So that you do not regret death
You faithful Viennese heroes…

H. Broch, inscription on the Wirchna military cemetery

During the First World War on the west front there emerged the artistic image of an individualist hero, who was laconically brusque in Hemingway and slightly sentimental in

Remarque. He was no longer a patriot, even though the western powers, for which he was fighing, had not ceased to exist. Now he was just a lonely hero in the whirlpool of pitiless hecatombs. It was different in the east, where a great monarchy was falling apart and where so far ‘unknown’ lands or nationalities were gaining independence in its place. Belief in one’s country and in heroic death in battle had been lost. Death could no longer be interpreted as a sacrifice for one’s country at the time when members of the same nation were fighting in three different armies, which happened to Poles in Galicia. What kind of patriotism could it be when opponents, members of nations that are so close to one another, collectively surrendered, which was what happened to a Prague regiment that went over to the Russian side together with its orchestra? Perhaps the most typical literary exponent of this phenomenon is Jaroslav Hašek’s good soldier Shvejk: the faithful fool with flashes of folk wisdom, whose Austro-Hungarian patriotism nobody believes any more. Western Galicia was Austria’s greatest loss in the first months of war. Russians had reached as far as the southern slopes of the Carpathians (in present day Slovakia) where local inhabitants shared their Orthodox religion. Vienna decided to retaliate massively and during the Gorlice-Jasło offensive in May 1915 its army, aided substantially by Germans, drove Russians back eastwards. Death reaped on both sides: over 60 thousand soldiers were killed there. Austrians organised a large scale action of cemetery building and established a special War Graves Department seated at the military headquarters in Krakow. Here worked the most outstanding Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič. His Galician designs contain a special message which masterly represents the motive of tragic death. Jurkovič was nearly fifty and his lifetime’s work was practically done. He had been born in Tura Lúca, a mountainous region inhabited by Evangelicals in the borderland between Slovakia and Moravia, on 23 August 1868. It was a land of socially and nationally conscious peasants, who had started the major political disturbance in Slovak history: the anti-Budapest uprising of 1848. He was a graduate of the Federal Trade School (Staatsgewerbeschule) in Vienna, which gave him the eclectic combination of fin de siècle architecture as a model to follow. However, he was far from pleased with it. ‘Let’s take a look round. Look how non-organic, shallow, superficial all this is. I think it’s because the foundation of all healthy and powerful art is being disregarded’1. He found his inspiration in the folk architecture of the Carpathians. Antoni Kroh compares Jurkovič to Stanisław Witkiewicz, who also strove to create a distinct Zakopane style of architecture, ‘Stanisław Witkiewicz and Dušan Jurkovič strolled in the same forest, though each followed his own path’2, but he values Jurkovič’s work higher. Jurkovič became popular and earned the nickname of the ‘wood poet’ when he erected tourist facilities designed in the folk spirit on top of Mount Radhošť in Moravia in the last year of the 19th century. He did not differentiate between the construction foundation of folk architecture and decoration, which was to be done later by modernists. His works drew on two sources: the functionality of framework cottages in Orava and decorative details of crosses on the Detvia graveyard in middle Slovakia. Just like Le Corbusier later, he believed that art should go back down to the very foundations of architecture. Jurkovič saw them in the simple and authentic way of building, while Le Corbusier observed them in abstract purist forms. Afterwards Jurkovič started to design for the Moravian health resort of Luhačovice, where he added art nouveau inspirations to the traditional folk elements.

When the First World War broke out, Jurkovič was assigned to Krakow. Here he designed thirty cemeteries, which stand out distinctly from over three hundred military cemeteries in Western Galicia. ‘I was completely independent in my position as an architect-designer. It was my task to find space for a cemetery in the calendar of events, decide on its location, elaborate and select the building material. It was a unique opportunity to examine scale in a given space, it was also a chance to delineate and correct it […] Stone walls several metres long were marked out for tests, regardless of time and workforce, until the most efficient way was discovered. This was the occupation, so joyful to me, which I chose for myself as the only one among my fellow architects in the Krakow headquarters’3.

At first, he only designed in wood which could be found in forests thinned out by the war. He perfectly understood the nature of the landscape which resembled his native White Carpathians. He also respected the location of former temporary burial sites situated next to the major battle fields. ‘I did not heap or sand the surface of cemeteries but simply covered it with turf bricks, which within several days mingled into one lively carpet from where protruded the graves, inlaid with breakstone and overgrown with heather and thyme. […] While my colleagues were laying out parks, sprinkling pavements with sand, planting bushes and flowers, I set out to place my cemetery amid the charming natural beauty of wild Carpathian slopes as if it had been made by invisible hands of the local folk tradition’4.

In Krakow Jurkovič was faced with the architectural orientation of his colleagues from the Vienna metropolis, an offshoot of architect Otto Wagner’s historic monumentalism. That style of architecture was particularly suitable to glorify heroes who fell fighting for their country, but Jurkovič, already mature, no longer believed in heroic death or in Austrian hegemony. He did not try to build historic monuments but to create introverted and humanistic architecture based on simple, emotionally evocative motifs connected with the area where soldiers met their death. He chose the borderland for his cemeteries to be built in. ‘When land was being assigned, nobody was rushing to claim the borderland Carpathians, so I pleaded for myself a mountainous area from Gorlice though Jasło to Dukla’.

Critics from Vienna overlooked the fact that local village graveyards and churches (most of which had burnt down in fires during battles) were also made of wood; Jurkovič used it extensively. Wagner’s successor in the Vienna school of architecture, Professor Leopold Bauer, expressed his reservations as to the use of wood where some ‘lasting material’ should be used instead, and opposed the view that wood ‘appropriately corresponded to the solemnity and grandeur of the cemetery since a shingled roof over its gates, obelisk-shaped small shrines and wooden turrets resemble village constructions’. Differences of opinion between Jurkovič and his superiors in Vienna often resulted in changes of designs. The architect was not allowed to realize his original design for the cemetery in Grabie as it was considered ‘too pious, and purely Slav in character’.

His most notable works came into being at the beginning of his activity in Galicia, in 1916. The cemetery in Małastowski Pass is surrounded by a polygonal fence of framework stilts with a shingled roof. It is dominated by a wooden chapel with a two-armed cross at the top. Similar wooden constructions of the fence and central turret on stone foundations were used in Gładyszów. Wood is the dominant material in Rotunda owing to its five shingled towers. Finally, another perfect example is the wooden chapel which Jurkovič built on the large Łużna-Pustki cemetery.

The greatest value of these cemeteries consists not in the use of wood, however, but in the skilful combination of wood and stone. Jurkovič made use of the harmony that long years of human labour had attributed to these materials – archetypes of processes and forms. His cemeteries never depart from the human scale, applied in the dimensions of gates, fences, poles and ordinary buildings. Roofs crown the buildings, protect them and give an anthropomorphic character to figures. Thanks to them, from a distance, individual pillars, crosses and turrets resemble lonely, silent human figures. These compositions are far from the heavy structure of stone and its haughty grandeur. Jurkovič never lost sight of the most profound tragedy of an unhappy man, the soldier who had died in battle, for whom he was creating a memorial; he never lost sight of the land where these tragic events had taken place and where his works were set. These were the reasons why he returned to the fundamentals.   

After the end of the war, already in Slovakia, he designed a memorial to General Štefánik on Bradlo Hill. Its architecture is a direct reference to his wartime works and crowns his time in Galicia, which marks his highest creative achievement.

‘There will be great harvest here after the war,’ said Shvejk after a while. ‘They won’t need to buy bone flour here, it’s very good for farmers: when a whole regiment rots in their field, they will have, in short, means for a living’. Hašek had his good soldier Shvejk express it so cynically when he arrived at the front in Galicia – slightly later and a bit further east than the area where Jurkovič worked. These two approaches to death: that of an architect and of a writer, were apparently poles apart, but both of them expressed the opposite of what western front writers emphasised: a deep doubt about belonging to one country and the sense of wartime killing. This doubt led back to simple folk wisdom and to sad praise of a simple man, an antihero amid the beauty of a simple landscape.

Translated from Polish by Anna Mirosławska-Olszewska