The modern tourist lives in a whirl: on holiday three times a year and weekends away in between. Been there, seen that, and got the T-shirt. The problem is, after a while your memories jostle for position. All those historical cities look so similar. That trip to Bratislava, for example, did we do that after Rome? Or was it between London and Sao Paolo? And what year would that have been?
Bratislava makes it easy for the modern tourist: the city has fitted itself out with an up-to-date wardrobe that enables you to date your visit easily. Most of the high buildings are covered with advertisements measuring hundreds of square metres: billboards, wall paintings, banners. Sometimes they cover blank walls, but just as often they are stretched right over windows. Hotel Kyjev takes the cake: an advertising banner of at least two thousand square metres dominates half the city. Tell me what advertising was hanging there during your visit, and I will tell you when you were there, because the advertising unfailingly follows the rhythm of the modern age, and to some extent determines the rhythm.
For example, I was in Bratislava when T-Mobile coloured the square in front of the presidential palace pink, when the Ford S-Max covered the whole national gallery and Nokia had taken possession of hotel Kyjev. So it was May 2007. Unfortunately I could not get a good view of the castle and the famous bridge over the Danube from my room, because the letters ‘ple,’ the last part of the slogan ‘Connecting People,’ hung right in front of my window.
Has the whole city been occupied by the forces of advertising? No, one small part still holds out. In the historical inner city, everything is arranged to give the visitor the illusion that he has landed at the end of the eighteenth century, when Empress Maria Theresa had just subjected the city to a radical rebuild for herself and her friends. The result is a European city of the kind that Americans like to imagine: electric cars in the form of a little train will take you around, there are benches everywhere, and even the alleyways are clean. You hardly ever see the inhabitants of Bratislava here: the open-air museum is too expensive for them.
This is the "Lipservice quarter," as architect Rem Koolhaas calls it in his controversial essay Generic City . Each city has a quarter "where a minimum of the past is preserved: usually it has an old train/tramway or double-decker bus driving through it, ringing ominous bells (…) it celebrates the past as only the recently conceived can." Cities use such quarters to emphasise their historical roots, their unicity and identity. But Koolhaas says that the actual effect is just the opposite: "History returns not as farce here, but as service (…) It is a machine."
His essay looks at New York, Paris and Barcelona, among others. Bratislava could easily be added to the list, precisely because its identity has always been largely artificial. It is the capital city of a country that is just fourteen years old, if you overlook its dark forerunner during the Second World War. It is the capital city of an agricultural country par excellence: by far the majority of its inhabitants were not born in the city. Moreover it is a capital city with a madeup name, based on a joke from the nineteenth century. The city is called Pressburg in German, which was generally transliterated in Slovakian as Pre_porok. Students at the Faculty of Lutheran Theology transformed that, with some etymological hocus pocus, into Braslawa. That was a more or less defensible line of thought, until they inserted the syllable ‘ti’ in between so that it could read Bra (brother) ti (of) slawa (fame): the brothers of fame. Their contrivance drew little attention until that name was suddenly made official, when Bratislava became part of the newborn State of Czechoslovakia in 1919.
The reconstruction of the historical heart of the city is almost complete. If you enter the city over the footbridge from the Zupné Namesti [?] you can see one last little piece of overgrown park below you on your right. On the left you can see what it will soon look like: manicured grass, white paths and flower beds. A park to admire, because you cannot go in.
In the meanwhile the city is preparing for the next phase: refurbishing the post-war expansions around the centre. The huge buildings that the socialist regime erected are under fire. The national gallery, for example: an eighteenth-century barracks that Vladimír Dede_ek fitted out with a gigantic awning in the 1970s. And especially the Hotel Kyjev, a creation of architect Ivan Matú_ik in the 1960s. Both buildings are in poor repair and are covered with advertising banners that are intended to generate the funds to deal with the most serious part of the overdue maintenance. Unbridled capitalism keeps the socialist relics standing, for now.
The demolition of these buildings would erase an important episode in Slovak history and lead to a radical impoverishment of the city’s appearance. It is not a question of whether they are beautiful or ugly, but of their historical value. A strictly aesthetic approach is too limited, as can be seen from the demolition of the synagogue in the 1960s. At the time, this was legitimated with an art historian’s argument, that it showed only an imitative Moorish revival style. And as a matter of fact, the sober, understated beauty of the complex of which Hotel Kyjev and the Tesco supermarket are part is hard to deny.
Respect for the buildings also means respect for the spaces that they have helped to shape: the ruptures of the urban tissue and the large public spaces that arose as a result. The triangular plaza in front of the Tesco is one of the few monumental open spaces in the city, a spot where people meet one another, promenade, and hang out. This plaza is much more the heart of the city than the official central square, Hlavné Namesti. If you ask someone for directions they will generally use Tesco as a reference point.
Tesco’s unabashed commercial function produces a lively scene on and around the plaza, such as cannot be found in the rest of the city centre. Take away the supermarket, and the young people will complete the move they are already making to the shopping malls on the outskirts of the city, where much of daily life already centres.
Outside the historic centre, Bratislava is a strikingly modern city. Not modern in the sense that the architecture there is light and clear and uses a lot of glass, steel and concrete, nor in the sense of careful city planning and a rationally implemented functional differentiation. No, it is modern in the exact sense the term is used in ‘Generic City,’ with all the ugliness and absurdity that go with it: there are motorways, high-rise buildings popping up at random, shopping malls, deserted factory sites, expanding suburbs, an airport that is growing into a satellite city. In short, the very opposite of the picturesque centre. There are various causes for this development: some are underlying factors that play a role the world over, such as the unstoppable march of the car, tempestuous economic growth, individualisation, fewer persons per household, and weakening of the civil service. But there are other factors that are specific to Bratislava. After the fall of the socialist regime, investment companies, project developers and speculators streamed in and the city government didn’t know how to cope with it. While the city’s master plan dating from 1963 was adjusted in 1994, there was no new, coherent vision of the future. Moreover the master plan did not specify maximum building heights, and to make matters worse, building permits were granted by the Bauamt, a local government building service which did not have to answer to the municipal government. With the help of a bribe, project developers could easily get a building permit allowing them to build wherever and as high as they wanted, so long as they remained out of the historical centre.
The city was drifting. The municipal government’s desire to concentrate new high-rise building on the Eurovea site on the banks of the Donau, between the harbour and the old centre, was ineffective. Only now are there construction cranes to be seen on this site, but half the city is already littered with high-rise buildings, and the economic growth continues.
A second heavy blow for the city has been suburbanisation. Almost all Slovaks have rural roots, and in recent years many have taken the opportunity to escape the city and establish a catalogue house in the country. The traditional wine-making villages on the sides of the Small Tatra mountains, in particular, have been overrun with patches of new construction, haphazard subdivisions and mini-palaces hiding behind walls. Here again, corruption allowed unbridled expansion, as we saw in the town of Racha, where the mayor is now in prison.
Racha was absorbed into Bratislava immediately after the Second World War, but it has now definitively lost its village character. Two years ago, a football tradition that stems from the late nineteenth century finally came to an end. On Sundays, the inhabitants of Racha would set out with beer and food to the open spot in the woods where a football field had been marked out. In 2005, one of the last matches was played, against American immigrants: the aging villagers had no chance against their much younger opponents.
The waves of suburbanisation spreading from the town have now reached a radius of fifty kilometres, and the rising cost of land is driving people to seek alternatives, in villages just over the Austrian border. Despite the migration to the countryside, Bratislava is hardly shrinking at all. A continual inflow of people from the rest of the country fills the empty places, and that has preserved even Petr_alka, the housing estate on the south side of the Danube which has the highest housing density of all of Slovakia, from economic decline.
The post-war housing estates in West-European cities are the almost exclusive domain of state housing tenants. City governments and housing corporations have done all they can to attract home buyers, to achieve a more mixed population. But among the 115 thousand inhabitants of Petr_alka you will find scarcely any who rent their homes: almost all the housing was privatised in the 1990s. Rich and poor still live side by side, and rundown Skodas are parked next to gleaming BMWs.
The owner of Luxus, a second-hand clothing shop in Dvory III, says that she might just as well leave her shop shut until the 15th of the month, because only then do her customers receive their social welfare benefits. At the same time, the posh beauty clinic on the banks of Velky Drazdiak is doing good business. The narrow grass strip between the salon’s terrace and the lake has remained public land, and overweight mothers get their tanning treatment there for free.
In this area you can find brand new churches standing next to run-down retail areas under high-rise flats. There are big contrasts between the flats themselves: here and there the long rows of grey boxes are interrupted with a vertical strip of colour. The residents of that section have been able to raise the funds to have the exterior walls insulated and, at the same time, have given the building a splash of colour. But most of the flats have had no major maintenance for a long time, and they will not get it so long as the majority of the residents cannot or will not find the money for it.
It is not certain whether Petr_alka can maintain its equilibrium, and whether the migration to the suburbs will initiate a downwards spiral. What is certain is that Bratislava’s fate will be decided on this side of the river. Project developers Cresco Group and QPG want to start building the South City development on the narrow strip between the flats and the river in 2008. With an investment of 1.8 billion euros, this is intended to be the largest residential building project of Central Europe.
It is unclear how the new development will relate to the housing estates behind it: will South City remain a place apart for rich people, or can Bratislava really be a city whose centre lies on both sides of the Danube? A centre that is also big enough and lively enough to serve as the core of the whole city? A centre that is able to suck the surrounding housing estates up in a spiral of rising density and mixing functions, as the master plan that was finally adopted at the end of May 2007 proposes? A centre that is also financially strong enough, so that it does not need to rent out the exteriors of its buildings to the highest bidder, and a centre that can find a place for its socialist heritage?
The municipality’s investments in the surrounding housing estates will be crucial to the revitalisation of the city centre, and especially its investments in Petr_alka. If that part of the city sinks into decline, Bratislava will inescapably come to resemble Los Angeles, mother of all Generic Cities, with mirror-glass sky scrapers and impressive museums in the centre and inhabitants who do their best to live as far as possible from that centre.
Acknowledgements are due to Peter Benuska, Stefan Holcik, Stefan Slachta, Leo Singer and Miro Tizik
Published in: Urban landscapes of Bratislava