Slovart, Bratislava 2014
The aesthetic of New Objectivity (Ger.Neue Sachlichkeit) confirms the connections of interwar Bratislava with German architectural thought, and is also associated with the avant‑garde imperative of progress. Its main proponent was Friedrich Weinwurm (1885–1942), a progressive architect and graduate of Berlin and Dresden universities, who in the small city that Bratislava was in the 1920s and 1930s blazed the trail for European‑class modern architecture.
The paradox of Weinwurm’s story lies in the incompatibility of his theoretical potential and his practical working conditions. He was mostly active in a narrow community of Jewish social elites, most of his designs commissioned by private investors. In the late 1930s, despite its significant contribution to the architectural landscape of the city and its pretty good reputation, the prestigious architectural studio Weinwurm and Vécsei was drowning in debt. But a new cooperative housing estate, designed in the first half of the 1930s, was symbolically named the New Era (Nová doba) by Weinwurm. He was convinced that architecture paved the way to modernity regardless of the material, territorial and social conditions of its formation.
Henrieta Moravčíková, author of Weinwurm’s biography, argues that the architect’s position should be interpreted in a number of parallel contexts. On the one hand, she perceives Weinwurm as the most important moderniser of Slovak architectural thought with a well‑developed practical sense, and on the other hand as a socially involved Jewish intellectual, who paid the highest price for his family origin and left‑wing leanings. Weinwurm’s name does not appear on the list of the victims of the Holocaust, and 1942 is believed to be the most probable year of his death. Perhaps in the early 1940s Weinwurm changed his identity, crossed the Slovak‑Hungarian border, emigrated to the Soviet Union, and hid in the Tatra Mountains or in Košice, which had since 1938 belonged to Hungary. In any case, he certainly abandoned Bratislava, where he left dozens of original implementations. The mystery surrounding the last days of his life are yet another – although not the last – paradox of his story.
Interestingly, despite being an avid socialist he mostly designed luxury villas for Bratislava Jews. He also built a hospital (1934), an orphanage (1928) and a cemetery ceremonial hall (1930) for the Jewish community. Bratislava owes some of its modern interwar landmarks to him – Uránia Cinema (1923, modernised by Weinwurm in 1931), Astória Cafe (1926), and the Market and Exhibition Hall on the Danube (1930). But it seems that Weinwurm put his potential to the best use when building two cooperative housing estates, Unitas (1931) and Nová doba (1934–1942), where he put his ideals, those of a socially engaged left‑wing architect, into practice. In the Slovak conditions of that period both these working‑class housing compounds had the nature of a sociological experiment – they were based on the principle of unification, the idea of every inhabitant being equal and of equal access to space, to such places as a common library, laundry and drying room. This type of housing was not popular in Prague, the country’s capital at the time, but similar architectural solutions were implemented in Vienna and Berlin. Yet housing conditions in Czechoslovakia were a real problem – in the era of the Great Depression Weinwurm showed that you could build cheaply, rapidly and functionally.
Weinwurm was also a writing architect. Together with the art theorist Antonin Hořejši, typographer and Bauhaus graduate Zdeněk Rossmann and literary critic Daniel Okáli, in 1931 he started publishing the journalNová Bratislava, still regarded as one of the most avant‑garde Slovak magazines from the era. He stayed in touch with the left‑wing community attached to the School of Artistic Crafts (ŠUR – Škola umeleckých remesiel), labelled the “Slovak Bauhaus” in the 1930s”, and worked with the first Slovak female photographer, Irena Blühova, pioneer of local socially engaged photography. Weinwurm gradually built his position within the Slovak artistic avant‑garde, and eventually became the most important architect in this community. And like most of its members, when the First Slovak Republic (1939–1945) was established, he disappeared in the turmoil of war from the originally diverse cultural map of Slovakia.
He was no stranger to the experience of war. When the well‑known Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič designed cemeteries for those killed in the Great War, Weinwurm, a veteran of it, drew sketches of monuments to its victims. On portrait photographs he usually appears with a band on his forehead, hiding an injury from the First World War, when he fought in the Austro‑Hungarian army against Russia on the Galician front. It is difficult to say if the war experiences influenced his outlook – but he was a member of the lost generation turning towards the future and rejecting the past, that is a generation which transformed the experience of war into a progressive formula of the avant‑garde.
Weinwurm imposed a metropolitan character mostly on interwar Bratislava, although some of his projects were implemented in smaller Slovakian towns, such as Nitra, Piešťany andŽilina. The aesthetics of New Objectivity suited the progressive Slovak Jews – austere blocks without unnecessary ornaments were not only modern, but also cheaper to build. The development of culture, including architecture – even if the last stage of raising the Nová doba housing estate took place in the early 1940s – clearly shows the social exclusion of the interwar Jewish elite, to a large extent responsible for the modernisation of the country. The ecclesiastical‑fascist regime meant a cultural step backward – it degraded a quite sizeable religious minority, together with its potential and significant cultural capital.
Friedrich Weinwurm was an architect of an era of progress, which paradoxically overlapped with an era of returning to traditional values and ethnic nationalism. The interwar Slovak culture took its shape along a fault‑line between the progressive and conservative camps and it accepted the peripheral position of Slovakia in the Czechoslovak state. As an architect, Weinwurm took an unambiguous position in this dispute – he offered new possibilities of progress to Slovak architecture, and unquestionably placed Slovakia in a wider European context. Moravčíková successfully passes on this simple and definitive message, despite the fact that materials on Weinwurm’s life and work are incomplete and produce more doubts than biographical certainties.