Avion residential complex: Building interior and elements of technical equipment as factors of genius loci of interior spaces

Adam Tóth

SUMMARY

The purpose of a building is primarily to create an interior space designed to meet the needs of people. The essence of interior design is to create and arrange the basic elements of architectural composition with the aim of creating a quality interior space. The quality of the interior only has relevance in relation to people, and therefore the resulting indicators are the feelings and perceptions conveyed by them. However, the starting point for creating any interior is the basic space provided by the building structure, which is further defined by qualitative factors such as shape, dimensions, proportions, materials, light, colours, etc. These factors, unlike the sensitivity, are quantifiable and their mutual relationships constitute a certain objective indicator of the quality of space. The basic architectural space is collectively called the building interior. Thus, in spaces for long-term use, such as residential spaces, architectural elements and their details are of great importance. The building interior is part of an architectural concept reflecting the contemporary context through the personality of the architect. In the modern architecture (Modern Movement Architecture) the constructional-technical aspect plays a special role and the construction and technical elements and details form a unique part of its essence and in case of historical buildings and objects of Functionalism, they also comprise the essence of their historical value. The issue of preservation and authenticity also plays a role in the quality of residential premises. In such a residential building it is necessary to resolve apparent or real contradictions of the inhabitants’ requirements for quality and comfortable housing, requirements for compliance with technical and safety standards and the requirements for the protection of the historical value of the building. In addition to the interiors of the apartments that form our microenvironment, an apartment house also comprises spaces shared by all residents – entrances and halls and passageways. The analysis of the building interior and technical equipment in both types of premises, private and common, objectifies the research by evaluating the same interior parameters. While the residential interior with its furnishings mainly reflects the personality of the apartment user, the building interior reflects the characteristic spirit of the architectural object. In addition, if it is a historical building, such as the Functionalist Avion apartment complex, on the interior of which we focus in the paper, the authenticity of its interiors is a particularly important factor in genius loci. Avion has been in the list of national cultural buildings and monuments since 1985, and since 1994 it is also in the list of the most important European monuments of modern architecture DOCOMOMO. In 2001, it was declared the building of the century in the nationwide survey in the category of residential buildings. Since the completion of its construction in 1932, it has been continuously inhabited, and at present, the 80-year-old complex is still a lively home for many people. With the exchange of the generations of its residents and the accompanying changes in their housing requirements, Avion has also changed in response to these changes. It does not change on the outside; the biggest changes concern its interiors. The issue of Avion’s interiors, in particular their ongoing modifications, covers all the above-mentioned aspects – protection of historical buildings, the age and related wear and tear and its deterioration as well as the quality of living in such an object at present. However, the authenticity and characteristic atmosphere of the residential complex disappears hand in hand with the demise of the building interior. The presented research focuses on these issues and our goal is to document the authentic interior features that have been preserved, to prevent their permanent and irreversible disappearance and that of the genius loci as the major historical value while preserving the housing complex as a lively residential building that meets the current standards of quality housing.

When evaluating the quality of the residential environment, in addition to evaluating interiors with respect to their material and technical aspects, primarily in terms of the interior design profession, we supplement the research with additional information and feedback from residents of the housing complex and their perception of Avion interior, as well as the perception of interpersonal relationships. As the long-term residents leave and the authentic material elements are lost, the characteristic community spirit of the inhabitants of Avion gradually disappears. Therefore, another objective of the work is to increase the awareness of the residents and thus increase their familiarity with both the material and social and cultural value of the place they inhabit.

The Avion residential complex was built in the interwar period when new democratic states were built and for Slovakia, it was also a period of search for its own identity within the newly-established Czechoslovak Republic. The new philosophy, materials and technologies in construction were incorporated in the new formal expression of buildings, although the layout of the building interiors has also changed considerably.

In Bratislava, which was trying to establish its place as the economic, political, social and cultural centre of Slovakia, many residential buildings had to be built in a short time, together with administrative and other public buildings. The Avion apartment complex represents a type of cooperative housing construction of above-standard housing for the middle class. In its design, which was selected as the winner of an architectural competition (1929), architect Josef Marek replaced the original design of the block of flats in the Blumentál suburb with a single building with a semi-open facade. The complex consists of three comb-shape-connected objects. The south-west facade opens into the area of today’s Americké námestie with a park and closes with the higher north-east facade facing Májková Street. On the ground floor, there are offices and commercial spaces and entrances to the residential section that is divided into six separate blocks. The residential part occupies higher floors, whereas the basement contains the technical facilities – cellars belonging to the flats, storage space for commercial purposes, the boiler room and extensive premises of the former coal-fired boiler room, the laundry room, drying room and mangle room. Nowadays they are unused, but at the time of their creation, they embodied the top of technical equipment. Marek oriented the layout of the residential part of the complex to the cardinal directions, and with the floor gradation and semi-open facade he ensured good natural light throughout the whole day and good ventilation of the interiors. He tried to follow the principle of direct ventilation and natural light in the layout of apartments and all their premises, including toilets, bathrooms and pantries, although this was not completely possible in all the apartments. The negative is the partial walk-through layout of the rooms. A very distinctive feature of apartments on the southern and western corners is the massive supporting circular column in the corner room. In addition to windows and interior doors, the interiors comprise characteristic elements of technical equipment and facilities such as plumbing, radiators and wiring endpoints.

Throughout the existence of the complex, all its parts have been interfered with for various reasons. These interventions, under the concept of “routine maintenance”, have been happening up to this day, often without any supervision by an architect. What is more, the latest significant changes to the authenticity of the common interior areas have been performed since 2003, based on architectural design, and resulted in the disappearance of the until-then preserved elements of the building interior that were replaced with some new ones. The basis of Avion’s common communication space is the location of an open passenger lift shaft in the stairwell of a generously sized staircase. The shaft is separated from the staircase by only one-meter high wall and steel mesh that is two meters high, which creates the impression that the space of the staircase is uniform, spacious and airy. Such a compositional principle is typical of interwar Modernism. The passenger elevator is currently the interior element that has undergone the most changes. The original portal was made of coffered wood, covered with oak veneer, with a glazed upper part, and the lift cabin was made of the same type of wood and glass, with a sliding wooden grille. The original material design of the elevator ingeniously matched with the other materials used. At present, it has been replaced by a roughly welded steel sheet portal with standardized steel doors with a vertical window.

The quality of the premises and the air of timelessness were created with a balanced architectural composition, a balanced scale and proportions of the premises and matching materials, which evoked the feeling of harmony and unique atmosphere. During the 1990s, some authentic elements, whether for moral or physical wear and tear, disappeared, and it does not make any sense to replace them with copies. Therefore, the first step towards preserving the unique atmosphere of Avion is to map and document the preserved authentic interior elements and to identify the characteristic elements of the building interior and technical equipment these days. An overview of the research results so far is provided in the tables showing the original and current materials used and characteristic interior elements, both authentic and new. The task for the future is the treatment of interior spaces, both residential and common, that preserves the characteristic authentic elements and completes the interior with contemporary features so that the main value of the interiors – the character of the place – is preserved. We believe that the design of the future renovation should be close to the original design and concept at the time of construction while respecting current regulations and standards. The new design of the elements, while retaining the principles of the original design, will mainly focus on the portal materials and the elevator cabin, which must comply with current legislation in terms of fire safety and safety of the elevator operation. The most important aspect of the problem in terms of interior design is the harmonization of approach to the residential complex as a historical building and the current standards of quality housing.

Keywords: inter-war architecture, Avion residential complex, interior design, space, authenticity, quality of housing, Modern Movement Architecture