László Rajk: Non-conformist Architect and his Legacy, at Market Prices


Neil Bates, reproduced under Wikipedia Creative Commons license

Fans of architectural controversy love Lehel market hall. Just three stops northbound on Metro 3 from Deák tér, it has been variously described as “a hideous boat-like postmodern structure” (Lonely Planet) and a “weirdo architectural gem” (CatchBudapest).

László Rajk

One thing all agree on is that it is “authentic”, filled with regular Hungarians buying from regular tradesfolk at regular prices.

Such controversy and contradiction, underpinned by common understanding, is natural once you know the man behind the building. László Rajk Jr., who died on September 11, was variously, an architect, academic, stage designer and anti-communist dissident.

His father, László Rajk Sr., was both a communist minister of the interior (responsible for the police) and later declared an “enemy of the people”, given a show-trial and executed in 1949.

Somewhere in the family mix there was an uncle who was a leading Nazi.

Rajk Jr. recovered from a fatherless childhood, partly lived in enforced exile in Romania, to study architecture. But given his pedigree, enhanced by a fiercely protective mother, thoughts on politics and human rights constantly vied with beam-strength formulae in his active mind.

Things came to a head at a 1969 concert by Kex, a progressive rock band that irked the authorities. Held in what was then the “Youth Park”, today’s Várkert Bazár, the police were just itching for trouble.

“There was a big police attack. László and others were arrested and prosecuted on charges of [forming an] ‘armed group against authorities’,” Rajk’s widow, Judit, recalls. It was a pivotal moment. “From that time, he started his fight,” she says.

1970s Hungary might have been tentatively sanctioning the odd rock concert, but nobody yet talked of “goulash communism”. Illicit political activity meant telephone bugging, police harassment, job restrictions. Rajk established an illegal publishing house and ran a dissident samizdat bookshop selling the likes of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” from his own flat. That “entrepreneurial” operation ended in a police raid early in 1983.

Regime Doubt

But the regime itself was beginning to have self-doubts. By 1989, the events of 1956 were no longer a counter-revolution, but a patriotic revolution. On June 16 that year, a huge crowd gathered on Heroes’ Square in Budapest at a ceremony to honor Imre Nagy, prime minister of the revolutionary 1956 government, and his comrades who were executed after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The extensive, somber decorations for the event were designed by Rajk.

In the spring of 1990, barely seven years since the police ransacked his book shop, the former dissident was elected to parliament as a member of the liberal Free Democrats (SzDSz), then the largest party in opposition. Rajk remained an MP until 1996, when he refocused on his professional and teaching careers.

Among his most famous achievements is the set for “Son of Saul”, the harrowing, Oscar-winning 2016 film that viewed the Holocaust through the eyes of the Sonderkommando, those Jews forced to herd their kin into the gas chambers before shoveling the lifeless remains into the crematoria at the Nazi death camps.

In the spring of 2016, your correspondent asked Rajk what he had learned from his work on the film.

“I think one very important thing is that, seemingly, dictatorships are like clockwork. They are rigid, there is law and order, [but] it turns out that dictatorships are the most corrupted phenomena,” he said.

Yet his most proud design was the Lehel Market Hall.

Sadly, it seem the market website has not deemed its creator’s passing as worthy of note, interest focusing on “the richness of vitamins in plums” and “attractive prices” of the goods on sale.

But perhaps, after a lifetime of design while fighting for human rights, László Rajk would take that as evidence of “job well done”.

The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at

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