

[4] Iván Szelényi, Városi Társadalmi egyenlőtlenségek (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990), 30.






Copyright of image: © Anna Alexandra Seress

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