Thursday, January 26, 2012

Erasing history pt. 2: more Communist-era urban planning blunders in Bratislava

When doing the research for my "Erasing History" post, I stumbled upon some more damage inflicted on the Stare Mesto during Communism, just up the street and around the corner from Zidovska (the focus of the last post). This bit of destructive urban development also came at the expense of a synagogue, which was demolished in 1961. There's less info out there on this one, but it appears to have been damaged in WWII, and like many synagogues in Slovakia, abandoned. The synagogue was located on Zamocka (Zah-mots-kah) ulica, which runs into Zidovska's northern end. By the 18th century, when this synagogue was constructed, it appears that the Jewish community expanded in both directions from Zidovska - down toward the Danube, and up Zamocka (sometimes referred to as Castle Street), which wraps around the northern (rear) and western sides of the Bratislava castle hill. It appears that many of the buildings up and down Zamocka were demolished over the years due to street widening, as well as to make way for the eastern end of the tram tunnel that cuts through castle hill. I also read that a once-proposed street would have gone up the hill directly to the castle, necessitating the demolition of some of Zamocka's buildings. While the tram tunnel is most definitely there today, this proposed street to the castle never materialized. 

Here are some photos. Zamocka looks nothing like this today. 

Zamocka pre-demolition. Notice the synagogue in the upper center region of the photo. 
The same view today. Notice the first building on the left is the same in both photos, but everything to the right of it has changed. 
Zamocka from further down. The street that you can see going left at this intersection would have been Zidovska. 

Here is the tram tunnel, viewed from about where Zidovska and Zamocka intersect. If you stood in the spot where the photo above this one was taken, and turned left to about 10 o'clock, you'd be facing this. Something on this spot was obviously demolished to make way for the tunnel, but I haven't found any photos that clearly show what it was. 
A better view of the synagogue and adjacent buildings. 

Adding insult to injury, at some point in the 1960s, some douchebag had the audacity to propose razing the Bratislava castle and replacing it with whatever the hell this is(!).  

The Communists, strangely enough, kept the castle and restored it (albeit, inauthentically, making the interior courtyard resemble a prison yard; the castle was re-restored more faithfully a few years ago), but as this photo would indicate, it appears there was at least some discussion about putting the castle on the chopping block. Crazy!!! 

There are a few other Communist-era architectural calamities worth pointing out. The most egregious is the front of the Water Barracks wing of the Slovak National Gallery. Prior to Communism, this is how the Water Barracks looked from the front. 

Then during Communism, someone got the bright idea to put this piece of crap over the front of it, making it resemble a California junior college library on steroids, or the entrance to a football stadium. 

You can make out the original Water Barracks building behind/underneath the Communist-era appendage.  I'm not sure if the out-of-date billboard sized banner ad covering the facade makes any difference on its visual impact, or lack thereof. But I will say this: you sure as hell don't see colossal ads stretched out across the front of the Guggenheim in New York, or San Francisco's MOMA. The fact that this giant ad obscures a big portion of the SNG facade makes me suspect that few tears were shed when covering it up. 
Notice the lengthy wall of empty, staggered concrete planter boxes that only allows for a narrow entry right in the center. This is a textbook example of terrible use of space - you want people to feel like they can flow freely inside, make it feel inviting, not closed off or barricaded. Instead you've got this forbidding monolith that looks like it's going to drop down and mash you against its jagged lower teeth. The neoclassical building to the right of this monstrosity is the main wing of the SNG complex. 
Like the UFO bridge, there was clearly no attempt to (or intention of) harmoniously integrating the SNG add-on with the existing urban fabric. It sticks out, arrogantly and stupidly, like the sorest thumb you've ever seen. Sure, the Pompidou in Paris sticks out too, but at least it's interesting to look at, and features a truly innovative and visually stunning design. But this thing?

Also, take a look at what happened to Bratislava's quaint, main train station in the 1980s (yesterday and today). This was much less an artistic/idealogical statement than simply a functional add-on created to expand what was an inadequately tiny train station. Again, you've got more of that lovely utilitarian, California jr. college look. And even the junky add-on isn't really sufficient today - it can get fairly cramped inside. Bratislava could definitely use a more "grown-up" train station. 

I should point out that, obviously, the Communists were not the first to demolish or deface older buildings and replace them with something seen as more practical or in vogue. This has been going on ever since humans started building cities. Many major European cities were the recipients of massive and highly destructive cosmetic makeovers over the past few centuries. Consider the damage Haussmann did to Paris in the 1800s when he carved sprawling, wide boulevards out of narrow medieval lanes, totally disregarding centuries of historical roots. Haussmannization became all the rage, and many cities followed suit. When Florence was to be the capital of a newly united Italy in the 1860s, an entire medieval market square and adjacent Jewish quarter was razed to make space for the vast, Haussman-influenced Piazza della Repubblica. At the time this trend was seen as reducing congestion, and sprucing up facades in whatever style was trendy at the time, but the number of historical structures destroyed in the process was incalculable. Also, consider how many medieval, gothic churches and palaces were criminally coated in goopy layers of baroque throughout the 16-1700s.

So, clearly, this was nothing new under Communism. What makes it different now is that these days, people seem to have a little more reverence for historical structures, and do not want the history that these structures represent to disappear. Plus, in Europe, that history translates into tourist dollars. And today, people here battle passionately to prevent Communists-era structures from being torn down by capitalist developers, so the cycle continues.

(Click here to see recent photos I've taken in Bratislava).

(Click here to see photos from recent day-trips to Vienna). 

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