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We visited the Újpalotai Apartment Tower | Othernity

Even though we are quite saddened by the fact that the 2020 International Architecture Biennale was postponed, we for sure gained something with it: we can visit all the iconic buildings that will be in the center of attention in the Hungarian Pavilion. In the framework of the walking tours organized by the Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Center (KÉK), we can get to know the built heritage of Socialist Modernism up close and personal. This time, we visited the Újpalotai Apartment Tower.

Probably a lot of people have asked this question already when standing in the busy intersection of Újpalota: “And what on Earth is this?” Many things could be said about the tower house located at Nyírpalota utca 71, but blending in with its environment would not be one of them, for sure. With its impressive 70.9 m height, the building designed by Tibor Tenkequalifies as the highest residential building in Budapest, and is the third in the line of the tallest tower houses in Hungary. The first and at the same time the highest of Hungarian residential buildings is the tower house in Szolnok built in 1975 with a height of 81 meters, which is followed by the tower house in Debrecen built between 1969 and 1973, with a height of 75 meters. The Újpalotai Apartment Tower also stands out in its category because in addition to being a residential building, it also functions as a water tower, or at least it used to in earlier times. 

10,300 apartments were established on the panel housing estate in Újpalota until 1973: according to the original concept, their water supply was supposed to be ensured by a tower with a water tank on top. The house built between 1973 and 1975 mixed pleasure with business: it was a water tower while also providing home to those who were formerly forced to share apartments with other families. 

Owing to the sliding form-work technology, the building was made relatively quickly, in only two years. A total of 98 residential units were established in the building, with 6 apartments on each floor. Out of the six, four apartments have a floorspace of 32 square meters, while two are of 72 square meters. On top of the building, two-story, so called “duplex” homes also awaited their new owners. The majority of these flats were inhabited by artists. Painter and medallist Előd Nagy lived and worked in of these studio apartments for years, and allegedly the flat is still inhabited by artists, at least according to the super of the house.

Not only could we get to know the tower house in the course of the tour, but other iconic buildings of the housing estate too, for example the service house, referred to by many as the “Spiral House”. According to the original plans, the spiral ramp was not supposed to end at the first floor of the building, as it was supposed to continue in the form of a pedestrian bridge. They wanted to provide access to the cultural-commercial city center planned for the other side of the road with it. The dwellers of the housing estate waited long years for the cultural center planned to be of a total floorspace of 3300 square meters and giving home to a theater, a cinema and an exhibition space, but all for nothing. Both the pedestrian bridge and the cultural center at Fő tér remained a dream. In the absence of a cultural center, people had to take care of their entertainment themselves: in the framework of Újpalota Days, for example, they organized an open air concert on top of the neighboring kindergarten. The Spiral House built in 1974 based on the designs of Ferenc Callmeyer was renovated based on the designs of architects János Golda and Bence Varga in 2014.

It may sound odd, but the housing estate in Újpalota once qualified as a greenfield investment, which is also evidenced by the archive records of the era, presented by Balázs Gurdon, the leader of the architectural walk to the participants. The quite amusing film excerpts also revealed how happy the new inhabitants of the housing estate were to move into their new homes even if there were hardly any place in the new, tiny apartment for the bed of the owner’s child of preschool age (and many other things).

One can find some loveable details in the inside of the Újpalotai Apartment Tower if they really look for it: including the arched letterboxes established on the ground level of the stairwell (in pairs), and the relatively intact floors which are in perfect harmony with the colors of the building made out of concrete. 

The view it offers is indisputably the most spectacular attraction of the building. One can get to the 17th floor with an elevator, too, but the top of the building is only accessible through stairs. The antennas somewhat overshadowed the marvelous panorama on the top of the building, but it was quite interesting and edifying to look not only at Újpalota, but at the structure of the housing estate, too, from this perspective.

Photos: Balázs Mohai

In our series we tell our readers about the walking tours organized by the Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Center (KÉK), in relation to the “Othernity” project. The “Othernity” project presents 12 iconic buildings of the modern architectural heritage in Budapest through the lens of 12 contemporary Central-Eastern European architect studios. How and in what manners the contemporary groups reinterpreted the emblematic buildings of Budapest will be shared with those interested in the Hungarian Pavilion of the International Architecture Biennale in 2021.

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