Some Cities Tell their Stories, Silently to passers-by

Some cities tell their stories, silently to everyone passing by. Frescoes and statues on buildings, walls and bridges. Common places enacted by figurines, signs of ownership and symbols of the building’s use, small bits of stories and myths, well known to everyone.

Budapest is one of those cities. Countless statues watch over everyone. Most of them don’t do more than just marking their presence, some are the visible aftermath of the past. Maybe they are involuntary bailsmen of the distrust in the shared and collective memories of the people, or, on the contrary, they are only the visual evidence of what is hold dear and true. But again, aren’t the things one is telling oneself the things one fears to forget? The bronze kings, warriors and hunters on Budapest’s heroes square – Hösök Tere – are almost hammered into the city’s soil, dragging a past into the light of today. Details on horses and luggage, weapons and armory, clothes and gear, but especially crosses and other Christian symbols, spread a carpet of meaning, tying together a history.

Passers-by usually don’t listen. On their ways to trams, busses or subways, to meetings and appointments, to work or simply to their daily business, their eyes are fixed and the mind is busy. Still, the voiceless gaze of a sphinx or the observing look of a warden sink deep in the persons passing by from day to day. Like a series of Atlases carrying the weight of a spacious balcony, the whole city is not only built on, but also overlaid by stories carved in stone.

Maybe it is only in times of rupture and breakage, that the speaking details do come to life and obstruct a view that is less fixed than usual: When the daily routines are broken by sorrow and melancholy, the voices are heard again?

All those talkative buildings, pantomimicly narrating, are of the same age. Historicism to Art Nouveau. Newer buildings have lost this ability, they are neither witnesses nor containers of the past. Memory is not material anymore but only roams in the people’s minds. Constructed of steel and glass, leaving behind iron ornaments of Jugendstil and the statues of ancient heroes, these buildings provide neither niches nor unnecessary details. They are plain and shiny and impressive in their cleanliness. The most gracious of them have angulated facades or use tinted glass and thus show people a different version of themselves. Others, and those are the most crucial, are direct and without diffraction. They show one an image of oneself without giving the gift of alternation.

In “Experience and Poverty” (“Armut und Erfahrung”), Walter Benjamin writes that glass is a material so hard and sleek that nothing sticks to it. It is cold and sober, he writes. The buildings made of steel and concrete and wrapped in glass are transparent, free from any kind of history and possession. Benjamin sees glass as a symbol of a kind of new beginning, a tabula rasa. On glass, no one leaves a trace – and on a surface of glass, there are no traces that would predetermine one’s way. Benjamin dreamed of a world stripped of the experiences of authorities, which would enable its inhabitants to rebuild a (new?) world. A hope that is not redeemed, still.

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