Socialist in content, national in form: Small-scale housing estates in Budapest between 1945 and 1960

Bence Bene

Cite this article
Bene, B. (2024) ‘Socialist in content, national in form: Small-scale housing estates in Budapest between 1945 and 1960’, Architecture Papers of the Faculty of Architecture and Design STU, 29(2), pp. 3-14.



In the second half of the 20th century, solving the housing crisis became a significant social issue and political task throughout Europe, particularly in the countries of the Eastern Bloc. Although due to its quantity, prefabricated large mass housing estates became overrepresented, dozens of smaller, experimental, and diverse mass housing forms also emerged. It is hypothesized, that due to their scale and quality, these small housing estates are urban planning projects that were realized across political, economic, and architectural changes. To demonstrate their adaptability, this paper presents the small housing estates (HEs) built in one of the capitals of the Eastern Bloc countries— Budapest—during the most turbulent one-and-a-half decades of the socialist era (1945–1960).

The period between 1945 and 1960 is unique because Hungary’s housing policy was characterized by immaturity, rough ideas, a lack of resources, and frequent political directive changes (Kocsis, 2009). In this dysfunctional system, alongside reconstructions, new socialist cities, and private family house constructions, only the construction of small HEs can be considered a relevant urban planning project. 60% of the 37 HEs built in Budapest between 1945 and 1960 were small-scale. These smaller interventions were scattered across a wide area of the city, while medium and large HEs served sort of a model, clustered in a few focus areas. This dispersion further emphasizes the uniqueness and independence of small HEs. My hypothesis is that the small housing estate is a persistent urban form that withstands political and architectural changes, adapting to and continuing to meet their requirements.

The research consists of three main parts: (1) Hungarian politics and housing policy, (2) Budapest’s urban policy, and (3) a brief presentation of the urban planning and architectural aspects of Budapest’s small housing estates. The result of the research is the creation of a complete small housing estates portfolio, illustrated archive articles, archival plans, and photographs. It becomes evident that although the times from World War II to the consolidation of power saw vastly different political eras, directives, and ideals, along with various architectural styles and housing policies, the small housing estate as an urban planning product was able to adapt and survive. Moreover, it is a valuable architectural, housing, and urban planning imprint of the era, the only mass housing form realized in numerous examples in Budapest.

After outlining the housing policy in Hungary and Budapest between 1950 and 1960, the research presents small HEs built in Budapest during this period based on urban planning and architectural considerations. The small-scale housing estates can be divided into three groups, corresponding to political—(1) transition period, (2) Rákosi dictatorship, (3) consolidation; and architectural—(1) post-war, (2) socialist realism, (3) socialist modern—changes.

During the establishment of state socialism, the post-war small HEs were mostly implemented in the centres of working-class neighbourhoods. The buildings adhered to modern architectural and urban planning principles, but the quality of their construction was poor. During the harshest years of state socialism, the style terror of socialist realism prevailed. The target audience of the small HEs built during this period was, more diverse: along-side elite HEs hiding behind decorative façades with statues and fountains on private plots, there were also barracks-like estates consisting of one-room apartments with reduced comfort. During the years of consolidation, socialist modern small HEs represented consistently high quality, perhaps due to their placement on private plots. They featured diverse architecture and urban forms.

Overall, it can be stated that these small HEs were built in diverse styles, architectural quality, layout, and budget, catering to both the party elite and the working class. Given this universality, they provide an excellent layer of housing and city policy in Budapest of the 1945–1960 period. Over the years, there has been an improvement in the architectural and construction quality of the buildings, with the emphasis shifting from developments floating in public spaces to private plot constructions. Except for the downtown area, small HEs can be found in all areas of Budapest, which demonstrates their success.

Examining the individual small HEs, we can conclude that the research hypothesis has been confirmed, namely that a small housing estate is a persistent urban form that withstands political and architectural changes, adapting to and continuing to meet their requirements. Focusing on the 22 small HEs built in Budapest between 1945 and 1960, the paper highlights the diversity of their inhabitants, the adaptability of their architecture style, and the resilience of their urban form.

Keywords: housing estate, Budapest, post-war, socialist realism, socialist modern