Guardians of the Village
Guardians of the Village
An architectural gift to the poverty- and conflict-ridden eastern Hungarian village of Szakácsi has given the locals strength for communal action.
It happened in the summer of 2012. For days, the word on the street had been that the tiger was on his way. Some shook their heads in disbelief, others swore they had seen him with their own eyes. At night, children would pull their blankets over their heads and trace the tiger’s stripes with their fingers. The village elders would sit in front of their houses, smoking the day away, and before turning in for the night they would gaze into the distance. In the twilight, it sometimes seemed as if the tiger’s eye flickered from afar.
In July, he arrived. With the indifference that is typical for a big cat, he came ambling into the village, sneaked around the houses on soft, silent paws. Then he paused and looked back to the distant mountains one last time. Now the villagers knew that the tiger had come to stay among them. Even in the darkest nights, they would no longer need to be afraid—the tiger would watch over their dreams.
Though it sounds like a fairy tale, every word of the above story is true. The village is Szakácsi, located in the district of Borsod in northeastern Hungary and one of the country’s poorest communities. The tiger is not real, but it is larger than life. It is a joint creation by the artists’ group Hello Wood and sculptor Gábor Miklós Szőke.
Serving the greater public
The story of Hello Wood began in 2010, after the economic crisis, when a handful of architecture students were fed up with building in theory only. Under the leadership of Péter Pozsár, a lecturer at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME), the young artists went on a camp retreat that was all about working with wood, creating anything they possibly could out of the material.
Pozsár tells what followed: “As time went by, more and more people joined the group, which almost exclusively worked with wood. At the same time we were searching for ways to serve the greater public. This was when we heard about the community of Szakácsi, which is almost entirely made up of Roma living in dire poverty. Our initial idea was to give a couple of houses a creative make-over. Then we dropped this idea because we felt it could cause envy among residents. Together with the locals, we finally figured out that we needed to give the village something that belongs to all and no one in particular.”
And the tiger really does belong to no one and everyone. The Roma villagers, aware of their distant roots in India, suggested that the intervention should revolve around a tiger. The sculpture is more than embellishment to them, it is a symbol that they have embraced as their own.
The animal sculpture stands four metres tall, is eleven metres long and was built within a week with the help of a group of architecture students. The greatest challenge was not the construction itself but transporting it: The tiger would not fit through the gates of the camp. This was an opportunity for the students to put their structural analysis skills to the test in a high-stress scenario. Finally, all the glitches were resolved successfully, and the truck arrived in Szakácsi with the tiger.
Embraced as their own
The inhabitants of Szakácsi threw their tiger a big welcome party: At the village community centre, the architects were served enormous amounts of goulash as well as home-made schnapps; traditional music was played as well. The whole celebration was a major socio-cultural event in itself, since, especially at the beginning, many of the Budapest-based architecture and design students were stunned by this touching and singular blend of poverty and hospitality.
The big question was, of course, whether the villagers would actually embrace the tiger as their own and how well they would take care of it.
Pozsár describes the tiger’s subsequent journey to Budapest: “The Sziget Festival officially loaned the tiger from the inhabitants of Szakácsi for a week, and the villagers were immensely proud to be able to loan something to the people of Budapest for once. After the tiger had been returned to the village, I received an anxious phone call from Szakácsi: There was a huge problem—the tiger was missing one fang, and another one had ketchup stains on it! Which goes to show, in a wonderful way, to what degree the people of Szakácsi had made the tiger their own and how much they cared about it.”
Maybe it is also thanks to the tiger—their tiger—that the community, which had previously been plunged into a state of discord and despair, joined forces to launch a successful EU project a little while after the tiger was erected.
The tiger is not the only creation by architects of Hello Wood that has enriched lives in the Borsod district. Not far from Szakácsi is the community of Bódvalenke, which is also home to many very poor Roma families. To this day, the women wash their laundry by diverting water from a brook into a wooden tub via an iron pipe. In the winter, however, the water freezes in the pipe. In the past, the women used to solve the problem by wrapping the pipe in fabric and lighting it on fire to melt the water inside. The team of Hello Wood made its contribution by building a wooden structure thanks to which the women no longer have to stand in muddy, murky water. The structure has benches where the women can rest, and doubles as a jungle gym for the children. The wooden drying rack of Bódvalenke also features an ancient symbol: the dragon.
This year, the people of Bódvalenke gave their drying rack a new coat of paint to protect it from the elements. In the meantime, the tiger’s lost fang in Szakácsi was replaced. Overall, the inhabitants of both Szakácsi and Bódvalenke have taken excellent care of their cherished creatures since they arrived—just as the tiger and the dragon watch over the villagers’ dreams during Borsod’s long nights.