Cosy Monuments

Benjamin Konrad and Maik Novotny

Of all Eastern European countries, Slovakia has up to now left little marks in the western European conscience. Hardly any images or landmarks from Bratislava, one of Europe's youngest capitals, are widely known, let alone local architecture and design. Some might even have difficulties in keeping Slovakia and Slovenia apart.

An independent state since 1993, Slovakia has always felt overshadowed by Prague during its common history with the Czech. Despite (or because?) of that, there have always been efforts to emancipate oneself from the dominant brother. Since the Technical High School in Bratislava was augmented by a faculty of Architecture in 1947, these emancipations have gradually found their way into built architecture, mainly because Bratislava became a refuge for liberal architects and teachers unwanted by the communist system and edged out ouf the official cultural life of Prague.

Within the open climate of the 1960s, when Czechoslovakian architects and urban planners dreamed of a better future, more and more unique and iconic buildings were erected throughout the country, and mainly in Bratislava, the "small capital". Most of them were not finished until the Seventies, and have left their marks on an era and on the city.

Looking around Bratislava, these large-scale monuments hit the eye immediately - liked or disliked, they are definitely far more striking and memorable than the historic city center with its pastel-coloured facades renovated in the 90s. The SNP Bridge with its robot-like aesthetics which spans the River Danube is most certainly the building that tourists remember most and has become something of an inofficial landmark.

The marked contrast of mono-materiality and roughness on the outside - often due to the limited choice of building materials - and the carefully detailled warm elegance of the cosy interiors is rather typical for Eastern European post-war architecture. In Slovakia, this contrast comes across most clearly , as in the headquarters of the Slovak Broadcasting Company by Sˇtefan Svetko, Sˇtefan Dˇurkovic and Barnabas Kissling. The clear-cut, monumental form of an upside-down pyramid appears dark and forbidding on the outside, but boasts a surprisingly large, softly-lit interior space into which all the offices face. The two concert halls in the basement, clad in wood and travertin stone, with seats coloured in dark red, are of a near-sensual quality as befits their purpose.

The House of the Trade Unions by architects Ferdinand Koncˇek, Ilˇja Skocˇek and Lˇubomír Titl, nicknamed "Grey Mouse" by the public, provides a similar surprise in the sudden transition from the sharp-cut stone-clad geometric shapes facing a huge empty square and the spacious foyer on the upper floor with its polished columns and its oval-shaped lightwells hovering over the main staircase. The overall clarity of design is even more amazing if one considers the long building period of 26 years, a practice not unusual, meaning that political changes often occurred during the lengthy building process, and architects faced personal difficulties, even though their designs remained unaltered. Being politically outspoken, Sˇtefan Svetko's name had been officially deleted from all documents and plans by the time his Broadcasting Center was finally opened in 1985.

But even under the repressive backlash, after the Czechoslovakian hopes of liberal socialism ended in 1968, architects held on to their ideas developed in the fruitful Sixties. The Government lounge at Bratislava Airport, designed by Ján Bahna and Voitech Vilhán in 1972-73, is one of the most exceptional interiors of its time (and is, indeed, very much of its time) and is still used for the reception of Guests of State to this day. Hidden away in a small, inconspicuous building next to the airfield, it is still unknown even to Slovaks today. Inside however, it has all the appearance of an elegant spaceship: walls and ceiling are covered in brown and silver aluminium panels, white sliding doors and cylinder-shaped seats offer numerous possibilities of subdividing spaces for discreet talks between the State and its guests. The futuristic design was made palpable to the members of the Communist Party by the architects declaring it a "hommage to airplane construction" while allowing the artist Vladimir Kompanek, who was banned by authorities, to anonymously design the reliefs for the sliding doors, thus subversively confronting the politicians with the art they had deemed unsuitable. Bahna's enthusiasm for the early shop designs of Hans Hollein which he had seen in nearby Vienna is fairly obvious, although the elements were reassembled and adapted as parts of a seamless overall design including bar stools, coat hangers, door handles and lighting fixtures.

Not wanting or having to hide away his interiors, Ivan Matúsˇik took a slighly different approach in designing the Hotel Kyjev and Prior Department Store complex in central Bratislava (completed in 1973) . For him, interior and exterior follow the same principles. The 15-storey hotel slab, strongly reminiscent of Arne Jacobsen's SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, is cladded in precisely cut travertine stone inside and out, both the stone and wood panelling of the corridors have rounded corners blending floor, walls and ceilings together. Matúsˇik made every effort to avoid the clumsiness and rigidity of industrial mass production and maintaining a hand-crafted quality of detail throughout. More than a hint of international style pervades the hotel, most strikingly in the exclusive "Kyjev Club" bar on the first floor with its magnificent chandelier and its oval-shaped bar subtly lowered into the ground, with a view of Bratislava's skyline over the rooftop of the department store. A curious refuge of noble American-style sobriety , whereas the Luna Bar in the hotel's basement is more extrovert, the crescent shapes and shades of red of its sofa landscape reminiscent of Verner Panton.

Vladimír Dedecˇek, one of the most controversial figures in slovakian post-war architecture, favoured by the regime and credited with most representative public buildings, has never bothered much with such comfortable interiors, something many colleagues have sharply criticized him for. His National Gallery with its sluggish building process and its difficult exhibition spaces is certainly the least popular building of its time and has been facing demolition more than once. In 2003, a competition for reconstruction was held, but the renovation proved too costly, and the museum is still falling into decay. Justified criticism aside, there is an undeniable fascination and strong clarity to Dedecˇek's cubist monuments like the National Archive and the Trade Fair complex in Bratislava. All of them vary his approach of arranging façade openings into strong horizontal lines with sharp contrasts of light and shadow, which are layered, bent and merged and, in the case of the National Gallery, bundled together to form a bridge spanning 70 metres between the two side wings of a 17th century courtyard.

Sadly, more and more of these buildings have been demolished or "renovated to death" in recent years, being identified with an authoritarian regime and regarded as unwanted relics from the past. Most attempts at preservation are swept aside by the dynamics of the Market, and the sellout of inner city sites crucial for Bratislava's urban development continues unabatedly. It is the lack of cultural conscience that, according to Svetko, prevents an objective debate about the architectural heritage from the 1960s and 70s. "For the ability to discuss, we still need at least two generation's worth of democratic experience".

The Broadcasting Company plans to move out of Svetko's building, the Hotel Kyjev faces thorough reconstruction, the gorgeous restaurant hovering over the River Danube in the UFO-shaped "head" of the SNP bridge has been refurbished, its original interior with its James Bond movie atmosphere is now lost. But despite all these losses, the exterior shells in all their logo-like imagery remain the rough monuments they were - the initial 1960s concept of public buildings implanted into the urban fabric, or "raisins in the cake", as Svetko puts it, is still valid today. Aliens in a world of corporate westernized standard design and mirrored-glass mediocrity, they remain persistently present in the city. Crossing the river from the suburb of Petrzalka into the historic centre, with the SNP bridge's pylons in the sky blending with the boxy silhouette of Bratislava Castle behind it, one feels that they are already firmly ingrained in Bratislava's iconography.