Monday, April 29, 2013

Jeff's tour of communist Bratislava

"Bratislava is the perfect combination of ambition and neglect," a friend of mine said as we were walking through Námestie Slobody, Bratislava's sprawling, modernist, and endearingly dilapidated Soviet-era public square, which is an extremely apt description.

I realize I've written plenty about many of Bratislava's 
post-war communist/Soviet-era architectural landmarks in previous posts, but what I thought I'd do here is create a self-guided walking tour that takes people through these landmarks in an afternoon (or two), since I'm not sure if anything quite like this currently exists. Plus, since I originally wrote about many of these sites in different posts, I felt like it was appropriate to bring them all together into one place with the aim of creating a narrative or thread that connects the buildings and sites of Bratislava's communist-era urban layer.

Bratislava is, of course, home to a slew of utterly unique post-war communist-era buildings and monuments. Most tourists come to Bratislava to spend a few hours in the city's pedestrianized historical center but miss what lies just outside of it, like a slew of beautifully dilapidated Habsburg-era facades, but also an intriguing jumble of buildings reflecting more recent styles and eras, all with a distinctly central European flavor.

But the communist-era structures, once objects of ridicule, are due a reassessment, especially as an increasing number of people have come to appreciate and admire their strange, modernist, and stark beauty. With many of these structures, the state was attempting to make a bold statement and leave its mark on the city, showing off its power, influence, and economic strength - or, at least it was trying to create the illusion of these things. In reality, the fact that many of these buildings took more than 10 years to construct meant that the state really couldn't get it together in the way that it sought to project. 

Some of these buildings were incredibly ambitious and forward-thinking for their time, and were designed in an era in the 1960s when the political regime thawed enough to give architects and artists the breathing room to create some truly original, innovative, and stunning work. Of course, by the 1970s, the regime had discredited some of these same architects, since many had dissident ties with (or offered vocal support for) the Prague Spring in the late 60s, and some of them had their names wiped from information plaques and history books. Furthermore, an increasing lack of state funds reduced the architecture of the 1970s to purely functional, bare-bones designs, hence the drab, grey, concrete paneláks that spread through the country like wildfire in that decade.

However, while these modernist, socialist-era buildings are seeing an increase in appreciation, they still don't get anywhere near the same love as all the pre-war stuff, and some have been faced with the threat of demolition, while others have become dingy and dilapidated given that they are so costly and difficult to maintain. Personally, I think the city should do whatever it can to find funding for these structures to keep them alive and healthy. And the tourist board should be flaunting the hell out of these sites, because I think an increasing number of people find this era of history intriguing, and this stuff could really interest more tourists than people here realize. That Bratislava doesn't exploit this stuff is maddening and perplexing.

So, after you've wandered around the small but attractive historical center, consider venturing out of touristville and checking out some of these commie-era oddities.

One caveat - some of these buildings are closed to the public, which means they can only be enjoyed from the outside. And while the exteriors of these structures are still worth checking out, a few of these buildings, like the National Archives or Hotel Kyjev, have genuinely stunning and unique interiors, which you probably won't get to see. Who knows, maybe you'll get lucky and hit one of these places at a time where you'll be able to take a gander inside, but don't go there assuming that will happen. 

Finally, I've separated the tour into two sections. For the first part, I've listed the sites in an order that creates a logical and easy-to-follow path, beginning at the Danube in the Staré Mesto at the UFO Bridge, and gradually extending outward, away from the center. Most of the tour is totally walkable, except for the last two sites, which, while you could walk to them, they are probably better if reached by bus (and I've provided instructions for which buses to take and where to catch them; the rides aren't long). The second category is listed as "extra credit" because it consists of sites that are more out of the way and/or arguably a bit less essential than the first nine sites. But if you have the time, I encourage you to check them out. I've provided maps and instructions to show you how to reach these "extra credit" landmarks from the Staré Mesto.

So, without further ado, here's the tour!

1. Most SNP/UFO Bridge


I suppose it makes sense to start with what is indisputably one of Bratislava's most iconic structures, the SNP Bridge (Most SNP), also known as the UFO bridge, due to its uncanny resemblance to a flying saucer from a 1950s sci-fi b-movie. It almost looks as if it's hovering over the Danube, preparing to incinerate the castle and city with its laser beams. Simultaneously striking and bemusing, like it or not, this thing is pretty unique. I've long lamented how a third of the historical old town, including almost all of the old Jewish quarter, was leveled in the early 1960s to make way for this bridge and its adjoining freeway on the Staré Mesto side. This has to be one of the most devastating, megalomaniacal, and hamfisted examples of urban redevelopment in the 20th century that I can think of. Sadly, there's little we can do about it now except to acknowledge the damage, shake our heads, and at least try to appreciate the bridge for what it is.

Unfortunately, the architects who designed the bridge in the early 1960s - Jozef LackoLadislav Kušnir, and Ivana Slaměna - did not get to revel in the status that would normally accompany the completion of such a grand and visible landmark. In 1970, just three years before the bridge was completed, all three architects lost their seats at the architecture university for having spoken out against the Soviet occupation that crushed 1968's Prague Spring. They were not invited to the ceremonial opening of the bridge in 1973, and their names were omitted from the bridge's historical plaque, which only credited the "workers" of the state planning and design institute.

According to Slovak architect Štefan Šlachta (as quoted in the 2005 edition of Spectacular Slovakia), the period following the Prague Spring crackdown, known as "normalization," had a pretty negative impact on local architects at the time, and in turn, the architecture of the 1970s. "Normalization returned the card-carrying apparatchiks to their offices; the overwhelming majority of competent architects were pushed out of work, many emigrated (particularly the young generation), and a dark time set in for architecture. Historical sections of the city were demolished to make way for paneláks and massive panelák neighbourhoods arose."

Ascending the tower to the restaurant or bar/lounge at the top will afford you unparalleled views of both Bratislava's Staré Mesto and 
Petržalka, the massive, sprawling borough across the Danube made up of row after row of communist-era, residential high rises known to Slovaks as panelaks. From this vantage point, labyrinthine Petržalka appears to go on forever. But we'll talk about Petržalka more in depth later on. 

From the UFO pod, you can also see Incheba (also on the Petržalka side), an exhibition center in Petržalka that juts up into the air like a colossal computer chip. Lamentably, the side of the building that faces Petržalka is usually obscured by a massive and hideous billboard, which just goes to show how little respect people have in this city for such unique architecture. We'll discuss Incheba a bit more in the Petržalka section.

2. Slovak National Gallery - Water Barracks Extension

Rázusovo nábrežie 1
Map and directions from SNP Bridge

The next site is on our way to Hotel Kyjev (which we'll get to next), and there are actually two totally separate communist-era components to this structure. The first one, which you probably already noticed from the street, is the add-on to the National Gallery's Water Barracks building, which in my view is a hideous, hulking piece of shit. It's a colossal middle finger to the 19th-century building it was appended to the front of (and now largely obscures), and to me it resembles a section of the tread of a Soviet-era bulldozer that's plowing its way through the historical center. I can't envision a more uninviting entrance to a museum. It looks like it's going to come crashing down on you - and it just might: while the interior is actually a nice and airy gallery space, the whole thing has been deemed structurally unsound, and it's been closed off and empty for a while now (at the time of writing) because apparently it may be at risk of collapsing. 

Frankly, I wouldn't shed a tear if it were torn down. All the hip contemporary architects gush over this thing, but I just don't get it. Only an arrogant asshole would think to cram this heaping turd amid the nice, largely historical buildings that surround it and create such an eyesore along Bratislava's already neglected waterfront. In this case, that arrogant asshole was Vladimir Dedeček, whose other works in the city, like the aforementioned Incheba and the Slovak National Archives (see #8 below), are actually quite amazing. What can I say? I suppose even the most talented architect is going to have his or her "off" days.

But walk around the left side of the building, and you'll see this (above) at the rear of the gallery. It's playful and eye-catching, if a wee bit clunky. Yet strangely, it can only be seen from a narrow side street. Now, had they worked something like this into the front of the Water Barracks, I could forgive that it wouldn't integrate well with its more neoclassical styled neighbors, because at least it would be pleasing to look at! But no, this was added to the rear of the building where few people ever lay eyes on it. Go figure.

3. Hotel Kyjev/My Bratislava

Kamenné námestie; surrounded by Špitálska, Dunajská, and Rajská Streets
Map and directions from SNG

Next up is the Hotel Kyjev and My Bratislava/Tesco (formerly Prior) complex on Kamenné námestie. If you went up to the castle and looked eastward, down onto the city, you very likely saw this monstrosity sticking out like a sore thumb just beyond the historical center. Designed by local architect Ivan Matú
šik and completed in 1972, this was seen as a super modern and elegantly designed complex, with its sleek lines and striking, travertine, marble-encrusted exterior. The hotel, in particular, attracted hordes of visitors for the nearly 40 years of its existence, although sadly, it closed a few years back and at the time of writing its fate seems a bit uncertain.

This is sad because the interior hadn't changed since it was built, and through photos you can see how hip and awesomely modern it looked, especially the lobby with its stunning circular stairway, the stylish Luna Bar in the basement (which looks straight out of an old James Bond film), or the similarly striking "Kyjev Club" bar upstairs. The rooms had kind of an amusingly communist-era sparseness about them, and the bathrooms looked a bit cramped but fun. By the time it closed, however, the place was, 
by all accounts, looking pretty ratty and worn down, and in 2012 all of the furniture inside was auctioned off.

Lordship developers purchased the entire complex in 2006, and after initially unveiling plans to demolish the whole thing and build a new multi-use glass-and-steel monstrosity from the ground up, an outcry from local architects and the general public forced the developer to reconsider. Now they appear to be working on plans that will somehow work in (or possibly wall in) the original complex, but they've been a bit vague about the whole thing, and it's difficult to determine how the hotel will fit into the new plans.

The Tesco and My Bratislava components work nicely in terms of the overall composition of the complex, with the way the shapes co-exist in harmony with each other. If you try to tune out the ugly signage and noisy junk in the windows, you'll notice some really nice, modernist architectural details. Walk around the perimeter of the whole thing, including the triangular-shaped My Bratislava department store, and see for yourself.

Naturally, I shudder to think of how many nice historical buildings were razed to make room for all this, but it would be super depressing if Hotel Kyjev was torn down and remembered only via a plaque near the spot where it once dominated the neighborhood.

4. Námestie Slobody (Freedom Square) (plus the groovy mural in the adjacent technical university)

Map and directions from Hotel Kyjev

For our next site, we head north several blocks to the aforementioned Námestie Slobody (Freedom Square). Grand, ambitious, and if you can get past all the graffiti and brazen neglect, it's a pretty striking and well-conceived public space. Its circular layout and gentle slope make it feel inviting. The centerpiece, of course, is the giant, stainless-steel flower fountain, called the Fountain of Union, situated in the bull's eye of the square. Apparently the fountain hasn't been operational since 2007 because of its wasteful and flawed hydraulic engineering, and sadly, it's gradually becoming encrusted in a layer of neon graffiti. But wow, what a crazy fountain! Plus, the groovy yellow and white iron park benches that dot the square have clearly been here since the beginning. This square has been seriously neglected for a while - the web of paved walkways are pockmarked and pitted, while some of the grates over the drainage gutters are missing (make sure not to accidentally step in one!).

Of course, what really enhances the overall vibe of the square are the monolithic 20th-century buildings that surround it on three of its sides. To the southwest and northeast are stark, rectangular 1940s-era functionalist buildings that are all horizontal lines and endless rows of windows. The one to the northeast is the Post Office Palace, while the one to the southwest on the opposite side is part of a technical university. That seriously long-ass building to the east - the one that seems to stretch on into infinity - is the main building of the technical university. Notice the cool tile mosaics over its entrances

A colossal statue of Klement Gottwald, communist Czechoslovakia's first president, once stood in the square’s northwest corner, but was torn down in the 90s. In fact, the square earned its nickname, Gottko, from its communist-era name, Gottwaldova. According to local architect Peter Žalman (as quoted in the 2005 edition of Spectacular Slovakia), "It’s too bad that we changed some things so quickly; that we took down the statue of Gottwald, for example. If it was still there it would be obvious how ridiculous it was. We need to keep some of these things like an open-air museum so that people can see what this period was really about."

While I can understand wanting to tear down a constant reminder of an oppressive and stifling regime that caused quite a lot of pain and suffering, I do think that Žalman has a valid point. The statue did reflect a significant and traumatic time in the country's history, and while people obviously want to move on, we have to be careful not to whitewash that chapter of history. Besides, I think that leaving the crude genitalia that someone had painted onto Gottwald in the photo I linked to above would have served as a fittingly irreverent middle finger to the regime.

Before you head over to our next destination, I highly suggest you head to the southwest corner of the square and walk in the same direction down Jánska Street, to the corner of Jánska and Radlinského, then turn left and walk toward the courtyard of the technical university, where you'll find this thoroughly awesome commie-era mural:

At the time of writing I don't have any info on it, but I love how it's kind of a crazy amalgam of styles: like a weird fusion of Kandinsky, constructivism (esp. Moholy-Nagy), a touch of Charley Harper, a smidgen of Klimt, a wee bit of art deco, and a dab of 60s Yellow Submarine psychedelic pop art. Easily my favorite mural in the city, so far. 

5. Slovensk
ý Rozhlas
Mýtna 1
Map and directions from Námestie Slobody

Head just a block north and you'll get to what some (me included) view as Bratislava's communist-era crown jewel, the famous inverted pyramid that is the Slovenský Rozhlas, or the Slovak radio building, which houses Slovakia's national public-service radio broadcaster. This beautifully impractical building was designed in the late 1960s by the trio of Štefan Svetko, Štefan Ďurkovič, and Barnabas Kissling, but it took the state more than 10 long years to actually complete the damn thing, and it wasn't finished until 1983. The massive sign along the top is classic. It's difficult to find the right words to describe this thing, but I will say that it's even more impressive in person than in photos. It almost seems to defy the laws of gravity.

Access to the inside is restricted. You shouldn't have any trouble getting into the main lobby, which is definitely worth a peak with its futuristic waiting area, space-age phone booths, and display cases filled with old radios

The rest of the building may not be open to the public, however. The concert hall is quite stunning, with its sleek wood-paneled ceiling and travertine marble-coated walls. If there's a show happening there when you're in town, perhaps you can try to nab some tickets and get in to see the place. The offices in the upper levels are, by all accounts, pretty cool as well, with clean lines and softly diffused natural light. Although - again - sadly, I don't know how or even if you can gain access to them.

6. Communist mural at Bratislava's Hlavná Stanica (main strain station)

Map and directions from Slovenský Rozhlas

Now we'll head a few more blocks north to Bratislava's main train station. The station is another example of how not to redevelop a place. The purely functional 1980s add-on is hideous and super depressing, both inside and out. Not only is it filthy, drab, and run down these days, it's thoroughly inadequate, too, as it's too small for a train station of a European capital (it routinely gets mobbed, especially in the summer and on holidays), and as the first thing many travelers see when they arrive in Bratislava, it's a sad sight.

But there is one redeeming quality, and that is the communist mural up on the wall of the original building's lobby. There's a lot going on here, but it's typical of the kind of communist idealism these things were intended to evoke. In what appears to be a utopian vision of socialist harmony, you've got stoic workers, ambitious scientists, sputnik soaring through the sky, studious students, slaves rising up (against their capitalist captors?) with broken shackles, and a big cluster of women communing in the center of it all. The ethnically mixed and harmonious group of women (ironic given Slovakia's relative non-diversity) mostly seem to be wearing some kind of traditional peasant robes. Children messing around with doves likely represents peace and hope. This mural has it all: scientific progress, racial harmony, peace, education, freedom, and healthy and productive workers. Not the most realistic depiction of life behind the iron curtain, but it's clearly how somebody was encouraged to render it.

These kinds of propagandistic murals (as well as sculptural reliefs) were common throughout all of the communist countries, as if the states felt the need to hammer their ideals into the heads of their citizens and instill in them a sense of national pride or civic duty, despite the fact that daily life for most people was often quite bleak. 

Map and directions from train station

Our next site is obviously not an example of communist-era modern architecture, but it's worth checking out within the broader context of our tour, being a prime example of a massive and important state monument from that era. Slavín is a memorial and military cemetery built by the Soviets in the late 1950s to honor the vast numbers of Soviet troops who died liberating Slovakia from the Nazis in WWII. In late 1944 and the first half of 1945, there were grueling, bloody, and prolonged battles scattered about the country, and it took the Soviets (with help from the anti-Nazi Slovak partisans) many months to beat the Nazis back. The Soviets chose for this memorial one of the most prime pieces of real estate on one of the highest points in the hills of Bratislava's Staré Mesto. Slavín consists of a spacious park and cemetery, which are spread out on top of the hill (from which there are amazing views), but its focal point is the angular and Stalin-esque monument, which you can see from the town below. The Soviets clearly chose this location for Slavín as a symbol of their dominance, as well as a constant reminder of who saved the Slovaks' asses during the war, and quite chillingly, of who was now calling the shots.

The monument itself epitomizes Stalin's state-approved socialist realism style of art and architecture with its stark, no-fuss angularity, cold greyness, and relative lack of ornamentation. Notice the detailed reliefs in the door at the front, which, along with the whole structure, offer realistically rendered depictions of the soldiers. Ironically, a lot of fascist architecture in Italy and Germany from the 1930s had a similar kind of streamlined neo-classical pomp as well. 

Notice how the boot of the flag-bearing soldier at the top of the column is stomping on a swastika. You've got to love the melodrama here. Despite the slender column, however, the whole thing still manages to look a bit clunky. To me it kind of resembles those pictures of viruses you see in high school biology text books. And while commemorating these soldiers is clearly a nice gesture, I wonder if locals harbor a little ambivalence toward Slavín due to the unpleasantness they were subjected to by their "liberators" for the 4+ decades following the war. And, that those liberators chose such a primo spot to leave their mark. But, it's better that it's set aside as some kind of public space as opposed to it being covered by those ugly, sterile new houses that have been sprouting up in the hills over the past decade, some of which you probably noticed on the walk up.

8. National Archives building

Drotárska cesta 42
Map and directions from Slavín

Architect Vladimir Dedeček, who I slammed up above for his hideous National Gallery extension, redeems himself with this highly original and visually stunning building. Dramatically situated atop a hill on the opposite side of Horský park from downtown, this bulky, futuristic cube of a building has a nice buffer zone between it and its neighbors, which is good because unlike the national gallery, there was little surrounding historical urban fabric for Dedeček to spoil. This is a prime example of the sort of thing one could expect in the 1960s/early 70s, when Communist-era architects were allowed to let their imaginations run wild and probably had slightly better budgets to work with.

The red on the non-marble surfaces is a nice touch (and is actually made up of little tiles, which are easier to make out in person). It's a little blocky, heavy, and intimidating in a way that is endearingly communist, yet the vertical lines add a satisfying sense of detail and serve to break up the bulkiness of the thing a little bit. It's a striking contrast from its lush, green hillside setting. Cartoonist Marek Bennett said in a comment on this very blog, "National archives looks like gigantic filing cabinet with some drawers open!" The bulk of the thing definitely gives the impression that the archival documents inside are safe from any catastrophes or natural disasters.

I'd love to have gone inside when I visited it, but I wasn't sure if I was really allowed to or if it's open to the public. The photos I've seen look quite impressive.

When I was walking around the building snapping photos, a big, burly security guard with a shaved head came out and yelled something at me. I have no idea what he said, obviously, but at that point I was almost finished, so I just ignored him, finished taking photos, and went on my way. I mean, c'mon, I know I couldn't have been the first foreigner to trek up to this thing and photograph it. But if this happens to you, just play the stupid tourist and carry on. 

9. Petržalka

If you really want to get feel for what life was like under communism, or see how a sizable portion of Bratislava's inhabitants live, take an excursion into Petržalka. There's really not much to see or do here (really, a trip here should not be seen as obligatory); apart from the massive, contemporary Au Park shopping mall and a few good restaurants, it's largely residential, with basic shops to cater to the needs of the people who live here. But Petržalka's dystopian landscape of anonymous concrete residential high rises offers a great example of the failed vision of the ideal socialist community.

Petržalka is known as the largest and most densely populated state housing development in central and eastern Europe. It's home to a quarter of Bratislava's 450,000 residents, and it's pretty much ALL paneláks - the cheaply constructed, brutalist residential high rises made from prefab concrete panels, examples of which you can see all over the country. To many westerners, paneláks look rather bleak and depressing, resembling crime-ridden, low-income housing projects in the US. But to Slovaks, they're simply a normal part of life and they think nothing of them, which isn't a surprise given how so many people live in them.

You'll notice that many paneláks have been painted in bright pastels, which is actually a post-1989 development. Before that, it was grey, grey, grey. The sprawling labyrinth of paneláks seems to go on forever, but it actually looks more suffocating and Orwellian from a distance than when you're in it, as there is quite a bit of open space between the buildings. Of course, much of that space consists of pockmarked parking lots, barren and threadbare fields, run down public spaces, and scraggly trees, which does little to offset the cold starkness of the borough.

Paneláks were communism's hyper-effecient response to housing an ever-growing population as cheaply as possible. Started in the early 1970s, Petržalka was intended, in part, to house the workers of the huge Slovnaft oil refinery located across the river, southeast of the center of town. The units were typically known for being somewhat shoddily built, with poor insulation and drab interiors (although these days many people have re-insulated and remodeled/updated their units). When it was initially conceived, Petržalka was to become the most up-to-date housing estate in the country, with a complex of facilities and services for its inhabitants, as well as its own transportation system, which would connect the borough with the rest of Bratislava. But these ideas, including plans to develop the open space around the paneláks into a network of parks and canals, were soon abandoned due to a lack of money, and by the end of the 1970s Petržalka was scarcely different from any other housing estate built at that time, except for its size, of course.

The ground levels of many paneláks are lined with shops. While this was intended to make the borough more livable and urban, at least as far as having shops within walking distance to satisfy basic needs, a lot of the shops have since closed down, and many of the vacant shopfronts and surrounding areas look quite depressing. Some paneláks are connected via concrete pedestrian bridges that cross over the parking lots. 

As mentioned above, there aren't many specific sites worth seeing in Petržalka, but some people may be interested in the Incheba exposition center. This is another design by our old pal Vladimir Dedeček, and it's quite a striking one. The building is so flat and slender that it looks like a good gust of wind could knock it down. Much like Hotel Kyjev, it juts up skyward while sitting atop an severely horizontal, rectangular platform. The interlocking horizontal and vertical lines on the facade form a sort of grill over the windows, which really gives the building a nice sense of texture and geometry and adds to the modern aesthetic.


Finally, Petržalka may be the biggest state-funded, residential high-rise development, but it's certainly not the only one in the city. In fact, in many of Bratislava's districts outside the Staré Mesto, paneláks overwhelmingly predominate, particularly in RužinovDúbravkaVrakuňa, Karlova Ves, and Dlhé dielyIt wouldn't be a stretch at all to imagine that a sizable majority of the city's inhabitants live in paneláks.

Getting to Petržalka

To get to Petržalka from the Staré Mesto, you can take the 95 from Šafárikovo Námestie or the 83 from Hodžovo Námestie. The 83 enters Petržalka from the SNP Bridge, and winds its way into the center of the district. Osuského or Romanova are good streets to get off on. (See map for 83 line). The 95 crosses into Petržalka from the Apollo Bridge, and its line converges with the 83, where you can also get off somewhere along Osuského or Romanova. (See map for 95 route). Hop off when you feel sufficiently walled in by paneláks, but take care to note which stop you got off at, and look on the opposite side of the street, sometimes a block or two in either direction, for a bus stop for the return trip).

However, if you want to check out Incheba, take the 82 or 88 from the bus depot beneath the SNP Bridge on the Staré Mesto side. Both lines will take you across the SNP bridge, and you'll want to get off at the Einsteinova stop, the first one after crossing into Petržalka. (See map for 82 and 88 route).

Extra Credit

10. Kamzík

Kamzík is a 200-metre tall television tower that sits atop one of the highest peaks in the Koliba park in the Bratislava hills, and which can be seen from everywhere in the city below (kind of stealing the spotlight from Slavín). It was completed in 1975, and again, is fairly futuristic looking, with a pleasing, elegant and slender form, looking a wee bit like something you'd see jutting up from the top of Cloud City. It has to be one of the nicer modern television towers I've seen (certainly easier on the eyes than San Francisco's Sutro Tower, to name one example). It's difficult to really get a sense of its size or form from up close, as the only vantage point from which you can see the entire tower is directly below, at its base. From anywhere else on the hill, Kamzík is obscured by the trees of the surrounding forest. Its towering elegance is definitely more noticeable and striking from a distance, where one can really appreciate its overall shape.

There are two restaurants in Kamzík, both of which offer stunning, unparalleled views over not just the city but the entire surrounding region. Unfortunately, zipping up to either restaurant only to check out the view is not allowed. But if you have the time, consider going to Brasserie, which is the cheaper, smaller, and more casual of the two restaurants, and is the better option if you just want to order a drink while admiring the view. Another potential downside: the lobby and both restaurants have thoroughly contemporary interiors, so you're not going to see any cool Soviet-era design once inside. 

If you don't have a car, getting to Kamzík is a bit of a trek, but is doable. The simplest way is to catch the 203 bus at the stop across the street from Hodžovo Námestie, in front of the Crowne Plaza hotel. Take the 203 all the way up the very last stop, Koliba, where there is a rundown looking bus depot thingy. Just to the right of the bus depot is a concrete pedestrian path. Take this path until it runs into Brečtanová, turn right on Brečtanová, then after a block or so veer left onto Cesta na Kamzík and continue up this street, less than a mile, all the way to Kamzík at the top of the hill.

Map from Koliba bus depot to Kamzík

11. Československá Automobilová Doprava sign at the Autobusová Stanica (bus station)
Mlynské Nivy 31
Map and directions from Old Town

Next we have this totally bad-ass sign situated in front of Bratislava's Autobusova Stanica, the city's main bus depot. I love its sleek and datedly futuristic look, and the way it conveys a sense of forward motion. The letters stand for Československá Automobilová Doprava, which was the country's state transit authority. I don't know what lies in store for this thing, since the unified country of Československo hasn't existed for over 20 years, and there has been talk of doing a total overhaul of this station. But I hope they keep it around if only to appease us history geeks (although I'm not holding my breath). The bus station itself is ill-conceived, unrelentingly drab, depressing, dingy, and even a bit scary, but this signage is wonderful.

12. Dom Odborov/Trade Union House, aka Istropolis Exhibition Center, aka the Grey Mouse

Trnavské mýto 1
Map and directions from the center of town

Frankly, the dreary grey exterior of this building leaves me cold. Even the composition is a bit too drab, hulking, and plain for my tastes, but a lot of experts cite it as yet another example of Bratislava's unique Soviet-era architecture. I admit that when seen from certain angles, it has potential, but what's really worth getting excited about here is the seriously cool interior. Check out this photothis photo, and this photo, to get an idea of what it looks like inside - extremely stylish and futuristic. The main lobby of this building is usually open, so try to go inside and poke around.

Like many such buildings, construction of this one started in 1968 and took over a decade to complete. Designed by the team of Ferdinand Konček, Iľja Skoček, and Ľubomír Titl, this is a mammoth multi-use building, containing, among other things, a theater/concert hall, office spaces, and a sort of convention hall for ceremonies or communist party rallies. The building is so massive that apparently the state wasn't quite sure about all of the purposes that this thing would serve, but they went ahead and built it anyway!

13. Socialist statues at the entrance of the 
Prezídium Policajného zboru (Police building)
Račianska 45
Map and directions from the center of town
Map and directions from Dom Odborov

Bratislava, and all former Eastern Bloc countries, are littered with these cool, kind of melodramatic, propagandistic sculptural reliefs. These sculptural reliefs typically appeared on the facades of government offices, schools, and other public buildings. They usually feature angular, dutiful, muscle-bound farmers and workers; doctors or scientists with expressions of unflagging determination; ernest nuclear families representing the foundation of society, etc., all doing their part to further the progress and the ideals of socialism, and to illustrate the supposed strength of the Soviet bloc. 

There are many in Bratislava, but none are as striking as these which flank the entrance to the Prezídium Policajného zboru. I mean, you've got a guy standing there with a machine gun, for pete's sake! And the guy in front of him, dutifully scanning the horizon (for enemies of the state?) with his dog is just classic. The strong, young workers with their large cogs are impressive as well. These reliefs are good examples of the era of socialist realism that we talked about with Slavin. They were intended to depict a sort of idealized version of real life; it was the state's way of telling you that everyone had to do his or her part to make the socialist vision a reality.

To see some similarly cool sculptural reliefs that are in the Staré Mesto and much closer to the historical center, check out this and this (also written about in this blogpost), which flank the entrance of an abandoned hospital directly across the street from the Blue Church on Bezručova

14. Internát Mladá Garda - University dorms

Račianska 103
Map and directions from center of town

Built in 1954 by Slovak architect Emila Belluša and named after an underground anti-fascist organization, the university dorms are obviously quite different from everything else we've looked at, but they're on the same street and tram line as the police building reliefs, and they are worth the trip if you're already in the area.

As Stalin's power solidified throughout the 1930s, you saw an increasing prevalence of socialist realism, and in architecture this style often adopted a rather stark and streamlined take on neo-classical and neo-renaissance themes. The irony here was that both Mussolini and Hitler were massive fans of this kind of thing, and the fact that it was also embraced (and state-sanctioned) by Stalin - at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum - perhaps illustrates how this distinct brand of authoritarian starkness just seemed conducive to an oppressive dictatorial regime. It takes the pomp or grandeur from the past and streamlines it with the no-fuss angularity of the present, without embracing or committing to any details that are modern or forward-thinking. Stalin, in fact, outlawed modern architecture, and it wasn't until Khrushchev came into power in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s that architects all over the Soviet Bloc were given the freedom to create more modern designs.

This building, with its pronounced neo-renaissance flair, is quite nice, even if it does look like someone basically just took a boxy, communist-era building and stuck the crenelated renaissance style trim onto it as an afterthought. Nevertheless, the clock tower really does evoke the sort of renaissance town halls that dominate piazzas in thousands of cities and towns throughout Italy. The surrounding dormitories continue the Italian renaissance theme with nice little design flourishes on the walls. As the 1960s drew closer and a young new generation of architects stepped in, this style of architecture would be phased out in favor of the much more modern aesthetic we've seen with most of the sites above. There aren't a lot of examples of this particular style in Bratislava, at least not with such ornate design flair.

According to architect Žalman (as quoted in the 2005 issue of Spectacular Slovakia) the building's exterior features, like the clock tower and the images of idealized citizens and students, “have their own charm; it’s almost kitsch but such that it’s transformed. That dormitory - on the one hand, it is unnecessarily monumental, and on the other hand it has its own atmosphere. So the students don’t judge the architecture negatively. Other things bother them such as the equipment; old things that need to be replaced and the like. Everything that was produced during the Socialist Realism period here... I would say the later period was worse.”

And there we have it. Of course, there are more stunning examples of communist-era modern architecture outside the capital, like the Slovak National Uprising Museum in Banská Bystrica, the University of Agriculture in Nitra, and the Tatra Railway Station in Poprad, just to name a few. If you're interested in learning more about these, check out the book Eastmodern: Architecture of the 1960s and 1970s in Eastern Europe by Hertha Hurnaus, Benjamin Konrad, and Maik Novotny, which contains photos galore and plenty of well-researched information on these sites and more. 

If you think of any sites I may have overlooked, please let me know and I'll either go and check them out, or politely explain why I didn't think they were worth covering here!

Also, take a gander at my previous posts on the subject, if you haven't already:
Communist-era buildings that Jeff actually likes!
Communist murals and monuments
Erasing history
Erasing history part 2: More communist-era urban planning blunders in Bratislava
More communist-era architecture that Jeff likes

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Finally found some decent Thai food... in Vienna!

I bemoaned Bratislava's woeful lack of good Thai food in this post, in which I reviewed the city's two (yes, there are only two) Thai restaurants. You may also recall that we had bad experiences with Thai food in Prague as well. We figured Vienna would be the next city to target as there are a number of Thai restaurants there, and some helpful reviews on Trip Advisor allowed us to narrow our search. We decided to go with a place that several reviewers dubbed "the best and most authentic Thai food in Vienna", which turned out to be a strange little hole in the wall called Sri Thai Imbiss, located in a mellow borough southeast of the historical center. But one thing that nearly every reviewer warned about was that the chef/owner of the establishment, a woman who looks to be in her 60s, has apparently earned a reputation for being the Thai version of the soup nazi from Seinfeld. Needless to say, we had to check this place out.

The restaurant was easy to spot with its rather unsubtle signage, which was visible from three blocks away. Amusingly, the soup nazi vibe greets you right away at the front door, where there are signs posted in German exclaiming, "no loud laughing!!!" You can see more of these signs around the dining area and on every table. Apparently the chef/owner goes into a blind rage if any of her customers erupt into loud, joyous outbursts of laughter, and the signs on the tables note that laughing out loud is inconsiderate to the other customers who are trying to enjoy their meal, and will not be tolerated. Several Trip Advisor reviews mention this, and a few reviewers even claim to have been 86'd from the place for laughing.

We got there right when they opened at 6PM, and the alleged curry nazi chef greeted us warmly from her kitchen area with a big smile when we entered. The kitchen couldn't have been much more than 6 feet away from the entrance, which in the US would probably violate local public health codes. She only had one other person working with her, a frazzled but friendly assistant who waited tables and helped with some of the food preparation. The place had a grand total of four tables, two of which had reserved signs on them.

The brightly lit dining area was a bit worn around the edges and cluttered with ornate and gilded Thai paraphernalia, and one entire wall was given over to portraits and garish artistic renderings of Thailand's king and queen. The look of this place immediately made us feel like we were back in San Francisco in some hole-in-the-wall Thai or Vietnamese restaurant on Clement St. Strangely, the decor in all of the Thai places we've tried in Bratislava and Prague was excessively posh, replete with swanky dark teak furniture and chi-chi looking dishware designed to appeal to insecure yuppies. But at Sri Imbiss, we felt right at home.

We started off with the tom ka gai, or chicken coconut milk soup, which she made entirely from scratch! In fact, she made every one of our dishes to order (no heating up pots full of pre-cooked shlop here), which meant we had an agonizingly long wait for each item. The soup itself took 45 minutes from the time we ordered it, but it turned out to be worth the wait. Terezia was facing the kitchen area, so she was able to watch the chef work her magic. The curry nazi was banging and chopping away the whole time (sometimes making it difficult for us to converse over the cacophony), and Terezia could see her chopping up every ingredient and adding it to the soup, including an array of fresh herbs and aromatics. When the soup finally arrived, we were immediately transported to tom ka gai heaven. The flavors were intense, the lemongrass packed a serious punch, and the abundant fresh cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, and galanga root really elevated the dish; a perfect and complex blend of sweet and sour. This was some of the best tom ka gai either of us had ever had, and we savored every spoonful. This was the real deal.

When I ordered the green curry chicken for my entree, the server warned me that it was very, very spicy, and asked if I perhaps wanted to reconsider. "Bring it on", I insisted. I have a pretty high tolerance for spicy food, and I wanted to see if this was the real thing. Terezia ordered the pad thai.

When I took my first small, cautious bite of green curry, I realized right away that - holy shit - the waitress was not messing around. This was some seriously spicy, mouth-on-fire curry, and the spiciness was about at the upper limit of what I can handle; trust me, this stuff would make most people wilt. But it was also incredibly good. If anything, it was probably spicier than it needed to be. A good curry has to be spicy, but it also needs to have a pleasing, rich, complex flavor. But excessive spiciness can overpower the flavors and they can get a bit lost, which was almost kind of happening here. Still, I appreciated the fact that I'd finally found a Thai restaurant on this continent that knows what good curry is, and isn't afraid to crank up the heat.

The green curry chicken. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me at the restaurant, so this is a photo I took of the leftovers the next day. 

Terezia's pad thai was quite good, with a very pronounced peanut flavor. It was rich and filling, and the fresh bean sprouts on top gave it a nice bit of crunch. The only thing it lacked was cilantro, which some places add to their pad thai to brighten it up a bit. But the shrimp weren't overcooked and the whole thing was pretty rich and full-flavored. Somewhat annoyingly, Terezia's pad thai came out about 15 minutes after my green curry. It wasn't a huge deal, since we were sharing anyhow, but we realized the reason for this was because the curry nazi was making one dish at a time. Terezia found this to be hugely amusing, since she is a professional chef and all, and as such is quite used to multi-tasking and making several dishes simultaneously.

The pad thai. Again, no camera at the restaurant, so this is a photo of the leftovers. 

As other people started filtering in, we noticed some strange things going on when food was being ordered. A table of four close to us was discouraged from ordering a couple of items that they'd initially wanted, and the harried waitress kind of aggressively pushed the green curry chicken and pad thai on to them. With these folks, however, she played down the spiciness of the curry, and we realized that what was happening here was that we, being the first ones to order, basically set the tone for the evening with our orders. By that I mean, when she made our dishes, she made enough for several people, and then had her assistant really try and push those dishes onto the other patrons who came in after we did. Of course, when the table of four got their green curry, it was fun to see them react to how intensely spicy it was. The two guys in the party suddenly began breaking out in a sweat and gulping down their beer.

At any rate, despite the quirks and the higher than average (for Thai food) prices, we would definitely go back. The food was excellent and authentic, and the curry nazi was actually quite friendly throughout the entire evening, and never once lived up to her evil reputation on Trip Advisor. She gave us a very warm and appreciative goodbye on the way out and even reached over the counter to shake our hands. I'm just bummed that we have to trek all the way out to Vienna to find some good Thai food.

So, Thai restaurants in Bratislava and Prague, please take note: if you want to be taken seriously, I highly suggest that you take a trip over to Vienna and learn from this lady!