Bratislava, (un)planned city: Notes on the study and interpretation of the history of city planning and construction

Henrieta Moravčíková


In Slovakia, after 1989, there were dramatic changes in the field of town-planning, which were conditioned by the change in social conditions, but also by the change of paradigm in the field of planning and regulation of construction in the city. Practically in the whole of Czechoslovakia, this meant a rejection of modernist urban practice. In Bratislava, this phenomenon manifested itself extremely intensively. Within a few years, the planning institutions that have been developed for decades disappeared. This development, reflecting deep doubts about the meaningfulness of planning in the context of a market economy, coincided with increasing construction investment and growing demands for decision-making processes related to new construction. This was no longer the result of the planned economy, but a manifestation of the free market. Bratislava once again faced the situation as many times in the past, when private investors demanded quick decisions and clear construction guidelines, which, however, they did not receive from the city council and the city planning department. Bratislava expanded, rebuilt and densified more or less ad hoc. In the most critical period of the first decade of the new millennium, this trend even brought the Slovak capital the adjective of an unintentional or unplanned city.

In parallel with the growing criticism of the events of that time, there were also growing efforts to take a holistic view of the issue of city planning and construction. At the same time, glimpses into the past indicated that the first precondition for dealing with this situation would be an analysis of the history of modern planning and construction in Bratislava. At the same time, it was clear that there was an opportunity for a more ambitious task than a standard history.

The study analyses the starting points, methodological tools and results of research carried out by a team of architects and historians of architecture since 2014 under the guidance of the author of this text. It describes the current situation in the field of urban research, with an emphasis on examining the morphology of urban structure. It draws attention to the line of current research, which understands the city as an open work with the potential of a number of development possibilities, which at the same time cannot be perfectly guided or coordinated. This trend is followed by the presented research of Bratislava, which aims to approach the history of modern planning in Bratislava, to reveal and describe the relationship between planning and construction, to define architectural and urban concepts and paradigms relevant to Bratislava’s urban structure, to examine selected examples of their application in the material structure of the city and on their basis to reveal the laws of its development. The phenomenon of an unplanned city served as a research premise.

The study describes the methodological approach of this research, which is a hybrid combination of methods of architectural, urban and architectural-historical qualitative research and presentation tools of architecture and urbanism. To better understand the relationship between planned and implemented city construction and the mechanism of its functioning, objective knowledge about the history of planning and construction was confronted with the visualization of planned and implemented interventions in the city structure. At the same time, this method has made it possible to identify, abstract and visualize key features of urban tissue and its transformation over the last hundred and more years. At the same time, non-chronological retrospective examination of the development of the form of development helped to identify the factors of stability and instability of the urban structure. It was literally about the visualising of invisible history, about connecting of local phenomena across history, about clarifying of their relations as well as the connection with city-wide tendencies so that their correlation is obvious and understandable. It turned out that the combination of historiography and engineering disciplines such as architecture and urbanism and their digital imaging tools, allows the discovery of otherwise unobservable patterns and opens up opportunities for a new comprehensive understanding of the history of urban planning and construction.

In the process of investigating the planning and construction of Bratislava, which included the identification of major urban documents from the first city regulatory plan of 1774, through the first modern city regulation and expansion plans of 1906 and 1917, several general city plans and a number of partial regulation plans from interwar period, almost a dozen master plans from the second half of the 20th century to the current city plan, their analysis, evaluation and comparison with the real urban structure of the city, several urban situations were identified within the city structure of Bratislava, which are characteristic of this city and which were determined by modern planning. These situations include some tensions arising from the confrontation of the organic development of urban structure and modern planning and from the relationship between traditional historic urban spaces and elements of modern urbanism.

The basic characteristics and naming of individual types of situations are based on urban morphology, but it also includes a phenomenological view, how these parts of the urban structure appear from the perspective of today’s observer. The intention to combine the view of urban morphology with the phenomenological view was most in line with the approach of the Catalan architect and urban planner Ignasi de Solà-Morales. Solá-Morales defined five cultural categories in 1996, which should be the basis for understanding the new relationships between architecture and the contemporary city: mutations, flows, habitations, containers, terrain vague. In the presented research, this method was used to explain and characterize the urban situations that arose under the influence of modern architecture and urbanism in the last century in Bratislava, despite the fact that Bratislava cannot be considered a large city at that time. In the background of this intention was the same belief that “only by according equal attention to the values of memory and absence and the values of innovation will we be able to maintain confidence in a complex and plural urban life”.

The presented typology of urban situations in Bratislava consists of the following 12 basic types: 1. From linear street to complex urban space, 2. From periphery to the new city centre, 3. From the unique to a generic, 4. Embankment as a problem, 5. Fragments of concepts, 6. City-shaping modernity, 7. The ambiguous ring, 8. The crossroad is not a square, 9. A travelling object, 10. From factory yards to downtown, 11. From sports to commerce, 12. The phenomenon of mass housing. Each of the mentioned urban situations is assigned a separate narrative in this interpretation, which reflects its research from a historical and spatial point of view. The typology of Bratislava’s urban situations served as a representative object in the research of Bratislava’s urban tissue, but at the same time it characterized this tissue by its structure. Through it, it was possible to identify and clarify specific phenomena and processes, including the mechanism of their functioning, which had a major impact on the development of urban structure of Bratislava. It was, for example, a mechanism for procurement, preparation, approval and application of regulatory, respectively zoning plan of the city, the application of the phenomenon of expropriation and remediation, the process of ordering, preparation and application of partial regulatory studies and the role of individual actors in this process.

Keywords: paradigm, increasing construction investment, Bratislava urban structure, expanded city, unplanned city, town planning, density, private development