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Architectural Style

Bratislava: the Soviet city of the future still feels fresh and new

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(CNN) — There’s a European capital whose greatest splendor is a flying saucer hovering higher than the Statue of Liberty, but this sci-fi city doesn’t bother anyone on the continent’s most-visited destinations list.

Anyone visiting Slovakia’s capital city of Bratislava will miss the aptly-named, 95-metre-tall UFO Tower that has been overlooking the Danube since 1972. Just opposite Bratislava’s historic Old Town, its rooftop panoramic terrace and restaurant offer the best views of the city and the surrounding area.

Remarkably, this tower’s ethereal aesthetic isn’t all that unusual in a city that was once the testing ground for some of the most daring architectural projects behind the Iron Curtain.

More than three decades after the fall of the communist regime, the physical legacy of that era still stands out on the streets of Bratislava, where it stands in stark contrast to the classical harmony of the era. The Hapsburg-era city center and modern high-rises that have emerged in recent years with Slovakia’s newfound prosperity.

soviet pyramid

Just a few hundred meters beyond the tidy, cafe-lined streets of the Old Town, you just stumble upon a truly unique structure that won’t impress anyone.

The Slovak Radio Building is an inverted pyramid 80 meters high.

Exactly as it sounds: Starting at ground level vertex, this rust-coloured building where the country’s national broadcaster is located, expands with each floor.

This architectural fantasy was completed in 1983, after nearly two decades under construction, and to this day it has polarized views among architects and the general public alike.

While some consider it a masterpiece and has protected heritage status since 2017, others are saddened by its appearance and see it as a dark reminder of the communist past. Britain’s Daily Telegraph even included it on its list of the ugliest buildings in the world.

Its architect, Štefan Svetko, was also the author of several housing projects that summed up the aesthetics of that era.

One of the most notable, Medzi Jarkami, built in 1979 on the eastern outskirts of Bratislava, consists of several residential blocks arranged in circular and almost tangential patterns. The open space in the largest of these apartments is equipped with another UFO-themed monument. In this case, the flying saucer is at ground level, as if it had made a crash landing from space.

The Egyptians built pyramids, but the Soviets built one upside down.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

watch the sky

UFOs were a recurring theme back then. The vault that covers the great hall of the Slovak Agricultural University also resembles a flying saucer. This building, completed in 1966, Nitra is about 60 miles from the capital. Its architect, Vladimir Dedeček, has left his mark in and around Bratislava with other brutalist-style works such as the Slovak National Gallery, the Slovak National Archive and the State Political School in the nearby town of Modra.
While some of these sights require a special excursion, a short walk through the center of Bratislava is all it takes to get a snapshot of the country’s socialist-realist heritage. For example, just around the corner from the pyramid, in the flower-shaped piece Námestie Slobody (“Liberty Square”), you’ll find the colorful mural adorning the façade of the Slovak University of Technology or the Fountain of Unity in the early 1980s. Metal urban decor that conveys strong sci-fi vibes.
The fountain’s current neglected condition only adds to its dystopian appearance, but this may be temporary, as restoration work was underway in Freedom Square at the time of CNN Travel’s July 2022 visit.

Street art and bold new architecture

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In recent years, this Communist-era legacy has proved fit for reinterpretation. An example of this is Bratislava’s centrally located Hotel Kyjev, which has been closed for nearly a decade.

In 2018, as part of the Bratislava Street Art Festival, artist Lousy Auber’s visual project succeeded in transforming one side of this bleak 1970s Soviet-style tall building into a stunning landmark that can be seen from miles away.

The change does not end here. In line with the country’s transformation and economic growth over the past few decades, a number of contemporary buildings are popping up everywhere.

An early example of this new wave of architecture that left its mark on the Slovak capital, Strabag building, The local headquarters of an Austrian construction company. It features a cottage-style home built in 2007 that hangs upside down next to the glass and steel structure.

The latest addition to the Bratislava skyline, courtesy of the renowned firm Zaha Hadid Architects, is even greater in scale.

The first phase of the Sky Park development was completed in 2020 and consists of three residential towers. It incorporates a pre-existing office block and the reconstructed Jurkovicová Tepláreň heating plant into its grounds. In the second phase of this project, which is expected to be put into service soon, there will be a 120-meter office building as well as the fourth residential tower.

Zaha Hadid's Sky Park brought the skyline to life.

Zaha Hadid’s Sky Park brought the skyline to life.

Gyorgy Palko

One of Europe’s youngest capitals

The marked contrast between all these seemingly opposing styles is more characteristic than a novelty in this city that has throughout its history found itself at the dividing line between cultures and blocs.

After all, Bratislava was known by German and Hungarian names (Presburg and Pózsony, respectively) during different periods of its history, reflecting its diverse cultural mix, including a large Jewish community.

In fact, we can go as far back as two thousand years when Roman “lime” passed through these lands (there are remains of Roman garrison forts at several points on the south bank of the Danube near Bratislava) or, more recently, the divide between the communist and capitalist blocs circulating in some of Bratislava’s suburbs.

Nowadays, with open borders, a common currency, and perhaps more importantly, the EU’s free roaming space, traveling between Vienna in Austria and Bratislava in Slovakia, i.e. German and Slavic-speaking Europe, is on a commuter train. less than an hour of seamless experience.

This proximity to the Austrian capital (Bratislava and Vienna are two of the world’s closest national capitals) may also have hampered Bratislava’s efforts to more firmly establish its own credentials as a Central European destination.

Look no further than the city’s air connections: although Bratislava has its own airport, most airborne visitors only do so via Vienna International Airport, which is 30 miles away and has many more connections.

As one of the continent’s youngest capitals – it received its status in 1993 – it is not as well-known as other nearby Habsburg capitals, such as Prague and Budapest, or for their visitor numbers.

On the plus side, this geographical and cultural permeability evidently spanning the architectural realm has made the Slovak capital what it is today, a sharp-edged city full of unexpected treats waiting to be discovered by astute travellers.