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AFTER NEARLY 2 DECADES, SND PLAY HALL STILL UNFINISHED

State theatre saga drags on

Ivan Böhmer has devoted 16 years of his life to Slovak culture. They haven't been easy times - he's suffered long spells without money and materials, critics have turned against his work, and support from Slovak artists has been scant and unreliable. But with a little luck, his magnum opus may finally be finished by the end of 2002.
"We'll have to see," he says hesitantly. "A lot of factors are involved."
Böhmer is the top man at the on-again, off-again construction of Slovakia's massive new Slovenské národné divadlo (Slovak National Theatre - SND). While ground was broken in 1984, political upheaval, rising costs and inconsistent funding have caused nearly two decades of delays. The theatre was originally planned to be finished in 1992 at a price of one billion crowns; the latest projections put completion at the end of 2002 with a 3.8 billion-crown ($80 million) price tag.


Milan Kňažko is the latest in a line of eight Culture Ministers who have been unwilling to kill the SND project.
photo: TASR

Ivan Böhmer has devoted 16 years of his life to Slovak culture. They haven't been easy times - he's suffered long spells without money and materials, critics have turned against his work, and support from Slovak artists has been scant and unreliable. But with a little luck, his magnum opus may finally be finished by the end of 2002.

"We'll have to see," he says hesitantly. "A lot of factors are involved."

Böhmer is the top man at the on-again, off-again construction of Slovakia's massive new Slovenské národné divadlo (Slovak National Theatre - SND). While ground was broken in 1984, political upheaval, rising costs and inconsistent funding have caused nearly two decades of delays. The theatre was originally planned to be finished in 1992 at a price of one billion crowns; the latest projections put completion at the end of 2002 with a 3.8 billion-crown ($80 million) price tag.


Construction of the new theatre has been an on-off affair for the last 16 years.
photo: Ján Svrček

"Funding has gone up and down like a heart monitor," says Böhmer's colleague Igor Semizorov, director of the theatre's construction. "It's very frustrating."

The blocky building, today 60% complete, is unabashedly utilitarian in design, with few architectural flourishes. Squatting on the eastern bank of the Danube River, south of Bratislava's Starý most (Old Bridge), it houses a 928-seat opera theatre, a 665-seat drama theatre, a 212-car garage, space for restaurants and cafés, and six large rehearsal rooms. When it is completed, it will require up to 120 million crowns annually just to operate.

The theatre was the brainchild of communist leaders who reasoned that Bratislava's theatre capacity was shrinking (the number of theatre seats per Bratislava citizen fell by 30% between 1967 and 1977) and that the country had never truly had a national theatre. Slovakia's current National Theatre building was raised by Hungarians and Germans and has only 500 seats.

But funding dried up and political support wavered after the Velvet Revolution marked the end of Communism in 1989, throwing the project suddenly open to public debate. Equipped with a 1,000-ton, 250-million-crown hydraulic stage, and scheduled to receive a 20 to 30 million crown marble lobby, the building has become a symbol of prodigal communist spending. Altogether, when complete, it will have cost nearly twice the Culture Ministry's current annual budget, or 700 crowns for every Slovak citizen.

"Slovakia building such a theatre is like a poor family spending everything it has to buy a Porsche," said Ladislav Snopko, Slovakia's Culture Minister from 1990 to 1992. "Slovak cinematography is at a standstill, and our cultural monuments are in a state of crisis. We don't need an enormous building in which to perform theatre."

Yet no Minister of Culture - and Slovakia has known eight since 1989 - has been able to abandon the project. Like Snopko, most cut funding in the hope that a financial solution would be found in the future.


Project head Ivan Böhmer peers into the base of a 250 million crown opera stage.
photo: Ján Svrček

As a result, Böhmer and his staff have been in stasis for much of the last 16 years, not moving forward but not disbanding either. Today, 11 engineers and 290 labourers work on the building.

At other times, as in 1997 and 1998 when the government appropriated money only to repay the project's debts, a mere handful of engineers remained on board.

"During those times we could only plan for the future," said Böhmer.

Delays have exacerbated the theatre's poor image - not only has the state created a money-eating monster, the logic goes, but still has nothing to actually show for it.

"I built a theatre in six months for 3.5 million crowns," said Blaho Uhlár, director of the independent Stoka Theatre, which seats 100. "The state builds a theatre for 16 years, spends over 2 billion crowns, and it still isn't finished."

Uhlár and Kolenčík are members of a group of critics who in recent years have proposed either spending just enough to maintain the structure until Slovakia's economy improves, selling the unfinished building to an investor for a small sum, or simply abandoning the project altogether.


The current 500-seat Slovak National Theatre.
photo: Ján Svrček

But Böhmer argues that with billions of crowns invested, and delays likely to multiply costs, the best solution is to finish the theatre as quickly as possible.

"Inflation and maintenance requirements mean that each work stoppage produces a dramatic increase in costs," he said. At least 10 million crowns have been lost already to ageing materials that have had to be replaced.

Current Minister Milan Kňažko, who took office in 1998, has accepted this line of reasoning, rejecting calls to shelve the project, which he said would require 100 million crowns a year just for upkeep, as tantamount to "throwing money out the window."

With the minister's support the project is back on track, although still not moving at full steam. Böhmer and staff said they needed 1.2 billion crowns to finish the project by 2002 - the target date set by the minister - but have only received 659 million so far.

After 16 years of improvising on unpredictable budgets, the mood at the construction site is cautiously optimistic - with a healthy undercurrent of humour. "By the time this building is finished," joked technical head Semizorov, "Böhmer will be retired, and I'll be pushing up the daisies."

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