When entering the design contest for the Recsk National Memorial Park, the main intention of BORD Studio was to find out how it was possible to depict the memory of human losses in a tangible structure while providing a space to commemorate with the aid of architectural instruments. Remembrance is absolute and it originates in particular spaces, gestures, presentations and objects. Memories are changing and they are often based on psychological grounds rather than historic facts, depending on how they are being deciphered.
Such pursuits bring about the need for spaces of remembrance. According to historian Nora Pierre these have three levels: physical, symbolic and functional. Their main aim is to put an end to oblivescence and thus strengthen their documentary functions. So the space to remember does not merely stand out like a material object but it also has a symbolic value. It is a constant location of the collective memory which prevail through generations and often become integral part of customs and rituals.
Between 1950 and 1953 the Hungarian State Protection Authority operated a forced labour camp near the small town of Recsk. Founded without any legal justification, it extended Joseph Stalin’s gulag model into the then-communist country. Some 1500 political prisoners were imprisoned in barracks and behind barbed wire, where they performed 12 to 14 hours of backbreaking work at a nearby mine each day—all on the basis of trumped-up charges.
After Stalin’s death, in 1953, Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy closed this forced labour camp (together with many similar facilities), and it was demolished. The still-living prisoners were released, but during the communist era, they were forbidden to talk about the labour camp. The camp’s location was rediscovered in the 1990s, based on the reports of former prisoners, which were also used to recreate the camp buildings.
One of the famous prisoners was György Faludy, a Hungarian poet, writer, and literary translator who wrote about his ordeals at Recsk in an autobiography titled My Happy Days in Hell. Written in 1961-1962 in London, the novel could not be published in Hungary until 1987. Just two years later, revolution brought about the fall of communism and political change to Hungary, which allowed the site of the labour camp to be turned into a memorial whose realistic representation of the gulag’s brutality remains shocking and sobering today. The architectural design competition of 2021 invited entries for a visitors’ centre and an interactive exhibition.
It is undoubtedly visible from the air and satellite images that the current Recsk Memorial Park is a clearing surrounded by thick forests. The once top secret labour camp of the communist dictatorship is slowly consumed by time and nature is taking the location back, yet the horrible past of the place prevails for ever. Focusing on this idea we placed the main building of our concept on the clearing hiding its volume under the ground. The main entrance is defined by the socialist-realist statue next to the ramp leading towards the doorway. This monument with its heaviness is leaning over us representing the physical superiority and oppressing power of the system. As we set off towards the sculpture an incongruous, overly dark surface appears under our steps. This visitors’ pathway leads us around the main building and the entire area of the camp.
The main building is the first station of the visitors’ route so it aims to set the atmosphere of the topic, thus the space experience builds up accordingly as well. The spacious hall leads towards the exhibition area where a linear space begins. A slope leads us deeper and deeper down under the ground entering smaller and smaller exhibition halls while being carried away by the backwash of history. Lighting effects help setting the dim atmosphere. The underground spaces do not have any windows, there is only a shaded glass roof that provides an ever decreasing amount of light as we go further underground. The corridor leads towards the dark cells resembling the depressing dungeons of 60 Andrássy street – these represent the former locations of interrogation. The narrowing spaces remind the visitors of oppression and vulnerability while enhancing their longing towards fresh air and freedom.
The visitors’ route then leads back to the surface from deep down to the labour camp site. We designed a monument into the main axis of the newly rebuilt barracks to the same place where -according to the historian- the prisoners had to line up every single morning. Slender, human height columns represent the prisoners, their surface returning our own reflection. From here the pathway turns back and leads behind the barracks depicting the possibility of escape routes. Then we are led back to the main building from where an underground channel shows us to the studios of Radio Free Europe. From there a corridor leads to the Auditorium and the Fogadalom square. These neutral exhibition areas are clear and modern aiming to provide a space for calming down, reflecting on, ventilating about and interpreting the exhibition. The place of the Wall of Oath (Fogadalom fala) is a clear, almost sacred space enhancing the artistic impact of the installation. The last section of the visitors’ route then leads back outdoors into a park where the Garden of Composure creates a peaceful environment. Finally, we can finish our tour in the main building’s café and bookshop.
The visible raw concrete surfaces represent not only the dramatic impact but also the power of the communist regime. The unusual design of the main building is historical-symbolic: the hypocrite regime wanted to hide its inhumane retributions both physically and theoretically, aiming only to impress. The main building of the Recsk National Memorial Park aims to represent this ambivalent, dishonest behaviour.