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.
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 Out-of-date and a reminder of Hungary’s Communist era, the cubes are being torn down and replaced with more modern housing.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.
Hungarian Cubes: Subversive Ornaments in Socialism by Katharina Roters is available from Park Books, Amazon, and other online booksellers.