Sight unseen - Slovak socialist architecture
By Eric Smillie
I later got to know the charming Old Town of Slovakia’s capital, but this first impression of the city made for a lasting fascination. Massive and dehumanizing, these buildings do not often grace the cover of travel guides. But given a closer look, Slovak communist architecture can also be daring and expressive and reveal a more nuanced story than its stoic face at first suggests.
Slovak architecture during this time actually went through several periods with its own high points and brutalities. The rise of Communism in Czechoslovakia actually nipped the tail end of one of the peaks in the country’s architecture; the modernist functionalism of the 1920s and 1930s. Some of this period’s most exemplary buildings arose after the end of World War II before the Communist regime properly established itself.
One such example is the Post Office Palace on the north side of Námestie Slobody Square, a long building of endlessly repeating straight lines finished in 1951. It is now privately owned, but if you can slip into the lobby you will find that the elevators inside have no doors and run continuously - office workers wait by the doorway and jump into the elevator box as it arrives.
In this period buildings took on the traits of fascist style: classic Italian architecture stripped of most details and set to monumental effect. The decorations that did remain are at eye level scattered around Slovakia’s towns - reliefs of hardy workers, farmers and scientists adorn the exteriors of buildings while mosaics illustrating the socialist path towards modernity gleam in train stations, post offices and other public buildings. “Today they are grotesque, these images of a worker or farmer,” says architect Peter Žalman. “We laugh about them today but they are an image of the period.”
Both Žalman and Šlachta point to the student dormitory Internát Mladá Garda on Račianska 103 in Bratislava, completed in 1953, as a typical example of Socialist Realism. “[It is] exactly that style,” says Žalman, “a vast size, palatial arrangement - that is, a dormitory that doesn’t have a rational arrangement.”
Žalman, however, does not take a negative attitude to the building. He says that its exterior features, like the central clock tower and images of idealized citizens and students, “have their own charm; it’s almost kitsch but such that it’s transformed. That dormitory - on the one hand it is unnecessarily monumental and on the other hand it has its own atmosphere. So these students don’t judge the architecture negatively. Other things bother them such as the equipment; old things that need to be replaced and the like. Everything that was produced during the Socialist Realism period here,” he trails off. “I would say the later period was worse.”
In contrast to Mladá Garda, which is primarily a symbol of the satisfaction of people’s basic needs, is the Slavín memorial perched over Bratislava. Begun in the same period, it commemorates the Russian soldiers who liberated Slovakia at the end of World War II, naturally conforming strongly to the tenets of Stalinist architecture. “They picked the most beautiful spot above the city and they seized it so that ideologically it gave them the notoriety that this is the most important - a symbol of power,” says Žalman.
From this period dates the Nový Most Bridge, whose disk-like observation deck I saw floating over the Danube on my first day in Bratislava. Its asymmetrical suspension design holds the entire span without a single pillar in the Danube riverbed or towering over the city’s old quarter. At the time it was built, it was the first in the world to use such a design. In 1970, not long before the project reached completion, the architects of the bridge lost their seats at the architecture university for their positions against the occupation that put an end to the “Prague Spring” in 1968. They did not receive invitations to the bridge’s opening in 1973, nor did their names grace the structure’s historical plaque - instead it merely credited the “workers” of the state planning and design institute.
The bridge is another kind of symbol of power, one that links the modern Petržalka housing project, which was just a plan when the bridge was built, to the historic section of the city, which it ploughs right through. Today it is one of Slovakia’s gateways to the rest of Europe.
To see the difference between Socialist Realism and the architecture of the 1960s, compare the Slovak National Uprising museum and monument in Banská Bystrica, completed in 1969, to the Slavín memorial. Slavín is angular and towering, the soldier on its pinnacle thrusting a banner upward in defiance of the heavens. The SNP museum, on the other hand, is low and rounded like a cocoon. Split open down its centre, the building invites investigation and self-reflection and bravely admits weakness. Between the two memorials, the focus of architects and the regime behind them shifted from a display of power to human concern. This concern did not last.
“Then the regime ‘concretized’,” Žalman says.
There is no better way to put it. When I described the concrete canyons of Petržalka to a college friend originally from Russia, he had a good laugh. “Don’t you love it?” He wrote, “Everywhere is konkrete! You need a bench? Konkrete! You need a garbage can? Konkrete!”
Czechoslovakia’s trend toward liberalization ended in 1968 when Soviet Bloc soldiers entered the country and introduced the period of increased oppression called “normalization”. “Normalization returned the card-carrying apparatchiks to their offices, the overwhelming majority of competent architects were pushed out of work, many emigrated (particularly the young generation) and a dark time set in for architecture,” sums up Šlachta. “Historical sections of the city were demolished to make way for paneláks and massive panelák neighbourhoods arose.”
Concrete was the easiest and the fastest path for massive building and it helped sustain the stability of the regime. Five-year plans dictated how many apartments had to be built, and production poured on. Žalman says there were five large architecture firms such as the one he worked for in Bratislava. “Five-hundred people produce a lot of projects, and these were state contracts. The system had to work in order for it to hold together.”
While not uninhabitable, the buildings are anonymous and monotone and equipped with poor windows and sound and heat insulation. Petržalka, which houses 125,000 people, also lacks the centres, squares and infrastructure needed to make it a functioning community. Architects built storefronts into the buildings’ second floors, which they linked from building to building with elevated walkways. Today many of these storefronts are empty.
“That urbanism had its own idea but reality went differently,” explains Žalman, “and the life of the people too. Because the community on its own was not able to use [the space] as the architects imagined.” Regardless of its faults, Petržalka is one of the capital’s most fascinating sights.
Artistic and social freedom also remained ‘concretized’ until 1989. “The era after 1968 was brutal,” Žalman says without hesitation. “It was like we were in a tunnel walking next to each other; you could look forward but not side to side. Of course a magazine sometimes came from the West and we could see Austrian TV but rather than inspiring, that just annoyed you.”
Dating from this period is the still unfinished new Slovak National Theatre on Bratislava’s Landererova Street east of the Old Bridge. Šlachta calls it “a megalomaniacal political monument... a model example of the Socialist understanding of culture.” Indeed I passed the new national theatre building every week by bus for most of a year before I realized that it was meant to be a cultural centre and not the impenetrable fortress of an evil robotic mastermind.
“This is actually evidence of the 60s because the idea is fresh, expressive, interesting, a bit reminiscent of Japanese futuristic projects,” Žalman argues, “Likewise it reflects the economic strength of the regime because it uses so much steel and the audacity of the excessive number of cubic metres; the concept is immensely generous. It does not answer for the soul of the regime. The regime was one tough regime where not one extra word could be said, everyone had to obey and the one time you dared to make a beautiful interior hall for a recording studio the regime then wrote ‘look what we’ve done’. That is the principle of Socialism.”
Other examples of such hulking structures in Bratislava include the former labour union house Dom Revolučného odborového hnutia on Trnavské mýto and Hotel Kyjev and the Prior shopping centre (now Tesco) on Kamenné Square.
The complexes of the 1980s were the swan song of a stagnant regime. Today, their impassive grey surfaces serve as favoured spots for huge brighter-than-life advertisements for consumer services. While such giant buildings can hardly hide from the eye, the public seems to ignore them and Western visitors treat them with the bemused contempt of war victors.
“It’s too bad that we changed some things so quickly, that we took down the statue of Gottwald for example. If it was still there it would be obvious how ridiculous it was. We need to keep some of these things like an open-air museum so that people can see what this period was really about,” Žalman opines.
The buildings that remain, however, are mostly too large to disappear in the near future. Petržalka, certainly, will persist for the next few decades, longer than developers would like. In due time, these architectural records will gain attention as historical monuments and may one day even grace the covers of Bratislava travel guides.
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2005, which you can obtain from our online shop.
EURO CALCULATOR (Sk30.1260 = €1)