The communist past of the Slovakian capital is locked in its brutalist architecture
28 Jun, 2019
Nothing that I see on the hour-long bus ride from Vienna to Bratislava, crossing miles and miles of lush wind farms and then little, rusty old towns with pink flowers blooming in windows lending a benign, pastoral charm to all things around, prepares me for the humongous block of concrete social housing that comes up without warning as the bus takes a turn at Petržalka and plunges us into the twenty-first century Slovakian capital of fast cars, neon display boards and dark, sulking corners underneath flyovers that run on a loop around the city.
The paneláks or the council housing, constructed of concrete panels brought together to form a structure were built during the post-war communist regime, rise up by the right bank of the Danube, sounding as if a dire warning. Despite its exteriors painted in bright shades of orange, yellow and red and reflecting the bright, morning sun, it barely conceals the grim interiors of crammed spaces, lightless rooms and sterile corridors that make up the lives of nearly 100,000 residents. The somewhat lame attempt at making the buildings look cheerful with pop colours hardly works and resembles a rash spreading out across Petržalka, the largest borough of Bratislava. Looking at it I’m hardly surprised when I learn later that the district records some of the highest crime and suicide rates in the country—credentials that have won the area the sobriquet of being the ‘Bronx of Bratislava’.
If driving by the Petržalka was a shock, the utter sense of being locked up in a communist past was complete as I entered the Autobusová Stanica, the Slovak Lines bus station, to look up connecting routes to my hotel. The rows of dim tube lights that lit up the sharp, grey interiors punctuated with bus schedules printed on red boards written in a language I had no clue about, gave it a sinister air, suspicious of visitors. Even the sun wasn’t allowed in. And yet, despite the coldness of the structure, it was quite the reason why I was there: Bratislava is one of the few eastern European cities that offers a fairly large sampling of communist-era monoliths along with a mix of Brutalist and Modernist-era structures that have so far been left intact in the face of a late capitalist onslaught of multi-storeyed car parks and shiny, new malls.
Juro, a local, who runs a tour agency, tells me that the youth are not too chuffed about these buildings. They’re too far from the decades of hopelessness their parents endured under the communist regime and can’t quite yet decide if these “eyesores” should be demolished or left alone to crumble at their own pace. When we drive past the striking Slovensk•• Rozhlas, the Slovak radio tower, shaped like an inverted pyramid wrapped around in rusted iron frame, Juro refers to it as having won the distinction of being ‘the ugliest building in the world’ in an architectural blog. Looking at its looming form and the sheer defiance of its concept, I can only disagree with the blog. Far from ‘ugly’, to me it seemed to have emerged from one of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian futures where people were done with the business of being human and were committed to becoming something that wasn’t as messy or given to the emotional pull of opulent palaces or overwhelming crafting detail that saturate the cityscape in neighbouring Vienna. Inaugurated in the 1980s, clearly the tower has seen better days, but the scale of its structure both inside and out is exactly representative of the time when it was built—when the state was the provider and supreme power, impersonal and secretive, answerable to no one, giving away nothing about the workings and manipulations that went on inside its machinery, aka, the offices it functioned out of.
A little more than a kilometre away from the Slovenský Rozhlas thrived a world in contrast— the Old Town or Staré Mesto. Reminiscent of the centuries of living and royalty, where Hungarian kings were crowned in St Martin’s Cathedral beginning in the sixteenth century, before the communists hunkered down with their concrete and steel structures, the view around Michalská Ulica (St Michael’s Street) revealed a Bratislava that hummed in the cool shadow of quiet paved alleys, Orthodox churches, tinkling of passing trams disgorging tourist groups and fast, tasteless meals at McDonald’s. It was evident from the milling about of young lovers and new parents pushing their precious newborns on strollers under a benign spring sun that this part of town and its belle époque remains received regular cladding, painting and refurbishing flourishes in contrast to the affronts of Brutalist architecture and big-fisted proletarian monuments that stood just a stone’s throw away. The Velvet Revolution-famed Freedom Square or Námestie Slobody and the Post Office Palace building, that shared the same complex, sat desolate in comparison. A few lads hung around the bright yellow benches at the Square—again a forced attempt at cheerfulness—seemed bored with their hats covering half their faces, their bodies slouched in an extended huddle, giving them an appearance of being directionless and confused. Tufts of uneven grass that shot up in between concrete slabs, which made up the floor of the Square, were in want of trimming, and the walls that were scribbled with unappealing graffiti could do with some washing. The famed stainless-steel linden flower fountain, known to have a tunnel running underneath, has not spouted a drop of water since 2007. Apparently, it has been left to its fate of disrepair and slow death after architects complained that it had a faulty design and was too expensive to repair and maintain.
The term ‘Brutalism’ is derived from béton brut (raw concrete), or from the informal, ad hoc compositions of Art Brut, or from ‘Brutus’, the nickname of the architect Peter Smithson. The architectural style came into vogue in the mid-1950s as an attempt to infuse a fresh energy into Modernism that was increasingly becoming unpopular and thought of as too deferential and polite. Popularised by French architect Le Corbusier’s 1952 prototype, Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, meant to accommodate those left homeless following the Second World War, the Brutalist style of architecture, looking to bring about an edge to the Modernist style, preferred rough surfaces, imposing forms and incongruous, often monumental design. Brutalism reached its peak in mid-1970s and then suddenly, as a symbol of the botched-up socialist experiment, crumbled as a model of bad taste and state repression. Known for its use of reinforced concrete and steel, customisable elements, and pragmatic sensibilities, Brutalist architecture was primarily used for institutional buildings, such as hospitals, libraries, universities, offices and so on. Formidable in size and geometric in structure, Brutalist buildings exuded a graphic, minimalist quality that made them extremely popular in their heyday.
Jola, currently a Bratislava local, who grew up in one of Poland’s social housing estates, remembers the interlocking, long corridors to resemble that of hospitals. “The kitchens were too small and only my mother could fit into it. And she wouldn’t stop complaining about it until we moved out many years later,” she says. “The windows were little boxes, barely allowing any daylight in, and now that I think about it, they were probably designed to keep people out in the open as much as possible. I enjoyed playing and cycling in the parks that surrounded the estate though—those spaces favoured human interaction unlike the isolation of the corridors,” she adds.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Brutalism although losing its sheen from early 80s, fell completely out of favour in the 90s. One of the primary reasons for it to be consigned to the destiny of architectural obscurity was that the cold and austere nature of its style was often associated with totalitarian ruin. Another point of critique that brought down this architectural style was that the raw concrete commonly used for construction often didn’t age well and left the buildings exposed to water damage and diminished the overall aesthetic. Writing for The New York Times, columnist and author Anthony M Daniels says, ‘Buildings in the Brutalist style—which uses raw concrete or other materials to make art galleries look like fallout shelters—are certainly aesthetically outstanding: unfortunately, in an entirely negative sense. A single such building can ruin an entire townscape, and it is often difficult to believe that such ruination was not the intention of the architect.’
Travelling through the day and exploring the city in the sun had left me dried out like a pine cone on a parched mountain slope. I stopped for a beer at one of Bratislava’s sleek but overwhelmingly common bars before starting again on my way to take a look at the city’s most famous and visible landmark: the UFO bridge. As I picked my way through the busy city thoroughfares to make it to the banks of the Danube, I noticed that the broad streets crisscrossed the city in a neat, well-planned jumble. The neighbourhoods beyond the chaotic city centre stood in stilled silence, deserted save for an occasional elderly woman walking a Pomeranian. The windows to the tall, pastel-shaded, fairly well-kept buildings were mostly shuttered, and it felt as if the locals were done with negotiating the city for the day. The evening had brought along with it a chilly wind and the open, treeless wide roads left me exposed and wishing I’d brought along a jacket, as I couldn’t find a pocket of shelter to hide in. Author Owen Hatherly in Landscapes of Communism: A History through Buildings said of vast, river-like streets like these to be an expression of ‘a socialism with real generosity and grandeur, all its hierarchical features subordinated to the rule of the public’s footsteps.’ I could agree with that sentiment except that the scale of it intimidated me as I waited patiently for the lights to change even though the roads ran empty.
As I approached the bridge eyeing the flying saucer-shaped absurdity at the top of the pylon that supported the petržalka end of the asymmetrical structure, I noticed the modern city light up like a glittering stadium. I paid a few euros to take the elevator up to the viewing deck 85 metres high to induce a vertigo for fun. Built in the early days of communist optimism in the 60s, the viewing deck of the Nový Most (New Bridge), yes, the bridge has an array of names—formerly known as the ‘The Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising’ or Most SNP, it became known as the Nový Most in the 90s, and then with the plonking of the UFO restaurant at the top in 2005, it is now mostly eponymous with the expensive and sleek eatery. Looking over the Danube, which flows by darkly underneath neatly dividing the city into twin zones—the classical one with churches and onion-domed palaces and low hills, and lit by the pollution of a modern, breathless city, and the residential tower blocks of the paneláks on the other illuminating the horizon.
Perched atop a two-legged tower, this longest-running suspension bridge in the world displays an authoritarian ambition and totalitarian lack of concern over good old rationale. The construction of this bridge destroyed a good chunk of the Old Town for establishing connecting roadways and a near, total annihilation of the Jewish quarter that came in its way. Rising above today’s glass-and-metal highrises bearing luminous signs screaming ‘IBM’, ‘Lenovo’ and ‘Amazon’, the UFO bridge doesn’t seem very out of place. It reveals a cityscape that is marked by a haze of incongruity and sterile, but gleaming development under a starless sky. The Brutalist years are probably not as far in the past as many of us would like to believe. Nowadays, it seems to be melding into the vision of a future that has arrived.
Getting there To get to Bratislava, fly to Vienna, get on a bus plying outside the international airport. It is an hour- long ride. Book in advance though.
Stay Hotels are plentiful and reasonably priced. Pick one that suits your taste and budget. If you’re particularly keen on living Soviet style, spend a night at Hotel Kyjev. If not, get a drink at the Luna Bar housed in the same hotel—all done up in communist-era decor.
Things to Do If you had your fill of Brutalism, visit the Devin Castle on the outskirts of Bratislava or take a walk around the Old Town. In drinks, beer is the one to opt for. Slovakia has some very good, cheap, homegrown varieties.