Bratislava: the Soviet-influenced city of the future still looks fresh and new

(CNN) – There’s a European capital whose crowning glory is a flying saucer that stands taller than the Statue of Liberty – but this sci-fi city doesn’t bother anyone’s list of the continent’s most visited destinations.

Anyone visiting Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, will be hard-pressed to miss the aptly named 95-meter UFO Tower, which has been overlooking the Danube River since 1972. Right across from Bratislava’s historic Old Town, its panoramic rooftop terrace and restaurant offer the best views to the city and surroundings.

Remarkably, the otherworldly aesthetic of this tower is not so unusual in a city that was once a testing ground for some of the most daring architectural projects on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

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

The inverted pyramid

You just have to venture a few hundred yards beyond the tidy, cafe-filled streets of the Old Town to come across a truly unique structure that will hardly leave anyone indifferent.

The building of the Slovak Radio is an inverted pyramid with a height of 80 meters.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: Starting at ground level vertex, this rust-colored building that houses the country’s national broadcaster gets wider with each floor you climb.

This architectural extravaganza was completed in 1983 after almost two decades in the making and to this day polarizes opinion among architects and the general public alike.

While some consider it a masterpiece and it has enjoyed protected heritage status since 2017, others deplore its appearance and find it a dark reminder of the communist past. The British newspaper Daily Telegraph even included it in its list of the ugliest buildings in the world.

Its architect Štefan Svetko is also the author of several residential projects that encapsulate the aesthetics of that era.

One of the most notable, Medzi Jarkami, built in 1979 on the eastern outskirts of Bratislava, consists of several apartment blocks arranged in circular and almost tangential patterns. The open space within the largest of these circles is provided with another UFO-themed monument. In this case, the flying saucer is at ground level, as if it had crash-landed upon its arrival from space.

The Egyptians built pyramids, but Bratislava built one upside down.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Look at the sky

UFOs were a recurring theme at the time. The vault covering the great hall of the Slovak University of Agriculture also resembles a flying saucer. This building, completed in 1966, is located in Nitra, about 60 miles from the capital. Its architect, Vladimir Dedecek, left his mark in and around Bratislava with other Brutalist-style works, such as the Slovak National Gallery, the Slovak National Archives, as well as the State Political School in Modra, a nearby town.
While some of these sights require a special excursion, a short stroll into downtown Bratislava is all you need to get a snapshot of the country’s socialist-realist heritage. Just around the corner from the pyramid, for example, you’ll find the colorful mural adorning the facade of the Slovak University of Technology or the Fountain of Unity since the early 1980s, in Námestie Slobody (“Freedom Square”), a flower-shaped piece of urban metal decor that conveys strong sci-fi vibes.
The fountain’s current state of disrepair only adds to its dystopian appearance, but this may be temporary, as restoration work was ongoing at the time of CNN Travel’s July 2022 visit to Liberty Square.

Street art and bold new architecture

In recent years, this legacy of the communist era has proved susceptible to reinterpretation. An example of this is the centrally located Hotel Kyjev in Bratislava, which has been closed for about a decade.

In 2018, as part of the Bratislava Street Art Festival, a visual project by artist Lousy Auber managed to transform one side of this grim Soviet-style building from the 1970s into an eye-catching landmark visible from miles away.

The change doesn’t stop there. In line with the country’s transformation and economic growth over the past few decades, splashes of modern buildings are rising everywhere.

An early example of this new architectural wave making its mark in the Slovak capital is Strabag building, the local headquarters of an Austrian construction company. Built in 2007, it features a cottage-style house hanging upside down from the side of the glass and steel structure.

Even grander in scale is the latest addition to Bratislava’s skyline, courtesy of the renowned firm Zaha Hadid Architects.

The first phase of the Sky Park development was completed in 2020 and consists of three residential towers. It basically includes an existing office block as well as the reconstructed Jurkovičová Tepláreň heating plant. The second phase of this project, which is expected to open soon, will include a fourth residential tower as well as a 120-meter office building.

Zaha Hadid's Sky Park rejuvenated the skyline.

Zaha Hadid’s Sky Park rejuvenated the skyline.

Djord Palko

One of the youngest capitals of Europe

The stark contrast between all these apparently antithetical styles is less a novelty than a feature in this city, which throughout its history has often found itself on the dividing line between cultures and blocs.

After all, at various times in its history, Bratislava was known by its German and Hungarian names (Pressburg and Požony, respectively), reflecting the diverse cultural mix that also included a large Jewish community.

In fact, we could go back as much as two millennia when the Roman “limes” passed through these lands (there are remains of Roman garrison forts at several places along the south bank of the Danube near Bratislava) or, more recently, the split between the Communist and Capitalist blocs, which encompassed some of Bratislava’s suburbs.

Nowadays, with open borders, a common currency and, perhaps even more importantly, an EU mobile phone free-roaming zone in place, traveling from Vienna in Austria to Bratislava in Slovakia — that is, between German and Slavic-speaking Europe — is a hassle-free experience that takes less than an hour by commuter train.

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

Look no further than the city’s air connections: while Bratislava has its own airport, most visitors arriving by air do so via Vienna International Airport, which is just 30 miles away and boasts a much larger number of connections .

As one of the youngest capitals on the continent – it gained its status in 1993 – it does not have the recognition of other Habsburg capitals nearby, such as Prague and Budapest, or the number of visitors.

On the plus side, this geographical and cultural porosity, which extends so strongly to the architectural realm, has shaped the Slovak capital into the bustling city it is today, a place full of unexpected treats waiting to be discovered by the discerning traveller.

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