Blog: Building new identities: communist-era landmarks of Bratislava

The era when communism dominated the national political landscape, resulted in dramatic changes in the panorama of Bratislava, contributing to the creation of many of the city’s modern landmarks, including the inverted pyramid.

Welcome to the capital of Slovakia - Bratislava. A city of contrasts where each generation of its inhabitants left a very distinct mark that made this city what it is today. For centuries, for those that arrived from our neighbouring city Vienna to the west, the most iconic symbol of Bratislava has always been Bratislava Castle. The infamous fortress takes the classic shape of an upturned table, with its four legs pointing to the sky. The early history of Bratislava castle dates back to the time of the Celts during the late Iron Age in the 2nd century BC. A couple of years later during WW2 this ancient historical landmark was almost lost, however this was not due to bombing but rather a result of very ambitious planning. During the era of the First Slovak Republic which allied itself with Nazi Germany, plans were made to knock down Bratislava castle and build a student campus in its place. Such planning reflected the spirit of writing of the new pure Slovak history. With a bit of luck and with WW2 coming to an end the Castle was luckily saved after the completion of a full reconstruction was finished in 1968.

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The second half of the 20th century, an era when communism dominated the national political landscape, resulted in dramatic changes in the panorama of Bratislava, contributing to the creation of many of the city’s modern landmarks.

Chronologically speaking, the Slavín memorial is the earliest of these iconic, communist-era constructions. The name is derived from the Slovak word „sláva“, meaning glory, and the Soviet memorial is dedicated to the glorification of the Red Army and the liberation of Bratislava from the Nazi occupation on the 4th of April 1945. It is a 40 meter tall memorial with an impressive statue of Soviet soldier proudly crushing a swastika that stands seven metres in height. It is also regarded as a great symbol of victory as it may also be a symbol of Soviet dominance over the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The memorial was unveiled in 1960 after 3 years of construction. These days, like many Soviet memorials in Eastern Europe, it is a popular skate park due to its high quality surface made of polished granite. In the evening it also becomes a popular destination for young couples on dates but many of them may not be aware of the fact that they are surrounded by almost 7000 graves of Soviet soldiers. Slavín was originally built as a purely secular site without any religious symbols. A tower of a nearby church had to be demolished quickly in anticipation of its unveiling. Since 1997 there has also been a small and very modest memorial to Alexander Dubček on the Slavín memorial. It is called the Meadow of Peace, and represents the principles of humanity that were fundamental for Dubček’s political programme of 1968 - Socialism with human face crushed on the 21st of August 1968 by the Soviet invasion into Czechoslovakia. It has since become known as the act of friendly help.

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Looking south from the terraces of the Slavín memorial, one is likely to spot a very peculiar landmark. Since 1972 a flying saucer has been hovering above the city perhaps controlling the minds of people. Of course we are speaking about the SNP Bridge with a UFO-like restaurant at the top crowned by a viewing platform. Absolutely the best thing about this restaurant is the unforgettable view from the toilets overlooking the biggest socialist mass housing project in Central Europe - Petržalka. Its futuristic facade lead it understandably to became known as the symbol of modern Bratislava almost immediately after its construction was first completed. However, there are still many among us who have vivid memories of the Old town, a large area of which had to be demolished prior to the construction in order to make room for the largest civil engineering project of the fast growing modern city. The urban planning of Petržalka was finished but there was no sufficient connection with the rest of the city. Unfortunately, decisions were made hurriedly without taking account of and respecting the history and public opinion within Bratislava. Around one fifth of the Old town and the entire Jewish quarter which once included a beautiful oriental synagogue were demolished as part of this process. From a technical point of view it is a very unique solution using the technology of a cable-stayed bridge with a very long span without a single pillar in the river. The span was even longer but due to an error in calculations a special metal support had to be built additionally on the left bank.

In Bratislava we like to put things upside down so we even did it with our only pyramid. Not an ancient pyramid, however for us one of the most important landmarks of this city, the Slovak Radio Building. For us it was recognised as the building of the century, for the Telegraph not so much, as they rated it one of the 30 ugliest buildings in the world. When the first sketches of the project appeared they were immediately recognized as very ambitious, breaking all previous conventions and even the laws of physics - how can you possibly invert a pyramid and build it on its tip? Later this innovative idea pioneered by main architect ŠtefanSvetko proved to be very functional. The heart of the radio station containing all of the recording and broadcasting equipment is hidden in the inner pyramid, insulated from the outer world by office space. Due to many technical difficulties the construction of the radio building took 16 years to finish. The second part of the landmark includes a unique concert hall with top notch acoustics. It consists of an unusual yet clever design whereby the hall hangs suspended on steel ropes inside the main building in order to achieve absolute sound insulation. This concert hall is the home of the Symphonic Orchestra of the Slovak Radio and has one of the biggest organs in Slovakia. The clear, crisp acoustics produced by its architecture and its vast instrumental resources make it a popular place for soundtrack recordings. The building definitely deserves the attention of visitors who have the opportunity to join the official guided tour of the landmark organized by the Faculty of Architecture called‚ Why Pyramid?‘

When speaking about famous landmarks and which elements make them stand out we can not forget height. So what is the tallest building in Bratislava? This depends on the definition of a building. If we include TV Towers with restaurants then it is Kamzík TV Tower, with its 196 meters and unique wine bottle shape. This quirky appearance came about due to the fact that its architect intended the tower to remind passers-by of the wine production on the nearby slopes. However more people say that it is more resemblant of a rocket ready to be launched into space. Since 1975 the TV Tower has been regarded as a landmark not only of Bratislava but also as a marker for the beginning of an important European geological formation, the Carpathian Mountain range. If one wants to understand the geography of Bratislava this is the best place. The restaurant offers a gorgeous view in all directions. It is easy to recognize Vienna and during particularly clear days one can even see the first peaks of the Austrian Alps covered with snow - for most ordinary people during the communist times this will have been no more than a distant dream. Our TV Tower was designed during an era when the construction of new, ever-taller landmarks was a craze in well known international metropoles like Berlin, Vienna or Moscow and allowed Bratislava to distinguish itself as another impressive, developed capital city.

All of the above mentioned landmarks are nowadays a crucial aspect of the identity of Bratislava and are worth preserving. Each landmark, with all of its historical and cultural value has been a witness to Slovakia’s sweeping social and political changes and a mirror of our changing society in the second half of the 20th century. These sites have played a vital role in shaping Bratislava and making it the city that it is today, therefore they are essential.

Juro Sikora is one of the guides of Authentic Slovakia, offering guided tours beyond the ordinary.

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