Text and photo: Damas Gruska

When we were travelling in Romania many years ago, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon which caught and held my attention during the stressful driving on narrow roads – there was always a truck behind us when we passed through villages. The truck driver was quite unbothered by speed limits, unless the vehicles moving in the opposite direction were flashing their headlights, which signified a warning that there was a police patrol nearby. There was another phenomenon that I first saw in the lowland part of the country. Each of the villages we passed somehow emphasized their distinctiveness – with a decoration or another reference to local customs. I was thus confronted with two different social phenomena – on the one hand, with the collective solidarity of drivers, which assumed a systematic, “outmoded” – well, even dangerous form, and on the other hand, with the “archaic” community spirit of the inhabitants, reflected in local customs or symbols. I wondered how long the two would last. When we were returning via Hungary, none of the drivers gave warnings about traffic patrols, and all the villages we passed seemed alike. And not just because they were all located on the plain. Then why? The first explanation that came to mind involved the kind of combination of television and money that can be a death sentence to local peculiarities. The first element creates aspirations, the latter creates the possibility of fulfilling those aspirations. It is enough for one of the two to be absent, and the character of the landscape will be preserved. Then again, things are more complex, of course.

I wonder what impressions – even if similarly superficial – would be experienced by someone travelling through Slovakia – a country more akin to Romania in terms of its geographical diversity, and more like modern Hungary in terms of the unity of architecture. All three countries share a common slice of historical, political and economic experience that has largely shaped their cultural identities. However, there are differences in the creation of the (micro) regional identities, and also in ways of dealing with those.

Also typical of Slovakia is the contact between many cultures, nationalities and religions, which created a multicoloured collage of material and non-material regional cultures. Migrations, both voluntary and forced ones, also contributed to this diversity. The last large-scale resettlement took place after World War II. A further displacement of the population was caused by urbanization, which involved a migration wave mainly from the east of the country, and the migration of Romani people.

Modernization and urbanization always have an impact on the cultural heritage of the regions. In Slovakia, these two processes were, however, particularly destructive, because they also involved other factors. In 1918, the country became part of Czechoslovakia. As the more rural, traditional, conservative and less industrialized part of the latter, it underwent a great transformation. A large part of the Hungarian-speaking elites left, and were replaced by the “Czech” elites. They played a significant part in the country’s modernization process in all areas, including urban planning and architecture. The buildings completed during that period bear comparison with the best examples of European architecture. At the same time, however, they did not refer to regional traditions, while urban designs often interfered in the historical context with sheer brutality. In cities, conducting this kind of spatial policy made it easier for the Czechoslovak administration to weaken the urban, mainly Hungarian elites, who would in other circumstances be more resistant to such far-reaching architectural interventions.

In his memoirs, Russian writer Ilja Erenburg confesses that Slovakia astounds him. There are no cities. Here and there, some square is to be found, with houses around, but just a few feet away chickens are scratching and pigs digging. He is on to something, even if the image he paints is an exaggerated one. Even this previously existing, weak urban structure disappeared irrevocably in the era of the “building of socialism”: some of the historic squares were demolished to make way for the obligatory store, or, possibly, a cultural centre. The cities were soon to become overwhelmed by the influx of the rural population, and they were changed too.

The “illumination” and “ventilation” of cities that are considered breeding grounds of sin (as opposed to “morally clean” villages) constituted one of the aspirations of the architects of our brave new world. This tendency was not specifically Slovak, but it was here, in a fragile framework of poorly educated urban structures, that it caused great harm. The degradation of historic buildings – previously occupied by German, Hungarian, Jewish or “bourgeois” residents – was further accelerated by the allocation of abandoned dwellings to new tenants, often from the lowest social strata. Cities have also suffered from the absurd construction standards for electrical, fire and transport installations that have virtually prevented the construction of streets on a human scale – they were replaced with absurdly wide arteries. Housing problems were resolved by building blocks of flats – initially made of brick, and then with the technology of large-scale prefabricated slabs. The flat in this type of housing unit was presented as the only hygienic alternative, offering central heating and hot water, which also prompted the former residents of historic buildings to move to high-rise apartments.

The historic legacy began to fade, and with it, so did the characteristic regional elements. And when they are physically no longer there, it becomes very difficult to relate to them or to draw from them. “Regional memory” also began to disappear in the countryside, but here the causes were different. In rural areas, the predominant construction materials – particularly if improperly preserved – were such as were prone to easy decay: unburnt brick, straw thatch, shingles. Relatively densely built villages were often destroyed by fires. In the post-war period, mass urbanization and collectivization of agricultural production changed not only the way of life, but also the face of the village. Traditional rural elites (teachers, parish priests, notaries) were replaced by those who espoused new, culturally different ways of thinking. The use of modern materials in buildings that were lavish in terms of cubic capacity was often informed by a complex of poverty. Paradoxically, in such homes often only a few rooms were actually used, while the remaining space served as a “holiday room”, which was opened only on special occasions. The disappearance of private construction and commercial businesses – formerly, the guardians of local handcraft traditions – completed the process of destruction. Finally, prefabricated structures entered the villages, often in the large panel technology, the blueprint model of social realist housing.

The new built environment was created without reference to local cultural patterns. The whole area of Czechoslovakia was flooded with variants and versions of the Šumperák type single family house. Šumperák is a two-storey flat-roofed building whose shape was emphasized by a characteristic balcony running across the entire width of the façade. The model project was created at the end of the 1960s at the request of the then director of the hospital in Šumperk. It was designed by Josef Vaněk (1932-1999) as a typical house in the so-called Brussels style – that name was used to denote the modernist trend in architecture and design, popular after the great success of Czechoslovakia at the Expo in Brussels in 1958.

Many public buildings were also constructed in villages, among which cultural centres were the most important. Several thousand of thee were built, and only rarelyand very superficially did they refer to local architectural traditions. On the contrary, in principle they intended to oppose such traditions, aiming instead at being a symbol of a new, better life. The only signs testifying to the intrinsic need for ornamentation, typical of regional culture, were the adornments on the metal fences, or the mosaics made from fragments of mirror surrounding the window frames.

So what really remained of regional traditions? When travelling through the Slovakian countryside, we see merely traces of the old local culture of construction (specific spatial arrangements, local materials, characteristic structural elements or decorations) or their disastrous transformations (outbuildings, gable roofs replaced by additional storeys with flat roofs, PCV windows, and so forth).

On the other hand, buildings that were lucky enough to be blessed with an enlightened owner have often fallen victim to the overly orthodox approach of monument conservation authorities, who are not always willing to accept solutions that would be feasible to apply in a changing world and that would meet the needs of the users. It is no wonder then that traditional buildings are used mainly for recreational purposes, and not for those for which they were created. All these elements – beginning with the deliberate and purposeful detachment from tradition, to the introduction of new materials and technologies, to unsuccessful – because discontinued – examples of developing regional traditions in architecture, such as the designs by Dušan Jurkovič – have led, over many decades, to the extinction of regional traditions.

These phenomena obviously did not concern architecture alone. The food industry, based on the centrally controlled mass production and set norms, virtually eliminated regional specialties. Passing for traditional Slovak food are the “halušky”, a dish once known only in a small area of the country. The number of not even regional, but also generally Slovakian products available on the store shelves is decreasing from year to year. Time will tell whether current efforts to return to local products, supported by an interest in organic food production, shall succeed. So far, only winemakers have been successful.

The only surviving, living regional tradition lies in the domain of folklore ensembles and folk music festivals. They have a function similar to that of rural open-air museums. Folk costumes sometimes become the inspiration for fashion, but the situation in Slovakia is far from that found in some parts of German-speaking countries, where folk costumes are an element of everyday clothing. Nationality complexes, striving to obliterate cultural heritage and erase if from memory, are manifested in the rapid abandonment of the mother tongue by Slovak emigrants – in this particular competition, we are reportedly breaking all records. It seems that the only thing that resists obliteration of regional specificity is the dialects. They stubbornly persist, despite very little support from state institutions. It is unthinkable for the Prime Minister to give a formal speech in the language of the region where he was born, or for the use of local dialect to be allowed in official contacts in the east of the country, or for at least some of the school lessons to be conducted in a local dialect.

The once ubiquitous folk kitsch used to be a peculiar manifestation of the return to architectural traditions – all these wooden collages set in an absolutely alien environment and context. Universal, abstract “folk style” either pushed out or distorted authentic regional traditions. A relationship with the mountains is an integral part of traditional Slovak culture, unlike the more urban Czech Republic, where all attention is directed towards Prague. Although Slovakia is called “the country under the Tatra Mountains”, the latter do not currently play any important role in the consciousness of collective identity. The “mythical peaks” are scattered all over the country, from Babia Góra to Sitno. The Tatras were discovered for tourism by the Czechs, and in the 19th century it was the Hungarians who were building luxury hotels there (in an architectural style which can hardly be called regional). In turn, Tatra villages received a modernist appearance due to the buildings constructed on the occasion of the World Championship in classic skiing in 1970. Today’s reception of this event is rather negative. The championship was associated with the flooding of the region with kitsch souvenirs, including folding highlander huts imported from Poland, and with a drastic increase in prices. (For the inhabitants of Bratislava, the Austrian Alps are more attractive than their native Tatras, as a result of a better quality of services and price accessibility.) As if that was not enough, the Tatras are now plundered by the financial pressure of Slovak investors. In resistance against their actions, some local cultural traditions are beginning to revive (including those German, Jewish, and Czech),  but time will tell which of these will be able to present a strong enough proposition. For now, the mountain landscape is being spoiled by various atrocities financed with the aid of European funds. For some time, the peak harvest period for the Tatras was the Orthodox Easter, and the influx of tourists from the East. This aspect of the region’s functioning is currently in crisis due to the political situation, but it can still be revived. Paradoxically, global warming can contribute to the popularity of Slovakia – if the mountains remain the only place in this part of Europe where you can ski on real snow in winter.

Whereas today we are witnessing numerous attempts to return to authentic traditions in architecture and construction – by relying on old materials, ways of building, ornamentation – most of the built environment follows a different trend. Although we are actually seeing a comeback of timber as a building material – after World War II it was often poorly maintained, and the wooden architecture was degraded to the status of a shed on allotments – sadly, instead of traditional log houses, we see the proliferation of “sandwich” ones. Built here and there, imported framed log houses of timber prefab elements are kitschy and detached from their context. A thatched roof can sometimes be found in the south of the country, but – with a few exceptions – there is no continuation of tradition here, only a superficial quotation thereof, in order to provide some roadside restaurant with a certificate of “folkishness”.

Finding a living and working source of regional cultural traditions after so many decades of destroying these traditions is not an easy task. Perhaps a real change could be brought about by architecture built with respect for the natural environment. And that, in the context of the construction industry, one of the biggest perpetrators of pollution, would not be a small thing.

Translation from Polish: Dorota Wąsik