These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Form and (Dys)functionalism

Modern Architecture in Slovakia

By Tom Philpott

    Nový Most
 Nový Most
 Photo: Ján Svrček

No discussion of Slovak architecture can pass over what happened in the second half of the 20th century.

Communist-era rulers, to an even greater degree than post-war city planners in the West, embraced a kind of anti-aesthetic, with utility and thrift the supreme values. A vulgarised form of functionalism held sway: the basic shape for organizing human life became the rectangular block. The contrast to the self-aggrandizing flair of the old royal elite could not have been clearer. Equally stark was the break from the vernacular styles favoured by village-dwelling peasants for centuries.

As the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia industrialized rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, villagers migrated in droves to the cities. The cheapest and quickest way to accommodate them was to construct towering blocks of flats, clumped together densely so that essential services could be delivered to them as efficiently as possible. Thus in Bratislava, in Košice, in Banská Bystrica - in nearly every Slovak city or town of any size - you see beautiful old-town squares ringed by modernist jungles of tower blocks.

Bratislava probably presents the starkest example, although the competition is fierce. Enter the city on the road from Vienna, as so many foreigners do, and the first thing you see is Petržalka, a vast, undifferentiated mass of off-white tower blocks, plunked down near the bank of the Danube across from the old town. The government reportedly built the complex as a quick-fix solution to a population boom. Decades later, Petržalka has established itself as a permanent part of the landscape. It houses 150,000 people - more than a third of Bratislava's population. Its suicide rate is the nation's highest. Surely, Petržalka represents a massive and ongoing failure of architectural imagination.

A few hundred metres away, across the river, lies the relatively tiny Old Town, packed full of architectural treasures from the past.

There are many vistas in Bratislava that lay bare its bipolar architectural nature. Starting at the Presidential Palace, walk down Staromestská ulica toward the river. At a certain point as you move to the edge of the old town, you'll see the following sight in the distance: on the left looms the spire of St. Martin's Cathedral, coronation church of the kings and queens of Hungary for 250 years. On the right is the stately Bratislava Castle. Between the two landmarks a strange object floats like a flying saucer out of a 50s movie. It's the centrepiece café atop the highest support beams of the New Bridge, built in the same 1970s-era functionalist frenzy that saw the creation of Petržalka.

Indeed, the new bridge was built specifically to link Petržalka to the rest of Bratislava. The location of the bridge required the destruction of 226 buildings in the Old Town, including one of the city's two synagogues. The four-lane road that feeds from it is squeezed right between the castle and the cathedral; and vibrations from it are steadily damaging the latter, one of Slovakia's Gothic treasures.

There's a point when functionalism becomes its opposite: dysfunctionalism. If the criterion is whether it succeeds in creating a space that people want to call home or not, then Petržalka doesn't work. The New Bridge, the construction of which sliced the Old Town needlessly in two, was a permanent blunder, an immortal testament to the arrogance and blindness of unchecked power.

Yet not every piece of post-war architecture in Slovakia is worthy of scorn. The train station in Poprad, for example, comes in for a lot of abuse. Chris Togneri, writing in last year's Spectacular, calls it "a behemoth ... an ominous, rusty structure hovering beside and above the tracks." After having travelled through Slovakia for a week by train, however, I had a different impression. The train station works. You know where you are when you arrive; you walk out onto a street, and you know in which direction the town centre lies. And if you have to wait for a train, the sunny, glass-walled overpass provides a pleasant setting overlooking the tracks. In the Poprad train station, functional and unadorned though it is, you feel like you are Somewhere.

The train station in Prešov, by contrast, is a study in dysfunctionalism. The train tracks lie at street level, yet the station's designers saw fit to herd arriving passengers downstairs, into a dim, labyrinthine arcade that connects the train station to the bus station beneath a busy street. For the disabled or those carrying heavy luggage, being forced to go up and downstairs even when the tracks are at street level is an insult. Several exits from the maze are marked, yet it's impossible to tell which one will put you closest to the path to the town centre. "Where am I?" you ask yourself as you muddle through the crowds and the shops. The answer is the same in all the world's functionalism-gone-awry spaces: I am Nowhere.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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