BUDAPEST — Augustus boasted of finding Rome a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, seems to be trying for something similar.
With two massive building projects, Mr. Orban intends to change the face of Budapest — partly for economic reasons, to lure more tourists, and partly for political reasons, to restore key national edifices to their pre-World War II glory.
The idea, besides removing as many vestiges of Communist rule as possible, is to create a concrete expression of the nationalism his governing party espouses.
On the Buda side of the Danube River, the former royal palace squats grandly atop Castle Hill, blandly remade by the Communists after the destruction of World War II into the current home of the National Gallery of Art and the city’s history museum.
Mr. Orban intends to kick out the National Gallery, restore the palace to its earlier grandeur and install himself in new offices nearby.
On the Pest side, at the far end of Budapest’s grand but financially struggling Andrassy Avenue, the government intends to spend more than $780 million to transform the city’s 250-acre main park into a kind of Berlin-style Museum Island.
It will include a half-dozen new institutions, some designed by major international architects, and other tourist-friendly projects scattered around one of the city’s last major green spaces.
“These projects, when lumped together, probably constitute the biggest such concentrated architectural project in Budapest in 100 years,” said Samu Szemerey, an architect and founder of the KEK Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Center.
Laszlo Baan, general director of Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts, said it is the largest architectural project in Europe and a transformative event in the city’s history.
Critics speak of Mr. Orban’s “edifice complex,” and his eagerness to leave a concrete imprint on the capital.
“It can only be understood from a political perspective,” said Gergely Karacsony, the mayor of Budapest’s 14th district, which includes the park, known simply as Liget, the Hungarian word for park.
“Orban is trying to take the existing city and put it back to the shape it had before 1944,” he said. “The park is a victim of this whole political machinery.”
Other environmental groups also oppose the park idea, arguing that the city should develop its existing empty acres before taking away precious green space.
And critics see the castle restoration as expensive and impractical — perhaps even impossible.
“Nobody can do this,” said Peter Gyorgy, a museum historian at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. “The castle is totally different from before the war. It is a modern structure with a facade and a different interior configuration.”
The projects have unfolded like a game of dominoes.
If Mr. Orban wanted to relocate his offices to Castle Hill, the former home of Hungarian royalty, and to transform the castle into a Versailles-style palace museum whose ornate spaces he could use for state occasions, he had to get the existing museum out.
And if he also wished to return Hungary’s highest court to its former stunning headquarters across from Parliament — and he does — Mr. Orban has to move out the Museum of Ethnography, now somewhat improbably housed there.
At the same time, Mr. Baan proposed merging the evicted National Gallery with his Museum of Fine Arts, in separate but jointly managed buildings in the park. The Museum of Ethnography will also land there, in new digs that Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaus, among other celebrated architects, are currently designing bids to build.
An agriculture museum in a tottering old castle in the park’s center will get a face-lift, as will several other buildings around the park. Remaining green spaces will be upgraded. A former art nouveau theater, largely for children’s productions, will be reconstructed. There will be a new Center for Hungarian Music, a beer garden and a huge “bio-dome” covering one end of the adjacent Budapest Zoo.
Many of the new buildings will replicate structures from the 1896 Millennium Exhibition, seen as a high point for Hungary. The restored transportation museum, for instance, will be dominated by a 220-foot dome simply because such a dome once rose there.
The new National Gallery — designed by Sanaa, a Tokyo firm headed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa — will be a glass-and-steel edifice at the park’s center. It will give Mr. Baan a chance to reconfigure the museums’ collections in a more logical way.
Under the new plan, Mr. Baan said, all works up to the late 18th century will go in the Museum of Fine Arts on Heroes’ Square. The square will get its own major face-lift, including restoration of its imposing Romanesque Hall, which was bombed in the war. All later works will go in the new National Gallery.
Professor Gyorgy, who is skeptical of the castle project, has different feelings about the museums.
“Liget is different,” he said. “Budapest is not known as a museum city, but this could change that, and museum tourists tend to be richer and stay longer.”
Working from a sun-filled office in a starkly modern building overlooking one of Pest’s central squares, Laszlo L. Simon is overseeing the castle project as the prime minister’s state secretary for cultural heritage and prominent cultural projects.
“The castle was always in a special position,” Mr. Simon said. “It was the actual place of the rulers until the Habsburg years. So this is an attempt to bring the castle into this era of national renewal.”
And the only way to do that, he said, is to remove all the Communist-era restorations and return the palace to its prewar glory. It could take as long as 20 years to finish every facet of the project, he said.
“We have everything we need to restore the castle,” Mr. Simon said. “It is only a question of money.”
At the far end of Andrassy Avenue, in modern offices overlooking the park, the officers of Liget Budapest — as the museums project is known — say the plan will not only draw hundreds of thousands of new tourists, but also improve the park for residents.
Official estimates indicate that the number of nights foreign tourists stay in the city would rise by 20 percent after the project is completed in 2019.
In the competition for tourists, Budapest gets about 3 million foreign visitors per year, Mr. Baan said. Prague gets 4.5 million; Vienna, Barcelona and Milan get over 6 million.
“We have unrealized potential,” he said.
Mayor Karacsony is not persuaded.
“What is important to the government is that the National Gallery on Castle Hill must go,” he said. “That is the real reason this is happening. Everything else is just ideology and excuses.”
The government has also declared that both projects are a “prominent investment” under Hungarian law. This means that groups opposed to the projects cannot take the issue to court, said Andras Lukacs, president of the Clean Air Action Group, which also opposes the park plan.
He also wonders whether the promised crowds will actually come to what some proponents call the New Budapest.
“We have no Mona Lisa to put on display,” Mr. Lukacs said.
Mr. Baan gazed down at the white-flecked Danube from his corner office inside the royal palace.
“True, we don’t have a Mona Lisa,” he said, adding that is why the projects are necessary. “The goal is to become the No. 1 city-break destination for families in Europe.”