Marócsa (© Katharina Roters)

Photograph by Katharina Roters of a painted house in Marócsa, Hungary (© Katharina Roters, all images courtesy Park Books)

As a reaction to the bleak uniformity of suburban housing in post-war Hungary, many homeowners painted their houses in vibrant designs. Somewhere between the whimsy of Hungarian folk art and geometric constructivism being embraced by artists like László Moholy-Nagy, the decoration of the simple homes gave them an individualistic life.

Cover of “Hungarian Cubes. Subversive Ornaments in Socialism” (courtesy Park Books)

Photographer Katharina Roters documented as many of these houses as she could find over a decade. The series is compiled in Hungarian Cubes: Subversive Ornaments in Socialism, published recently by Park Books. The bilingual tome in English and German includes 123 images, as well as texts exploring the significance of the phenomenon. Known as “Magyar Kocka,” or sometimes “Kadar Cube” referencing the country’s 32-year communist leader János Kádár, the typical cube home was a single story with an attic, and an almost entirely flat, colorless façade. The cubes started popping up in the 1920s as a cheap, quick housing solution, and monotonously replicated through almost every village.

As Roters stated in an essay for Dezeen, the cube now “triggers a mixture of disregard and hostility,” and the DIY paint interventions are sometimes “dismissed as nothing but superficial, ‘slapdash, kitsch potpourri’.” Homing in close with her medium format camera, and later stripping away digitally any distracting power lines or fences, the German-Hungarian artist sought to capture the quiet, radical nature of the houses. Designed for maximum space for single families, their drab surface was an unintentional blank canvas. Some people cleverly used trompe-l’oeils to give them dimensions, others employed bold patterns of points and angles to pop from their row of identical homes. One charming home is painted to look like a bird. As the book puts it, the painting was “a rare opportunity for individualism and even protest under the conformity of the communist system”

They’re also rapidly disappearing. Out-of-date and a reminder of Hungary’s Communist era, the cubes are being torn down and replaced with more modern housing. The idea of painting the dull architecture of Eastern Europe left in the Soviet wake has been experimented with elsewhere, such as Tirana, Albania, where its former mayor, and now Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, directed vibrant paint jobs on the city’s towering, muted apartment buildings. Yet the Hungarian homes are like the best of vernacular art, where people take the resources they have to inject a personal visual perspective into their world.

Pannonhalma (© Katharina Roters)

Hetes (© Katharina Roters)

Székelyszabar (© Katharina Roters)

Ácsteszér (© Katharina Roters)

Kaposvár-Toponár (© Katharina Roters)

Kiskassa (© Katharina Roters)

Boldogasszonyfa (© Katharina Roters)

Dorfname unbekannt / village name unknown (© Katharina Roters)

Cégenydanyád (© Katharina Roters)

Hungarian Cubes: Subversive Ornaments in Socialism by Katharina Roters is available from Park Books, Amazon, and other online booksellers.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

2 replies on “How Hungary’s Painted Homes Rebelled Against the Socialist System”

  1. I wonder if you could get away with that sort of thing in a US suburb. A friend of mine was recently cited (ticketed, somehow) by the neighborhood association because her roof tiles didn’t conform to the standards they impose — they have to be painted white. Another friend was busted for converting an old freight trailer to a residence even though the trailer is completely hidden from public view year-round by foliage. I suppose it depends on the suburb. Also, I don’t really see how the variegated painting of houses is related, favorably or antagonistically, to the ownership and control of the means of production by the workers, something which I doubt was ever brought about in Hungary or anywhere else in the East Bloc. I think the cubes responded to a need for a lot of cheap housing, something not unknown in other realms.

  2. Great pictures, but please do not confuse socialist with communist. VERY different. Socialism resulted in the masses living in houses, instead of shacks. These houses had to be cheap, otherwise unaffordable to provide mass housing as a government. Then communism came, and painting geometric patterns on your house became a tiny protest. I bet the painting was NOT a protest against socialists, the political system that made it possible poor people had houses. So your title should say: “against the communist system”

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