A socket to fit the town jewel

– Sopron castle district - public space renewal


(From previous issue No.41)

Sopron is one of our medium-size towns still retaining much of their medieval character in their structure, while the buildings are reminiscent of a city milieu predating modernism. As the Napoleonic Wars brought technical innovations (such as military hot air balloons), and the urbanization trend had cities sprawl beyond their medieval limits, city walls were fast becoming redundant and obsolete. Many European cities opted to demolish their old perimeter walls. Inevitably this formed new open spaces which, according to different respective development concepts, were adapted to circuit roads, promenades, green rings, marketplaces, or developed land. In case of Sopron, the marketplace concept prevailed. Based on local historical data, the progressive Viennese trend has made less of an impact on urban life here, which would have prompted the adoption of a promenade or public garden (as in case of the Ring in Vienna). Yet it is evident that aside from the entire section of Ógabona tér and Petőfi tér being developed for construction, what used to be the rampart and moat system along the city walls is now a sweeping network of free spaces, a belt of public space encircling the almond-shaped old town center, the Sopron castle district. Vehicle transport and parking all but consumed this sweeping spatial network, which gradually slipped from its market function into a transport oriented public road status.

Only by 2009 did a new concept emerge for moving the Castle District's quality beyond the status quo. In this process, EU development funds, the city’s will of traffic calming and the domestic renaissance of a need for pedestrian dominance met each other in a competition. In this design contest, Hetedik Műterem and Geum took part jointly and received the second prize (no first prize was awarded.) Led by Levente Szabó DLA, the Hetedik Műterem architect studio and their regular project partners Geum landscape design office (Csenge Csontos, Borbála Gyüre, Gergely Lád) approached the Castle District issue with their usual zen minimalism. The result is a low profile jet black urban / open air carpeting, dotted with liberal splashes of green cover, conveying an overwhelming functional message of redistributing space with a vantage for visual unity.

Evening aerial photo of the town center

Evening aerial photo of the town center
(photo: Danyi Balázs)

Certainly it produces a distinctly contemporary layer overlaid on an organic urban periphery, interconnecting an organic medley of medieval, Baroque, and early 20th century wall sections, distinct with its own neutrality and lack of affect. This contemporary neutrality underscores the historical medley of periphery walls, boosted by the contrasting color scheme. The rondella bastion's breached outer wall not only reveals a section of surviving city wall, but also connects this project to another architectural feature, the Várfal sétány promenade beside the recently excavated old wall. It is as much a tip into time travel as it is a zone of urban privacy.

Local small businesses, as in practically every case of impending urban development, attacked the project fiercely, for fear of a resulting lapse in commerce. The same local businesses are now crowding into the reclaimed public space, where former parking lots are bringing boosts in turnover. This is much to the designers' satisfaction, and the airy spatial structure not only facilitates but actually encourages businesses to thrive. Green zones are in plane with the ground level, and there is no sign of trodden social paths on the lawn. It takes a West-Hungarian medium town for such a venture to work, apparently conflict-free: anywhere else this would have made a reckless undertaking.

Sometimes a town has trouble articulating what it is missing to be a truly good place. Couleur locale is an elusive substance, and even as we move through it day to day we won't always notice when it is finally gone. When decline (including that of public spaces) sets in gradually, a drastic extrinsic reinterpretation can produce an abrupt shocking effect, but one that may open up new perspectives for an inspired reuse of public space. The open spaces of Sopron's castle district had long been in a neglected state of barren and unimaginative dreariness, all the more apparent now in hindsight, especially on the dividing line of the developed and undeveloped sections of the castle grounds. In retrospect the most dismal period would have been that between World War II and the turn of the millennia, when these premises were gradually and systematically given over to transportation and parking purposes. In place of that, we now have a considerable tract of pedestrian-dominated promenade space, giving way to urban life, perambulation, cycle traffic, meeting points, reduced traffic zones, cafés and event facilities. At the forefront of this makeover stand the newly placed rows of saplings waiting to grow into a unified line of avenue trees, a new rhythm of green cover and street furniture. This concept reduced motor traffic and drastically cut down the sprawling parking spaces and traffic throughways unjustifiable in such historical heritage settings. Instead, a redistribution of the street offers space to facilitate other urban functions. The framework, the socket is still incomplete, with the first livened section covering 15 thousand meters square even as designers are already planning a follow-up, to be realized swiftly, one may hope.

Central part of the Castle District

Central part of the Castle District and the fountain created here, with the statue of Mary in the background
(photo: Danyi Balázs)

The sweeping scale of the space, with 40-60 meter breadth, has overridden its former articulation (of supporting walls, service pathways and main traffic ways) in a new concept, which reaches back to late 19th century tradition in a strong shift toward transverse pedestrian traffic, while retaining longitudinal momentum. This momentum however was decelerated to a speed more befitting of a downtown environment. This concept reinstates a capacity for browsing, sitting, meeting, at a mellower tempo. The downshift from fortissimo to andante has also called for a more modern orchestration. It was to this rhythm that Sopron walked into the 21st century. While a jewel is certainly more important than its socket, without an aesthetic framework even the most impressively cut diamond is practically devoid of function. Sopron, the “town jewel” now has such a socketwork in the making, and we may surely be hopeful for its continuation. The plan is already in the works.

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