Prague, Czech Republic – In 2012, the Slovak Radio Building in Bratislava was named the 10th ugliest building in the world. According to the ranking by prominent British daily The Telegraph, almost half of the ugliest buildings were of the same genre: now slightly popularised, socialist modernism and brutalism. Could it be just a coincidence, were the criteria of the British daily biased against socialist buildings, or is brutalist architecture objectively ugly?
On ugliness and subjectivity
There’s no such thing as a universal ideal of beauty. Imagine, for example, an attempt to identify an objectively ugly building. One would say that a bright purple-coloured house is objectively ugly. Yet it is quite common to spot such houses in residential areas, especially in post-communist countries, which justifies the assumption that their owners would very likely disagree with such judgement. Or another would argue that the Rococo golden angels at the church of St. Elizabeth in central Bratislava are tasteless kitsch. On the opposite, a person living in the 17th century most probably deemed the church as the most beautiful building in the city.
We could go on with examples, and simply conclude that there’s no objectivity in aesthetic matters, a topic philosophers, art historians and others have been debating for hundreds of years: everything depends on individual judgment – especially since the advent of modernism, when the prioritization of the values of individualism, tolerance and respect for differences has become the basis of our perception of reality and its qualities, including aesthetic ones. Beauty is hence considered a matter of subjective perception.
But full subjectivity and authenticity of opinion do not exist either. If you believe they do, it even has a name: you suffer from modernity bias. We are each to some extent a reflection of our surroundings and its expectations as well as of our life experiences. Due to this, for example, not only a single individual but most people in the 17th century would call that Rococo church beautiful. Today, architectural trends are entirely different, although much more diverse due to greater global connectivity. But the very word trend suggests that these are recurring tendencies shared among different groups at a specific time.
The Slovak Radio Building: From modernist crown jewel to despised antiquity
The story of the Slovak Radio Building reflects these patterns of behaviour. The architect Štefan Svetko won an architectural competition in 1962, the task of which was to build a building for the state radio broadcaster. During this period, the socialist regime in Czechoslovakia was at the peak of its popularity as authorities significantly eased restrictions and let more room for freedom prior to the events of the Prague Spring. The concept of socialism with a human face created a positive mood within society. So did Svetko’s winning project, which was designed in the same spirit.
The design represented Marxist ideals: constant progress secured by new technologies, dialectical movement from revolution to evolution, or the monumental nature of the system (which we would now most probably identify as totalitarianism: the system encroaching into every sphere of life).
The original and atypical triangular shape of the building, the use of novel materials such as steel (for the first time in Slovak architectural history) and large terraces providing multi-functional green space for leisure complement the image of the Slovak Radio building as a prototype of modernist socialist architecture: complex, monumental and technologically exceptional. The design agreed with the ideological setting of a timely system and society. Needless to say, it became highly acclaimed.
After the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, however, normalised socialism as a more appropriate interpretation of Marxist ideals became despised. And as the project remained the embodiment of socialist ideals, it also became unpopular – a rejection that endured from its final construction in 1983 up until today. The Slovak Radio Building is often referred to as the ugly symbol of a totalitarian fist.
For the locals, it represents an unpleasant past that everyone wants to forget. For Western observers such as The Telegraph, like other buildings built in the socialist style, the radio building symbolises an ideological rival and remnant of the past: communism. In none of the cases does the building represent or agree with what is considered trendy or desirable in society. That is why it’s marked as ugly. To some extent, the question of what is ugly and what is beautiful is conditioned by how bearable or tolerable it is in a given community (in this case, a given political system) at a given time.
The architectural memory of a city
However, one must not forget that what is considered unbearable or ugly today may become beautiful and tolerable in the future. As such, buildings whose reputation or symbolism have been tarnished by communism should not be replaced or destroyed simply because they’re currently seen as unattractive. Apart from the architectural value which the layman cannot appreciate, these buildings have a considerable historical and symbolic value for everyone.
Buildings, in addition to their normal functions, are a living testimony of a past era and build an atmosphere that, in turn, affects and absorbs us. Sometimes that atmosphere forces us to think about the past, remember, or ask questions.
But in Bratislava, these buildings are often very insensitively removed from the city map. The Park of Culture and Leisure building (the PKO) was demolished. Within a few years, the shopping house Prior will be transformed into a hyper-modern shopping centre and Hotel Kyjev will most probably be demolished. Among other things, the question remains what kind of atmosphere Bratislava wants to convey, for both locals and tourists, and how far it plans on going in erasing its architectural memory.
By Lenka Hanulová
Originally from Bratislava, Lenka studied politics at King’s College and UCL in London, with a special focus on Russian and post-Soviet politics. She cooperated with several Slovak media and currently lives in Prague.