I wrote this article with my son Richard for segdDESIGN magazine earlier this year. I visited Budapest in the summer of 2007.
The slow, viscous drip-drop of oil ﬁlls the entrance lobby with an eerie, unsettling noise. A continuous ﬂow obscures the faces of hundreds of victims of tyranny who were tortured and killed in the very building that now memorializes them, a wing of an infamous government complex that sits at 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest, Hungary.
The Terror Háza Museum—opened in 2002—is a reminder of the mass brutality of 20th century wars and revolutions, and a monument to the people who played roles both inside and outside the building’s cavernous underground prison cells. It documents the period beginning in 1944 when the Nazis gained power in Hungary, to the early 1990s, when the Iron Curtain fell and Hungarians ﬁ nally gained freedom from Communism.
Hungarian architects János Sándor and Kámán Újszászy designed the museum as a monument to failed ideas and innocent victims. Working from a mindset beyond simple architecture, they recognized the need to create the right ambiance to guide visitors through recent history in a respectful and subtle way.
Thematically, the museum juxtaposes the dual hazards of the Nazi-supported Arrow Cross Party and the Soviet-backed secret police. This comparison is clear from the beginning. A large cross and a large star each cast shadows on the street below the building. These logos are ﬂanked by the word “terror,” which casts its own shadow. The designers placed these features onto a large awning that hangs over the rooﬂine of the building, which otherwise appears unchanged from its time as a prison.
Many of the rooms inside the museum have been preserved to appear as they did before Hungarian liberation. The director’s ofﬁce is still luxurious, and his receiving area still resembles an Austro-Hungarian Imperial-era room that has been painted over so as to erase the memory of the past. There is even a limousine parked inside the museum, its lights slowly rising to reveal plush red seating areas and champagne glasses reserved for the perpetrators.
But just as the museum highlights the excess of criminals, it focuses on the deprivation and inhumane treatment of their victims. The architects preserved the expansive prison, which not only ﬁlls the basement of 60 Andrássy Street, but also had been expanded by the Communists into the basement areas of a number of other buildings on the block.
Visitors descend into the basement in a slow-moving freight elevator that is illuminated by harsh ﬂuorescent lights. The prison is generally dark and dank, and the only real light comes from the desk lamps that sit inside interrogation rooms.
The gallows are preserved in their ﬁnal resting spot, and artifacts from inmates line the claustrophobic corridors.
Beyond preservation, the museum presents a subtly modern ﬂavor on the upper levels. A room resembling a church depicts the role the state-controlled media played in the terror. Its windows, ﬂoor, pews, and desks are plastered with pages from newspapers, and the front wall contains a television display that plays a video on the impact of misinformation and government propaganda.
Religion, too, suffered under Hungary’s dual tyrannies. Dramatic sculptures and blue lighting characterize an exhibit that literally depicts political icons presiding over symbols of religious rubble. A long corridor with a rounded ceiling houses conﬁscated religious items in small alcoves, and the ﬂoor contains a long, illuminated cross that looks as if it has been exposed from a brick grave underneath.
The room dedicated to the memory of the prison’s victims may be the most moving of all. Lit from behind, metal stencils with victims’ names line the walls, and low-level lights produce an ambiance reminiscent of a candlelight vigil. Brass plaques indicate the end of the road for the victims, and are capped with skulls and crossbones. There is also a room reserved for their aggressors, which depicts them in black and white photos on crimson walls.
Spaces can convey deep levels of meaning in ways unlike any other form of storytelling. The Terror Haus is a well considered museum that simultaneously informs, impresses, and cautions. Its story is made that much more accessible by its modern design and high level of craftsmanship. The designers’ use of color, light, material, media, and era-speciﬁc furniture contribute to an intimate understanding of the place whose mission is now to teach, and whose visitors will leave with a better picture of the atrocities committed in the name of politics not that long ago.
Jan Lorenc is the president and design director of Lorenc+Yoo Design, an Atlanta-based environmental design ﬁrm. Richard Lorenc is the director of outreach for the Illinois Policy Institute, the state’s free-market think tank, and he also serves as director of communications for Lorenc+Yoo.