Are you sure?

Planetarium’s 40th Anniversary Gift is Closure

Budapest’s planetarium is closing its doors in its 40th year of operation because the building is in a dangerous condition, while its technology has long been obsolete. The institution desperately needs the Hungarian state to step in with public money, which Henrik Lőrincz tells the Budapest Business Journal could happen, if a decision is made this fall.

Henrik Lőrincz.

The TIT Planetárium Budapest building in the trees of the beautiful Népliget looks like a long-forgotten memento of post-war times. As the visitor steps into the building, it feels as if you have traveled back in time a few decades. The huge, almost two-ton German projector in the midst of the 23-meter-diameter dome will actually  turn 50 next year. “If we enter the planetarium today, we do not enter the future but the past,” Lőrincz says of the institution with a passion one would expect from an astronomer and presenter who works there. He argues that, rather than the history of space, people are interested in the future and want to learn about traveling to Mars, for example. “We do not want to be a museum,” Lőrincz insists. 

The Hungarian planetarium opened its doors on August 20, 1977, after long years of planning. Hungarian astronomer György Kulin had promoted the idea much earlier, but the debate over the location of the institution meant the Zeiss Universal ll planetarium projector, manufactured in 1968, sat in its box for several years. At various times, Gellért Hill, Városliget and Népliget were suggested. Eventually, the building was constructed at its present site based on the plans of architects from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME).

Although the technology in the institution is old, it could still run shows if the roof structure was not in such a poor condition that even light rain leads to many leaks. The operator, Tudományos Ismeretterjesztő Társulat (TIT or Society for Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge), a non-profit organization, says the conditions are dangerous; it will close the planetarium in June, at least, until the roof can be renovated.

Three-phase Plan 

The full renovation and modernization of the attraction would require three phases and cost HUF 3 billion.  

The first step is the renovation of the roof structure: With the exception of the dome in the middle, the whole roof needs to be changed. The second stage is the renovation of the other parts of the building, while the third and the largest phase would be the technological upgrade of the space theat; approximately 95% of its technology is 40 years old.

However, TIT does not generate enough money to cover those costs. “A planetarium does not offer a bonanza business anywhere. It is an educational institution that is closer to a school in nature than a cinema,” Lőrincz tells the BBJ. The planetarium has around 100,000 visitors annually, a figure that has been steady over the past few years. With ticket prices at around HUF 1,000-1,500, the planetarium can anticipate an estimated annual revenue of HUF 100 million, according to the on-spot estimates of Lőrincz. “No such profit is made here that could be used to cover the renovation costs,” the astronomer says, stressing that public money is the only solution.

As far as TIT is aware, the Hungarian state is willing to intervene and Parliament is expected to discuss the matter in the fall session. But some ownership matters must be settled beforehand. First and foremost, the land on which the building rests is an “unshared mutual property” — just like the entire Népliget — of the state, the local government and the Budapest municipality. This means all the three legal entities would need to okay the renovations. Additionally, the building itself is 85% owned by TIT and 15% by the Hungarian government.

Negotiations are under way at this moment, Lőrincz says, and the most probable solution will be that the state takes over ownership of both the land and the building, and will then provide the money needed for the renovation and modernization works. But TIT is open to anything as long as the planetarium can once again start operating as a modern institution, just as it was back at its opening.

If just the roof is repaired, Lőrincz estimates the costs at about HUF 25-30 million, and shows could soon be screened again using the existing technology. A full modernization, however, would take around two years, for which period the planetarium must be closed.

But it would be worth the wait, the astrologer envisages. Modern planetarium technology boosted by smart devices and 4k high definition LED projectors would bring a truly elevated experience with the possibility of 3D imaging. Furthermore, thanks to having smart-device powered technology, after modernization it would be able to project images of new discoveries onto the dome just hours after NASA has made the details public on its website.