Monday, April 20, 2015

Tourism at Home (by Gemma John)

Guest Post

Gemma is a ridiculously smart and creative anthropologist who now works in the context of design, planning and architecture. She pointed out to me that the struggle I often write about, of silencing your perspective in order to be able to truly empathise, is right at the heart of what anthropology is about. To often when we listen to people, we are just waiting for our chance to speak. Whether we go on the defence or the attack, we still have our own story playing loudly over the person we are supposed to be communicating with.

Having recently won a prestigious Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, Gemma is going to be travelling to the USA and Europe to research the interior designs of libraries in the light of their changing demands for users. In all my talk of third places, I must admit to having forgotten about libraries. Our shared spaces and living places tell a lot about what is important to us, and how we think about happiness. Gemma shares a story about what she saw on a recent trip.

Tourism at Home
by Gemma John

What does the architectural landscape tell us about our notions of happiness and wellbeing?

I recently visited the capital of Slovakia, called Bratislava, which is a small place in a rapidly developing part of Eastern Europe. Since it is relatively unknown throughout Europe, Slovakia was a bit of a random choice for a holiday, not to be confused with Slovenia. A friend of mine and I had decided to make the most of the long Easter weekend and it was the cheapest flight that we could find. We arrived in Bratislava in the morning in time for an afternoon walking tour....

The rich political history of Bratislava is written in the urban landscape. As a tourist, the landscape is a true reminder of the fact that architecture is more than material, but embodies ideas (or doctrines) about happiness and wellbeing. These ideas might be considered, by some, as about sadness and repression. To some, they might be disagreeable, but they are nevertheless concepts of social existence that remain evident for all to see.

The walking tour was an opportunity to be given a potted history of this great city. During the two and a half hours walking around the city, exploring the old and the new, we gained an initial impression of the complex history.


Bratislava was originally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Ottoman Empire defeated the Kingdom of Austria  around 1536, it became the capital of Hungary, and the home of kings, archbishops, and the nobility. Before World War I, the population of the city was mixed, consisting of Hungarians, Germans, and Slovaks. But, the city's demographic, and its landscape changed, becoming less mixed and more segregated over the years. Bratislava declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919 as part of Czechoslovakia. Hungarians living in Bratislava, who continued to show their allegiance to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, retreated or fled. The city became predominantly the home of Czechs and Slovaks.

World War II

During World War II, Nazi Germany put pressure on the Czech and Slovak population to separate, and Bratislava was declared the capital of the new Slovak Republic. Slovakia fell under Nazi influence, and its Jewish population deported to concentration camps, further changing the character of the city. At this time, much of the Jewish old town was destroyed. At the end of World War II, most of Bratislava's German population was evacuated by the German authorities, and expelled from Eastern Europe.


The Communist Party seized power of Slovakia in 1948, which once again became part of Czechoslovakia, and Bratislava was turned into the industrial capital. Prague became the cultural capital of Czechoslovakia.

1. Highway - Under the Communist Party, much of the old town was destroyed, such as the Jewish quarter. This was bulldozed to make way for an industrial highway, Panonska Cesta, connecting Prague and Bratislava.

2. Concrete Tower Blocks - It built the biggest concrete housing complex in Eastern Europe, Petrzalka, to house the majority of the population. The policy of the Communist state was orientated toward one of assimilation. Amongst many others, the Roma were resettled to urban settings, and the settlements were liquidised. The second largest minority ethnic group in Slovakia, and a nomadic group, the Roma were forced to live side by side.

3. UFO - Inspired by the optimistic futurism of the 1900s, the Communist Party built the "UFO bridge" in the late 1960s and early '70s, at the height of Communist excess. Since then, the metal clad UFO, perched on a two-legged tower, has been staring menacingly at the array of classical buildings across the Danube.

The Czechs and Slovaks fought for independence from the Communist Party in 1989 through means of peaceful demonstrations, known as the "Velvet Revolution". Czechoslovakia was dissolved in 1993, creating two separate countries, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The people of Bratislava have become tourists in their own town: they use the features in their urban landscape to provide others with a narrative about their own past. The architectural structures reminiscent of the Communist era clearly fascinate them. They reveal the approach of the Communist Party to happiness and wellbeing. Every day, the city architecture reminds them of the ideas that shaped their past and their future, and that determine who they are today.

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