Balázs Fürjes, government commissioner of major investments in Budapest, was appointed just over a year ago. Since then, three major projects have been taken over by his team: a new stadium, a new museum and an old-new university.
Q: How do you feel in your role?
A: Thanks for asking, I feel fine. I like my job and, thanks to my team, hard work and the support of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, we have achieved a lot in the last 12 months. As I like to say: we have no reason to be proud, but we can at least be grateful! I hope we can continue on our path. My job is somehow similar to that of a juggler spinning plates on sticks. He has to spin them at the right speed and be extremely cautious not to let them fall down.
Q: Then please tell us more about those plates – the investments in Budapest. Do you have a favorite?
A: The answer is no. Strictly, I’m not allowed to have one. However, I have previously worked in public administration and I know very well that only issues that have personal links to the people responsible can be implemented effectively. I feel very lucky as I’m connected to all the projects I’m working on – although the reasons differ from case to case. I have a special relationship with the new stadium of the Ferencvárosi Torna Club (or as everybody in Hungary knows it, Fradi). I have been a supporter of Fradi since my childhood. Being a Fradi fan is a family tradition: my father and my father’s father were also supporters. The new stadium, for which we’ve just received the final building permit, has a capacity of 22,000. In the planning phase one of the most important issues was to ensure the occupancy rate, as the facility operation has no right to access any public funds. Every year, around 30-50 football matches will be played in the stadium: domestic championship and cup matches, international cup games and national team matches. As far as we can see, this multifunctional facility will be rented throughout the year and these events combined with football matches and sponsorship revenues could make a decent profit.
Q: The main problem with Hungarian football is the low quality, which leads to low attendance at games. Why do you expect any change in this tendency?
A: Well, it’s a little bit of a “chicken and egg” problem. Several international analyses have showed that a new, modern family friendly stadium increases the number of visitors in itself. We will install a special new telecommunications system to enable a replay of goals in live matches on every smartphone in the stadium. And – as a family friendly stadium – we expect new generations to appear in the grandstands. According to our own calculations, if Fradi is in the top three in the national league, participates in international cups every year or two and the Hungarian economy shows a little expansion, the attendance and the revenues will be fine.
Q: Readers of the BBJ – being economy-minded – love numbers and sums. Could you tell us the main numbers of the project?
A: The total budget is HUF 14 billion net. However, I’m very optimistic that the final sum will be under HUF 10 billion through the partial selling of the plot. According to the development plans, we moved the location of the new stadium backwards. This way, one of the most valuable land spots in Budapest will be available at the crossing of Könyves Kálmán körút and Üllői út, and we will have a serious chance to reduce the final sum of the investment.
Q: Not too far away from the stadium, a new public affairs university and its campus will be established in one of the biggest development plans in Budapest...
A: Re-established, to be precise, as Ludovika was the Hungarian military academy until 1944. Just as with the Fradi stadium, I feel some personal connection with the project, as my father and my mother’s father both graduated from the academy.
Q: I spent my childhood in the neighborhood and all I can remember is a shabby old museum and a neglected park. Rebuilding the place seems to be an almost impossible task.
A: There are many aspects that influenced us to finally decide to choose that “museum” as the old-new building for the newly established Public Affairs University. The site of Ludovika and the future campus is ideal as district 8 (also known as Józsefváros) is the most university-related part of the city. It has hosted universities for centuries. But a very important aspect of the decision is that the project is not exclusively about the university and the campus, but also the largest urban development project in years. It was a very conscious decision that we realize the project in a ruined and shabby part of the city, that can be revitalized in that way. We will renovate the Orczy Park and its neighborhood, the green area of Budapest will grow by one hectare and the recreational and leisure activities of city residents will be expanded as the renewed park and the sport facilities inside will be available to everybody. Furthermore, not far away from the new campus, on Diószegi utca, a new practice building will be erected for the military and police officers and also a dorm for 600 people. The omnipresent police forces will help stabilize public safety in this particularly infamous neighborhood.
The whole project for the 26-hectare area will be realized between 2012 and 2015. Our first task is the authentic renovation of the historical building of Ludovika. We’ve received the final building permit and we are currently preparing a construction tender. The next step is the authentic renovation surrounding Ludovika and the construction of new buildings that fit into that environment. We will rebuild the stables and the riding school, and develop a shooting range sunk into the ground. A swimming pool will also be available, and not just to the students and staff of the university, but to kids in the nearby schools as well. We are currently in negotiations with the Hungarian Pentathlon Association as four out of the five disciplines will be available at Ludovika and its park. Only a fencing hall is required and Ludovika will regain its old fame, as it was the Alma Mater of many Hungarian pentathlon champions before WWII. The whole budget of the development is HUF 24.5 billion, but I see a good opportunity to win European Union funds for as much as the 75% of the project from the 2014-2020 budget.
Q: You announced the construction of a new museum forming a Rubik’s cube in March. How is this project evolving?
A: Well, it is not widely known, but the whole concept of the Rubik exhibition center has to be created before we should talk about the shape of the building. There are four different objectives we’d like to bring under the same roof in this exhibition center. First of all, the Rubik’s cube, which is the most known game and design icon of our world. It is unbelievably universal in at least three ways. On the one hand, no special language or cultural knowledge is needed to solve the cube: the objective is crystal clear at first site. On the other hand, it’s universal because it is known in every county, and finally it has pervaded design, architecture, fine arts and even Hollywood blockbuster movies. The second objective of the museum is to propagate the message of the cube: creativity, innovation, ingenuity and cunningness, to explore, to find a solution. Thirdly, it is Hungarian and fourthly but not finally Hungary needs a science center, where we can exhibit the great intellectual achievements and also teach the coming generations. The form of the building is inspired by the cube, all right, but we have to find out what to import into the building, what the main theme will be, why this is going to be a great exhibition center. And this kind of planning is a little bit against nature, a little bit inside out. Usually architects design buildings after the functionality is clear. In contrast, we have the cube, as a form, and we try to find out the real function of the building. So we are in the middle of creating the concept. The plan is very ambitious and a lot of conversations and negotiations are needed to create a viable concept. So we convened – together with Ernő Rubik – an advisory board. The members are from all the different parts of business and social life, but they all are renowned for something. They all provide very productive ideas about how to maximize the benefits of our project. Although this museum is about the great Hungarian intellectual achievements, Rubik and I believe that foreigners, who are not Hungarians by origin, but know the country very well and have a close link to Hungary also have to be invited to the board. People like April H. Foley, who served as the United States Ambassador to Hungary from 2006 to 2009. It is clear that without the help of foreigner advisors, the concept could not be successful.
Q: You mentioned that the center would have scientific and educational roles as well.
A: First of all, elementary and high school students may come to the museum and participate in natural sciences lessons, which they could not afford via the “usual” educational process. But it is equally important that we’re not building this center just as a tribute to the past, but also we’d like to inspire the future and to stimulate intellectual work. Due to this, we’d like to see a place where start-up competitions and exhibitions can be held, to demonstrate intellectual and innovative ideas to not just a professional audience but to the wider public as well. Hopefully, two-three years after the opening, the Rubik exhibition center will be a place where prestigious international start-up conferences and festivals will be held.
Q: When can we expect the grand opening?
A: We have a deadline to create the concept in the spring of 2013. We’d like to start an international design competition in the second half of next year. Based on the first reactions we think that if our part of the job is done well, then the most acknowledged architectural firms from Hungary and from abroad would participate in the tender. We would like to see the opening of the museum by 2017-2018. It is unwise and very unprofessional to declare a sum or a budget before the plans are drawn. All I can say that it’s going to be a multi-billion forint project, but – as it is also a scientific and R&D investment – we expect to receive significant financial assistance from the European Union.
Q: As a government commissioner, are you expected to come up with new ideas?
A: Working with the Prime Minister means a lot of conversations and new ideas emerging, we discuss a lot of possible projects. What I can already tell you is that I’ve been asked to examine the possibility of a new conference centre in Budapest for 4,000 visitors. Hungary, in the heart of Europe, is a possible target of conference tourism – which happens to be the most profitable branch of tourism. The accessibility of Budapest is good, our hotels’ occupancy is currently low, and the city is relatively cheap and truly beautiful. All we miss is a large conference hall, as currently the largest has a capacity of only 2,000 people. So, besides my current duties, I’m in charge of finding a suitable place for a new conference hall. Details will come later as we progress.
Balázs Fürjes graduated summa cum laude from the ELTE University Faculty of Law. After working for a law firm for two years, he was appointed as government commissioner responsible for the construction of the Budapest Aréna in 1999. He was the government commissioner of the bid for the planned Olympic Games in 2001-2002 and also a member of the board of the Hungarian F1 Hungaroring circuit. Between 2003-2011 he worked for Wing group, the property development branch of Hungarian holding group Wallis. Since 2011 he is the government commissioner of major investments in Budapest. He is also founder of the “I love Budapest” movement and Fidelitas, the youth organization of political party Fidesz.