The Communist Mammoths of Bratislava

Text by Eric Smillie
Photograph by Gregor Hohenberg

I arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia, on a cold, wet day in October. After traveling by train for 26 hours from sunny Barcelona sans jacket, my new employer met me at the station and whisked me to my apartment on the 11th floor of a concrete, Communist-era housing project. From a wind-rattled window, I watched the rain fall on a shiny new shopping mall and an absurd bridge, topped with a UFO-looking structure, which spanned the grey Danube River. From another window, a cubist nightmare of concrete blocks just like my apartment complex stretched away for miles. Great, I thought, I’ve traveled across the world to end up in a second-rate New Jersey.

Three years later, I had learned to love Bratislava’s European charm and its unique Communist architecture, not unlike scores of other travelers. In the first nine months of 2004, the number of overnight foreign tourists jumped by 28 percent from 2003, and between 2003 and 2005 the number of foreigners passing though its airport almost tripled. Once considered boring, the city now brims with trendy restaurants and outdoor cafes, lending the small center an intimate Mediterranean feel.

Travel stories on Bratislava often warn about the architectural scars of the Communist era, chief among them Petrˇzalka, the uninviting district where I first lived along with a quarter of the city’s half-million people. But rather than a blemish, the city’s Communist architecture is aesthetically and historically fascinating. The absurd bridge, called the New Bridge, was the first to employ its curious asymmetrical suspension design, the fruit of the period of creative freedom in Czechoslovakia during the ’60s. The UFO at the top of its angled pylons offers an unparalleled view of the city and the surrounding countryside, and it also houses an overpriced restaurant.

By the time the New Bridge opened in 1973, the freedom of the Prague Spring was gone. The regime had pushed the project’s head architects out of public life for their opposition to the repressive period of Normalization that followed. In place of their names – Jozef Lacko, Ladislav Kuˇsnír and Ivan Slamen – the bridge’s memorial plaque praised the “workers of the State Planning and Design Institute.”

Many of the buildings from that era impress through sheer immensity, such as the upside-down pyramid that houses Slovak National Radio. Rumor has it that the structure channels negative energy, but its ground floor still boasts concert halls fitted with funky chairs and retro-futuristic rolling ceilings. Slovak Peter Zalman, who has worked as an architect for decades, praises it as fresh, expressive and says, “It reflects the economic strength of the [ Communist ] regime because it uses so much steel and through the audacity of its excessive amount of cubic meters; [ but ] it doesn’t answer for the soul of the regime.”

But with no more ideology to monumentalize after the end of Communism in 1989, these buildings are now too big for their own good. The vast hall of the Workers House, fitted with white stone features in lines and shapes reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, goes mostly unused. Other bits of the building have been parceled off into small businesses, a fate shared by many former cultural centers. The towering Hotel Kyjev, which is still furnished in ’70s Communist chic, is under new ownership and will likely be remodeled.

Bratislava needs its facelifts. Though pleasant enough, Petrˇzalka’s buildings were not built to last, and the elevated promenades that link them only pass by abandoned storefronts, save the occasional barbershop or convenience store. Though I never felt threatened, some well-off Slovaks refuse to visit the area, and local hip-hoppers celebrate it as the ghetto. The city center’s new restaurants and patios helped change my mind about Bratislava, but Petrˇzalka’s revitalization is still a long time coming. If other, funkier Communist mammoths die off in the meantime, the city might lose some character and risk getting stuck – like our worst stereotypes of New Jersey – between a shopping mall and a housing project.